Africa’s moment: Interview

With Myles Wickstead*, head of the secretariat to the UK Commission for Africa.
OECD Observer

In September the United Nations convenes the first major summit to review implementation of the UN Millennium Development Goals, and to rally support for more progress to cut poverty and boost development in an effort to meet the 2015 deadline. Determined action, as well as some new ideas, may well be needed. One such idea is the Commission for Africa, launched by the UK prime minister Tony Blair in February 2004.

Mr Blair has made Africa one of the main focuses of both his chairmanship of the G8 this year and, in the second half of 2005, the EU. The commission’s aim is to take a fresh look at Africa and at the role the international community can play in its development. A major report, containing clear recommendations for the G8, the EU and other developed countries as well as Africa itself, was published on 11 March.

This is not the first time Africa has been the focus of public attention. In fact, 2005 is a symbolic year, not just because of the UN meeting. It is the 20th anniversary of Live Aid–that event’s organiser, Dubliner and 1980s pop star, Bob Geldof, is one of the 17 commissioners for Africa–and it is the 25th anniversary of the seminal Brandt Commission report, North-South.

What new hope does the commission really bring and how can it succeed? We asked Myles Wickstead*, head of the secretariat to the UK Commission for Africa, to explain.

OECD Observer: How do you, Mr Wickstead, both as head of the secretariat to the Commission for Africa, and as someone with considerable experience working in Africa, explain this renewal of interest? Is it different this time, is this Africa’s moment?

Myles Wickstead: Yes, I believe that this is Africa’s moment, for the very important reason that Africa is showing signs of real progress and renewal. Some of the elements of this are the formation of the African Union, the creation of NEPAD, the construction of the African Peer Review Mechanism, the development of real poverty reduction strategies, the increase in democratically elected governments and the decrease in the proliferation of conflicts. All these elements point to the fact that Africa is taking charge of its own development.

There are also a number of things happening that are putting the spotlight onto Africa–the UK presidency of the G8 and the EU, the review of the UN Millennium Development Goals in September, and the restart of the Doha trade round at the WTO Ministerial in Hong Kong in December. And, of course, the work of the Commission for Africa! The coincidence of these things provides a fantastic opportunity to help Africa.

People have talked of a Marshall Plan for Africa. Is that how you would describe the report's recommendations?

I think that there are pluses and minuses in the use of the term “Marshall Plan for Africa”. There needs to be a massive renewal of interest in and support for Africa, so in that context it is entirely appropriate.

However, that expression doesn’t capture the whole story. Europe had been devastated by the war when the original Marshall Plan was conceived. The important point about what is happening in Africa now is that it is already beginning to make real progress. We should get behind that. The Commission for Africa’s recommendations must not be seen as a massive handout by the international community; we must recognise the effort Africa is making to renew itself.

There are those who doubt Africa's capacity to absorb and deal with more aid, who think that the real issues are institutional and poor governance, including corruption. These are dealt with in the report. What is your view?

You are absolutely right that there are capacity issues in Africa and that governance and corruption are important.

In the report we clearly say that if everything were ideal we should be increasing external assistance at once by $50 billion per annum–a tripling of existing concessional flows. But because of capacity constraints, we recommend that we should first increase aid by $25 billion per annum for five years and then, if governance continues to improve and capacity continues to develop, we should increase aid by a further $25 billion per annum.

Is there any one cause that you think more than any other is responsible for Africa's under-development? Or is this being too simplistic, with reasons changing, depending on the time and place?

I think it’s difficult to point to one single cause for Africa’s under-development. First, it is important to recognise Africa’s great diversity–there is so much variety in individual countries’ endowments, histories and development experiences, that it would be difficult to identify only one driver or cause that affected all of them in the same way. Second, African countries’ under-development is the result of a number of interrelated causes–which is precisely the story of our report. We can’t pick out and deal with single issues; we have to deal with the whole package, and that includes governance, peace and security, health and education, economic growth and Africa’s capacity to trade. But also, it is important to look at the constraints resulting from the policies of the international community and the problem of debt, in many cases acquired decades ago under corrupt dictators.

As someone who knows Africa so well, what key message would you like to see taken from the report, by developed countries on the one hand, and African countries on the other?

I would like to emphasise the importance of a real partnership between Africa and the international community. NEPAD envisages partnership at three levels.

The first type of partnership is that within African countries–these are partnerships between governments and their citizens. The second type is partnerships between various African countries and regions. And finally, there is the partnership between Africa and the international community.

The commission’s report focuses on the third level of partnership. The report encourages the international community to get behind and trust Africa. Africa must earn that trust; the international community must be ready to give it. That is the nature of the partnership. It will benefit all of us. That is why the report is called “Our Common Interest”.

Interview by Rory J. Clarke

*Myles Wickstead has been the head of the secretariat to the Commission for Africa since it was formed by the UK prime minister, Tony Blair, in February 2004. Mr Wickstead has a long history of working in Africa, and from 2000 until his appointment, was based in Addis Ababa as British ambassador to Ethiopia and Djibouti (nonresident). From 1993-1997 he was head of the British Department Division in Eastern Africa, based in Nairobi. Former positions include head of the European Community and Food Aid Department at the Overseas Development Administration (1990-1993); Co-ordinator of the 1997 British government’s International Development White Paper, “Eliminating World Poverty”; and on the Executive Board of the Counsellor (Development) in Washington DC (1997-2000).


Commission for Africa (2005), Our Common Interest. The Report of the Commission for Africa can be downloaded at where a hard copy can also be ordered. The site also contains background papers and reactions from non-government organisations.

©OECD Observer No 249, May 2005

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