The report of the Commission for Africa, the brain trust of African and other leaders, economists and thinkers set up by Tony Blair, became one of the highest-profile “packages” of solutions for African put forward in 2005, during the Make Poverty History campaign in the leadup to the G8 summit in Gleneagles. We’ve summarised its findings at length, and at a little less length. Its program is heavily evidenced, and comprehensive. But I didn’t want to pretend there haven’t been criticisms of it, because there have.

Criticisms of the Commission break down into two categories, which can be oversimplified as: suggestions that the Commission is too generous to Africa, and suggestions that it is not generous enough. You could call one set of criticisms essentially “left-wing” and one “right-wing,” but that would be more of an oversimplification still. What would be fairer is to say that one set of criticisms come primarily from more radical campaign groups, particularly smaller grassroots groups; and the other comes primarily from mainstream and conservative economists.

The nub of the first viewpoint is that the Commission is not radical enough in its goals or its proposals. Specifically, there’s a widespread complaint that the Commission should have spoken out more against the free-market policies that African governments have adopted in the last twenty years, largely at the behest of Western donors and the IMF and World Bank. This article by a Ghanaian journalist is a fine example, as is this article by Britain’s George Monbiot. Here’s the Ghanaian, Yao Graham:

True, some of the commission’s proposals are welcome: an extra $25bn year into the continent by 2010 (and a further $25bn by 2015); full debt cancellation for the poorest countries; and the end of rich country export subsidies in cotton, sugar and agriculture. But predictably, there’s a rather large catch. To qualify, Africa is asked to embrace what is called ‘good governance’, an innocent-sounding term hiding a free market agenda that puts the freedom of firms before the strengthening of citizenship and the rights of people.

As examples of the Commission’s “free market agenda”, Graham points out the lack of complaint in the report about environmental devastation and human rights abuses in the Niger Delta, or the privatisation of vital services like water. Both of these are examples of actions taken by private companies, often with the support of aid donor governments, which many African and foreign NGOs are opposed to. Monbiot develops the theme, though he’s not just talking about the Commission specifically.

I think Graham’s statement that the “good governance” talked about in the Commission’s report is primarily about free market access is simply inaccurate. The focus of the report’s discussions of governance is on corruption. But the wider comment, that the Report offers no serious restriction on the role of foreign private companies in Africa, is accurate. And it’s certainly true that both the Commission and the general tone of the mainstream debate about Africa tends to assume that, as Monbiot puts it, “Multinational corporations… are not the cause of Africa’s problems, but the solution”. But it’s not fair to suggest the Africa Commission is actively pushing free markets on African leaders. In fact, it specifically speaks out against policy conditions on aid and loans, the main way in which free-market policies have been pushed on African countries in the past.

A wider question that this opens up, though, is whether all this free marketing is actually a bad idea, as Graham and Monbiot state it is. It’s not something I want to get into now, but we’ll look at it more in future. There are certainly some horrible things in the recent history of Africa attributable to multinational companies, and some happening now. But it’s also hard to see a development path for Africa that doesn’t involve foreign investment.

If you want to think about it some more right now, this report includes several examples of this school of criticism.

Interstingly, this viewpoint tends to extend into criticism of the Commissioners themselves.It’s said that the Commission’s selection has a political bias, consisting mostly of those with an established commitment to free-market solutions to Africa’s problems: that, as this article puts it, they were “selected according to their ‘modernising’ credentials rather than their expertise.” This article introduces the Commissioners, calling them “A web of bankers, industrialists and political leaders with connections to the IMF and the World Bank, all committed to spreading the gospel of free market capitalism.”

It is, of course, unlikely that Blair would ever have put anyone on the Commission (and he did select it himself, or at least, his office did) who was going to severely criticise policies that the UK has been committed to for years. But to criticise the Commissioners for “links to the World Bank” seems a bit rich, given that it is, for all the criticisms of it, the world’s leading development institution. And to criticise Benjamin Mkapa, and Meles Zenawi, the leaders of Tanzania and Ethiopia, for steering their countries “directly into the arms of the IMF and World Bank” also seems slightly unreasonable: there is hardly any real aternative for a country dependent on aid and loans from those institutions for survival. My favourite is the criticism of activist Anna Tibaijuka, who “combines an active role in Tanzanian civil society forums with directorships in private companies dedicated to encouraging entrepreneurship and efficiency in the marketing of agricultural commodities.” Entrepeneurship and efficiency! Are they really saying these are the enemy?

I suppose what I’m saying is that the nine Africans on the Commission seem, to me, to be reasonably representative of mainstream educated African thought. The views the critics would have liked to see represented are perfectly valid, but they are quite radical, and, I think, rare amongst elected African leaders right now. But I don’t know this for certain.

That is a brief summary of the, for want of a better term, “left-wing” criticisms of the Africa Commission. I hope I haven’t been too biased in my description. The core issue – the place of free trade in Africa’s future – is something I’ll look at properly soon. Next, we’ll look at the other side of the coin – the “right-wing” critique.

UPDATE 05/06/07: Another left-wing critique.