Blair and Africa: The Critics Are Wrong


Iraq may be a failure, but the prime minister’s achievements in Africa and in science should not be overlooked

Failure in Iraq: those three words seem to define (for many Britons) the legacy of their soon-to-be-former prime minister, Tony Blair. But ask an African and an environmentalist, and the answer to the question of Blair’s defining legacy may well be different.

Tony Blair will be remembered by Africans for his courage in articulating their continent’s needs, especially through his Commission for Africa, through increased spending in the continent, and leveraging much, much more through his sponsorship of Africa as one of two agenda items for Britain’s presidency of the G8 in 2005. The environmental world will also remember him as being among the first leaders of his generation to take seriously the threat of global climate change.

It was during his decade-long tenure that the world community started to focus on Africa’s quest for building its own institutions for development, and jettisoning once and for all, the idea the traditional focus for so much aid policy on providing poor countries with relief.

Africans will remember Blair not simply as a champion of their cause, but also as someone who sought to help them to define their future, and helped to give them a sense that creativity, self-confidence and hard work are among the most important sources of success.

A leader with vision has a knack of attracting (or identifying) like-minded souls, and in listening to advice from unlikely places. Britain’s political leaders of the recent past have not been known for listening to the pronouncements from the country’s research community. Blair was different. Britain’s science community was both listened to and tasked with helping him to map out his vision.

I will pick four from the many names that deserve a mention. The first is the African chemist, Sir David King, his chief scientific adviser. The second, Lord Robert May, President of the Royal Society and King’s predecessor. Third is Sir Gordon Conway, former President of The Rockefeller Foundation, who was brought into the Department of International Development. The economist is Sir Nicholas Stern, the chief architect of the Commission for Africa before he went on to produce his landmark report on the economics of climate change.

Leaders with courage also find that luck tends to smile on them at the right moment. Blair’s tenure in Downing Street coincided with that of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose own efforts to find solutions to the problems of the world’s poorest are second to none. While they may have differed over aspects of British foreign policy in the Middle East, Blair and Annan were one and the same on Africa.

Together, Annan and Blair redefined development cooperation from the traditional focus on relief to a new vision that defines international development as an expression of endogenous human capabilities, especially through science, technology and innovation. Put another way, Blair helped to reinforce the critical message of empowerment and responsibility.

When Blair spoke of Africa, many of Africa’s own leaders were skeptical, and not without some justification. Memories of colonial rule remain. And for a dwindling generation, these are not happy memories. Some leaders feared broken promises and shattered dreams. But Blair and Gordon Brown proved them wrong. They backed the rhetoric with action.

The British press seems happy to characterize the Blair years as a decade of policy failures and spin. But a leader’s legacy unfolds; it cannot be decided by today’s news. Britons should learn from tomorrow’s historians and not today’s chroniclers.

It was the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, who said: "Pay no attention to critics; no statue has ever been erected in honor of a critic."


  • Calestous

    The writer is a director of the Science, Technology and Globalization project at Harvard University in Boston.

About Calestous Juma

The writer is a director of the Science, Technology and Globalization project at Harvard University in Boston.

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