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Transparency will help Africa help itself

In 2004, one year before the United Kingdom was preparing to host the G8 summit at Gleneagles in Scotland, a group of the most influential British Africans gathered at Cumberland Lodge, a 17th-century manor house.

Along with African dignitaries, diplomats and activists, Live Aid veteran Bob Geldof came to talk about his work with Tony Blair's Commission for Africa, which would make recommendations to the G8 on alleviating African poverty. Over dinner Geldof had given a speech in which he accused the African guests of being lazy fat cats. "Just look at you, sitting on your fat arses, while children in your countries starve," he said.

"Geldof was very rude and condescending," said Debbie Ariyo, director of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse and one of the guests who confronted Geldof at Cumberland Lodge. "To me this was part of a pattern that was keeping Africa perpetually down as the begging continent."

The Cumberland Lodge controversy underlined the strength of feeling about Africa in the run-up to Gleneagles. The Gleneagles gathering ended with some substantial commitments, including writing off the $40-billion debt owed by 18 of the poorest countries and delivering an extra $25-billion in aid to Africa.

"Writing off Africa's debt created savings of $1-billion per year and straight away allowed more ­children to go to school," said Myles Wickstead, head of the secretariat to the Commission for Africa at the time.  

The Gleneagles meeting also marked a turning point in attitudes to development and the role Africans should play in determining their own future. In the years since 2005 fortunes have changed for many African countries. Six of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies of the past decade are in sub-Saharan Africa. The number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen. But many say the decisions taken at Gleneagles played a marginal role, with only $11-billion of the $25-billion promised to Africa ever reaching the continent.

Others say that the vast earnings of  many African countries from oil, gas and mining show that the focus on aid to Africa is misguided. "We should be doing a lot more to get Africa to develop itself," said Ariyo. "Take the case of my country, Nigeria. It benefited from debt relief and has huge oil resources, but Nigeria is in more debt now than it was in 2005, and that is because of corruption."

Efforts to reform oil, gas and mining deals are under way. In 2010  the United States passed a law that requires oil companies to publish payments to African governments and Canada has voted to do the same.

But experts say development funding can drive transparency in Africa. "Transparency is a necessary condition for tackling tax evasion and corruption," said Kevin Watkins, director of the Overseas Development Institute. "But this has to include financing to build their capacity and their self-empowerment." – © Guardian News & Media 2013

Afua Hirsch is the Guardian's West Africa correspondent

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