The more time I spend in Africa the more I realise that I was totally wrong about the best way for this blighted yet beautiful continent to lift itself out of its trough. From the vantage point of Royal Tunbridge Wells (in the south-east of England) it was easy to blame Africa’s problems on colonialism. What chance did the place have, I reckoned, if tribes had been bundled into inconvenient nation states and all their best resources were plundered? The answer seemed straightforward. We in the west had a moral responsibility to pour cash into the place. I once would have liked the message spread by the celebrity economist Jeffrey Sachs and his pompous rockstar pal Bono. Aid, trade and debt relief. Yes, that sounded about right.
Until I got here.
Aid, trade and debt relief don’t make a lot of difference in countries whose leaders have no real interest in helping their own people. Debt relief only helps if the savings are invested in roads, hospitals and education rather than Toyota LandCruisers for ministers. Aid disconnects government from voters by making the United Nations or NGOs responsible for water supplies, or food, or even roads. And what difference will fair trade initiatives make to a subsistence farmer in Tanzania growing enough maize to feed her family? Not much hope of tapping into the global market, fair or otherwise.
But there are some exceptions. And one of the best I’ve seen uses aid to help small-scale farmers sell their produce to British supermarkets. The charity giant Care has helped farmers in the village of Kibweze, Kenya, switch to farming the sort of vegetables fashionable in Islington and made funds available so they can meet the strict standards required by Europe. Their baby aubergines and mangetout are bought up by a private company to sell on to Britain.
The village is booming. And the best thing is that Care can be removed from the equation and the farmers would carry on doing their thing. In this case aid has been used to help poor rural farmers reach a wider market.
But the problem is that some of those same voices who argue that helping Africa develop is a good thing are also arguing that we shouldn’t be flying our vegetables halfway across the world because of the impact of carbon emissions. The arguments are all here in an article I did for Time.com. All I’m going to add here is that if you have any qualms about buying airfreighted food, there are a few farmers in Kibweze I know who would urge you to buy their produce. And I would add my voice to theirs. This is just too good an idea for it to be allowed to go to the wall on a misunderstanding of carbon emissions.