OK. So I spent an afternoon reading Guardian articles from 2005 about Make Poverty History, The Africa Commission report, and The Future Of Africa. What did I learn? Well, it just increased my sense that there’s massive disagreement about, well, just about all of it. It has, however, given me a slightly better idea of exactly what the disagreements are. The main bones of contention seem to be:

1. The effectiveness of aid. Charities and the UK government are quite positive about aid, and are determined there should be more of it. But some economists – and, interestingly, a lot of African commentators – see it as, at best, money wasted and at worst, basically an expense account for dictators.

2. The need for debt relief. This seems a little less contentious than the aid debate, but there’s still a lot of dispute. While charities argue debt relief is essential, economists say debt relief could cost Africa in the long term through reduced borrowing capacity, and that the money obtained could be even more prone to waste than aid money.

3. The role of trade. This is, I think, the area of most disagreement, with even the Make Poverty History coalition – the alliance of 150-odd charities that made up the campaign – divided over it. It’s all about “free trade” – that is, the gradual dismantling of barriers to trade such as import taxes, spearheaded by the World Trade Organisation. This is the process people who protest against “globalisation” are generally talking about. Some charities and commentators argue that this process disadvantages poor countries, and that they need to be free to protect their economies. These people often see the aid and debt deal struck at the G8 last year as essentially pointless or even negative, because it doesn’t undo and may even increase the globalisation “forced” on Africa.

Others, though, argue that in fact, free trade can work for Africa, and that liberalisation is overall a good thing. But, they argue, the west needs to hold up its side of the bargain, cutting its own subsidies to match Africa cutting theirs. Agricultural subsidies in particular come in for a lot of stick. Others still argue that liberalisation is such a good that most of Africa’s recent woes can be put down to a lack of it.

So it seems that underneath the apparent consensus that seemed to have developed around Live8 and the G8 lies a lot of disagreement. And it’s not just from the sources you’d expect. I thought there’d be lots of economists dismissing aid as waste and so on, and there are. But I was surprised at how many African voices in the media share what I of as quite hard-nosed views (it’s possible newspapers seek out Africans to make these points precisely because it has this effect of surprise). And I’m also surprised by the extent of what I suppose you could call left-wing criticism of the Make Poverty History proposals and the G8 deal that came out of them.

What’s also clear from my quick skim is: newspapers don’t know how to talk about this. I found myself getting really frustrated by the disjointed way the debates are reported. You’d get pages and pages of coverage of the Make Poverty History campaign, all essentially uncritical of its proposals, with so-called debate mostly taking the form of agonising about the number of black people on stage at Live8. Then, unconnected, an editorial arguing it’s all a waste of time because the only thing that will really end poverty is ending corruption. So you get “both sides of the story,” but no real debate; it’s impossible to compare the details of each side’s arguments to come to an informed conclusion. This isn’t a question of philosopy, after all; everyone agrees on the basic principle, that there’s a huge problem and something needs to be done about it. The disagreements are practical – they’re about what are the causes of the problem, and what solutions will work. To come to an proper, informed decision means knowing the facts, understanding the theories, and so on. It’s clear I’m not going to get to that stage by reading the Guardian. I’m going to have to delve into the academic debate right away. Fortunately, my friend Dave (he’s in the picture on the front page) did a development degree, and has a lot of essays he can lend me.

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