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'Yes, but... or Yes, and...': How to pitch the 2005 debate

Written by Simon Maxwell

On Tuesday, we held a media briefing at ODI on the 2005 agenda. As usual, we paid tribute to the political leadership and energy driving the 2005 agenda, and then got stuck in to the technical issues we mostly work on: absorptive capacity, investment policy, trade issues and all the rest. The first comment we received, from a senior BBC journalist, was ‘hang on, the audience out there can’t handle this complexity. The story has to be simple. The problem is poverty. The answer is debt relief, aid and trade liberalisation’. End of story. Literally.

A few weeks ago, a different kind of conversation. The Guardian published a piece by Paolo de Renzio about the absorptive capacity for additional aid in Africa (it’s an important issue, read his Briefing Paper on the website). The following day, a letter arrived in my in-tray from a senior M.P., a Conservative mind you, saying that articles questioning aid were very damaging and threatened to derail the 2005 agenda. Blair, Brown and Benn needed support at this crucial time, not barracking from the sidelines.

A double challenge, then. The complexity is unwelcome, equally so any questioning of the political drive. What should be our response? I think we need a two-pronged response. First, on complexity, the answer has to be ‘horses for courses’ and gradual deepening of the conversation. Sometimes the message has to be simple. At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, I watched Jeff Sachs and a small group of show business people like Sharon Stone, Richard Gere and Angelina Jolie working the crowd. Jeff’s MDG report was just out - a rich and complex piece of analysis – but he chose to focus on one key message, the value of ‘quick wins’. Bednets was the example: a simple message, which is that many, many lives lost to malaria can be saved by spending a few dollars on bednets impregnated with insecticide. At the time, I thought this was an irritatingly simplistic way to approach the issue of African development, and on various panels I tried to have the technical discussion on absorptive capacity, investment policy, trade issues and all the rest, as above. It didn’t work. I was wrong. Jeff and the gang really drove the issue, and created the space in which Blair, Brown, Clinton, Obansanjo, Mkapa and others could talk policy (By the way, you can read my review of Sachs in the new issue of International Development Magazine, due out next week). I have had other experiences which reinforce this basic lesson about simplicity. On radio phone-ins, for example, the immediate feed-back is often that there is no point helping Africa because ‘they’re all corrupt’ (unlike Thailand, and Sri Lanka, say, at the time of the tsunami, because they’re better managed). Our response needs to be simple: Africa is not homogeneous, aid does work, there are ways of reaching the poorest.

The second prong of our response is always to try to end on a positive note – to be constructive, not destructive. This can be difficult. For example, there is a respectable view that Africa’s problem is not too little aid but too much: a view that aid decapitates political systems and entrenches accountability to donors not citizens; also that absorptive capacity is limited because of shortages of skilled personnel. That is a flat contradiction to the political message. However, there are ways to be positive. Thus, one of the messages we have fed into this debate is that capacity constraints can be tackled, country by country and sector by sector. Look at the way Saudi Arabia has used imported architects,
construction workers and other skilled workers to build a modern economy. Or look at the way relief agencies have provided the capacity to protect refugees fleeing the crisis in Darfur. On the politics, too, the messages can be positive. Africa needs developmental states like those found in East Asia. Measures are needed which build state competence and accountability, with long term compacts by which outsiders can provide support. I often quote Margaret Thatcher, who is alleged to have said: "Don’t give me problems, give me solutions". That’s not a bad motto for a think-tank which want to be both serious and constructive.

A final point to make is that timing matters, of course. At our big meeting yesterday on the G8 agenda in Portcullis House in the UK parliament, I was asked how the discussion at the meeting would be fed into the G8. My immediate answer was that it’s too late. The communiqué is probably already drafted and all that now remains is the final negotiation, with a few last plums to be pulled out of the pudding at Gleneagles itself. However, ODI has been working on the central issues for months, sometimes years. We held our main meeting series on Africa last autumn, in time to feed into the Africa Commission, our main series on the MDGs earlier this year, in time to feed into the September Summit. And, of course, we will make sure that the points made in yesterday’s discussion are aired. As usual, the video and audio clips will be on our website by the end of the week.