The Commission for Africa (which everyone calls the Africa Commission) was set up in early 2004 to study the “Africa problem” in detail and come up with proposals for the UK’s presidency of the G8. Its report, entitled Our Common Interest, was published in book form and online in early 2005.*

Because the publicity blitz surrounding the report was led by Bob Geldof, it’s a common misconception that the Commission was a bunch of well-meaning Westerners. In fact, the 17 commissioners include 9 Africans, ranging from expatriate businessmen based in London to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. And the report devotes a chapter to making the case for development to be seen “Through African Eyes.” It notes, for example, that Africans tend to take a more holistic approach to development, considering of community cohesion and emotional well-being more than material conditions.

The report’s well worth reading in full – it’s an impressively broad overview of the obstacles facing Africa, from governance to infrastructure, conflict to AIDS. The executive summary gives you a quick run-through of the headline ideas:

  • African governments have done much to reform but have much more to do in building their capacity and accountability;
  • Pan-African and regional groups, like the African Union, have as much of a role as national and local;
  • Steps must be taken to prevent conflict, such as setting up monitoring and mediation systems;
  • Peacekeeping forces must be improved, but peace-building processes for after conflict are just as important;
  • For growth to benefit everyone stops forward must be made on education and public health, ranging from water sanitation to AIDS prevention;
  • Growth requires governance reform and a doubling of aid spending on infrastructure;
  • Rich countries must lower subsidies and tariffs and stop pushing further liberalisation on poor countries.

And the headline figures:

  • Aid should increase by $25 billion a year by 2010, and providing it is effective, by another $25 billion by 2015;
  • Aid should be more long-term and carry fewer restrictions and requirements;
  • Aid should be front-loaded through the International Financing Facility;
  • Africa should have a stronger voice in donor organisations such as the World Bank;
  • The poorest countries should receive immediate 100% debt relief.

It’s the second part of this, the aid and debt relief figures, that got most attention. They were also the most influential; the $25 billion figure became one of the main figures for the G8 conference. (It was in fact bettered, with a $50 billion a year target being set; but there are all sorts of questions about how much that really means).

But in many ways they’re the least important aspect of the report, because they’re the least unique. It’s the first part, the detailed discussions of the issues, that are interesting. While many NGOs, and the Make Poverty History campaign, already called for a huge aid increase and debt cancellation, few single sources had provided such a wide-ranging view of how the money should be spent, and what African countries’ responsibilities are. Over fifty of the report’s recommendations made it into the Gleneagles deal.
The report begins with a summary of the situation now, with the usual list of headline misery-figures: 250,000 women a year dead in childbirth, 25 million infected with HIV, etc. It’s skilfully written and persuasive, but we don’t need to go into it here. It then breaks its discussion down into themes: governance, conflict, poverty, growth and trade. Then two final chapters address the funding increases, and other changes, needed to make it happen. I’ll start ploughing through the sections tomorrow.

UPDATE: I realised today I hadn’t acknowledged the many criticisms of the Commission report. They certainly exist, but I don’t want to go into detail about them until I’ve laid out the contents of the report itself. Otherwise, I’ll only confuse you. And myself.

UPDATE 2: This is now done!

*The book contains Part 1 of the report, called “The Argument.” Both Part 1 and Part 2, “Evidence & Analysis,” are in the online version. Part 1 is all you need unless you want to test the arguments or figures presented in detail.