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“No Child Should Die if it’s Avoidable”

4 minute read

WHAT STRUCK YOU WHEN YOU VISITED AFRICA IN JANUARY? The poverty, which was awful, and also the potential.

WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT AFRICA? We should care about it for political, social, economic and moral reasons. In the 1940s, if the United States had decided to stand aside and do nothing about the reconstruction of Europe, Europe would have been war-ravaged for decades rather than years. The Marshall Plan was in America’s interest as well as Europe’s.

BUT THE MARSHALL PLAN WAS EASIER IN MANY WAYS. Yes, reconstruction, not construction. But the principle of enlightened self-interest is the same. If we could see Africa grow economically and its trade expand, the benefits would flow to the developed countries, too. The security reason is that more terrorists are now making their home in Africa. And there’s a moral reason, which is that no child should die if it’s avoidable.

DO YOU FEEL A SENSE OF RELIGIOUS VOCATION IN YOUR WORK ON AFRICA? I was brought up the son of a Church of Scotland minister and there are huge connections between the church in Scotland and Africa. The stories I first heard about Africa when I was young came from missionaries. I think the ties that bind Britain and Africa have actually become stronger in recent years. Our interest in Africa must start from the sense that something is wrong, and it’s an outrage that so many people are dying and suffering unnecessarily. But it’s also going to be to our benefit in the long run for the developed countries to have a Marshall Plan for Africa.

THE “LIVE AID” GENERATION HOPED TO TRANSFORM AFRICA, BUT FAILED. WHAT’S DIFFERENT NOW? Polls here of people who were young in the 1980s show they consider Live Aid the single most transformative event in their lives. Yet the tragedy of Ethiopia is that there are 70 million people there with only 2,000 doctors. Even after 20 years of activity, we’ve got such a long way to go. But I think we do understand better what makes development successful. We have learned that transparency is the best weapon against corruption, which has been one of the great problems of Africa — but also one of the great excuses to do nothing. We have the science, the technology and the medicine we need now.

ARE POLITICAL ATTITUDES CHANGING HERE, TOO? I think the world does not want another set of broken promises on the Millennium Development Goals [the international benchmarks for cutting poverty agreed in 2000]. If we can keep these promises, it will show that globalization is not just a recipe for insecurity but something that makes possible social justice on a global scale. To do that, we’ve got to act in an urgent and coordinated way.

THE U.S. OPPOSES YOUR IDEA TO BORROW MONEY AGAINST FUTURE AID FLOWS, AND SPENDING IT BEFORE MORE ANTICORRUPTION REFORMS ARE IN PLACE. That sounds as if the world of development started only last year. The truth is that aid to sub-Saharan Africa has actually fallen in the last 10 years. In Britain, we spend about $6,000 a year on health care per person, and in Africa we’re spending $4. We are not spending enough. Everybody knows that.

CAN AFRICA MAKE GOOD USE OF LOTS MORE MONEY? There is an issue about Africa’s capacity to absorb huge sums of money, but not small sums. Even if we were to double aid, in my view there is the capacity to absorb it.

HOW DO YOU PROVE THAT TO SKEPTICS? Anybody who’s in any doubt about the capacity to absorb funds needs to look at vaccination. Under the Global Alliance for Vaccines, 50 million people have been vaccinated, but the program doesn’t have enough money for the next stage. If we front-load and raise the extra $4 billion now, 10 million lives would be saved over the next 20 years. The truth is, unless we front-load resources there is no way we are going to meet the Millennium Development Goals. If we’re not going to meet them, why did we sign up to them only a few years ago?

WHAT’S IT LIKE BEING LOBBIED CONSTANTLY ON AFRICA BY ROCK STARS? I said the other day, I thought my young son was going to be brought up on the songs of Bono and Bob Geldof, and now he’s going to be brought up on their speeches. The first song on my iPod, which [Brown’s wife] Sarah gave me for Christmas, is Geldof’s original Band Aid. The second is Geldof during Live Aid, when he says, “If you’re going to cock up, you may as well do it in front of 2 billion people.” And then he swears.

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