Lord Peter Mandelson, President of the Board of Trade under the previous Labour Government, is a controversial figure in British politics – but no one ever said he was stupid.
So his recent speech to a conference on Africa demands to be taken seriously. He shocked the whole “aid industry” by saying openly what many have long thought privately: most of Britain’s aid to Africa has been wasted. This is not to say that the aid was unnecessary, but that it would have been better spent developing trade. This means developing viable businesses – which means encouraging entrepreneurs.
The more practical charities operating in the Third World have long held to the principle that “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but, if you give him a net, he can feed himself for a year.”
Yet even that is not enough. If there is to be any hope for Africa, and the rest of the Third World, the people of all nations need to be given the opportunity of breaking out of mere subsistence living and develop economically to join the rest of the planet in the 21st Century.
So it is not just a matter of giving a man a net, but rather of allowing him to develop a business that improves his family’s standard of living, employs his neighbours, gives him dignity and independence, and generates national wealth that can, among many other benefits, be taxed to improve public services.
It is at this point that the generosity of Westerners begins to dry up. They were happy to give out fishes and nets – they cost little, made the donors feel good about themselves, and posed no threat. However, the development of viable businesses in the Third World is another matter. They are competitors to the donors themselves.
So the very countries that boast about giving aid to the Third World are also ruthless about keeping their markets closed to Third World businesses – when opening those markets would do far more good to the developing nations than all the aid that has ever been given.
Critics have noted that Lord Mandelson, when he was in office, was a particularly effective closer of doors in the face of Third World business. However, that politicians say one thing when running for office, another thing in office, and something else entirely when out of office, is a well-established truism. It does not alter the fact that now, at last, Lord Mandelson is speaking the truth.