As useful as a Tory MP on an African building site

Clemency Burton-Hill (a multi-talented individual and real fox to boot, so I'm sorry to have to take the piss, but this is too good to ignore) reports in this week's Spectator that the Tories are "fighting back" against Gordon Brown's lead on international development issues "with a plan to send MPs into poverty-stricken Africa." I bet the poor Africans can barely contain their excitement. True, Nicholas Soames could feed a large village, but what if he gets to their grain-store before they get to him?

Apparently, George Osborne returned from a visit to Uganda to learn about the Millennium Development Goals (here's a tip George - you don't have to go to Africa, the details are on the UN website) "vowing that a Conservative government would better tackle problems such as malaria". Isn't it the job of African governments to fight African diseases? We might want to contribute funding, equipment, and people with appropriate skills, but what makes George think that his party could do that better than a government of any other colour? If he means that the Conservatives would spend more on the MDGs than Labour, he should say so. Failing that, his promise is insincere and meaningless. Or is he thinking of a more active role? Is that what the MPs are for? Are they to be sent, bug-spray and rolled magazine in hand, to tackle the mosquito scourge in person?

Apparently not. Their contribution is to be more "impressive" than that. It will be "living in a mud hut and building schools for genocide orphans in rural Rwanda". Whilst there is no doubt that the thought of politicians living in rudimentary conditions is enough to cheer the hearts of voters from Kigali to King's Lynn, is this really the best use of their time? And are they the best people for the job? I had no idea the House of Commons was so replete with skills. There will, of course, be no shortage of lawyers to handle the conveyancing once the buildings are completed, and no African school will receive better marketing and public representation. But the bricklaying, plumbing, carpenting and electrical skills of our Tory MPs are rather less well-known. Have this multi-talented bunch been hiding their lights under a bushel? Or would the Rwandans be better off if we sent brickies, plumbers, carpenters, electricians and other tradesmen, while the MPs got on with what they are paid and better-qualified to do? Even if one or two of them have useful skills (a proposition much to be doubted), an MP makes an expensive bricklayer.

But fear not. "There has been a rigorous interview process of prospective participants to ensure a correct fit between skills and assignments. (Members of the Shadow Cabinet likely to go include Hugo Swire and David Mundell)". Here is a clue to the jobs that the Tories expect to carry out in Africa. To what assignments would the skills of Messrs Swire and Mundell be suited?

Hugo's website tells us that:

"Hugo Swire is the Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. He was elected as Member of Parliament for East Devon in 2001.

Hugo was educated at Eton and attended St. Andrew’s University and the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

Before entering Parliament he served in the Armed Forces, worked in independent television and was the first Head of Development at the National Gallery. Latterly he was a Director of Sotheby’s, London. Hugo is also one of the country’s leading charity auctioneers and has been involved in raising millions of pounds for different charities over the years."

Sadly, there is no shortage of military skills in Africa, in fact more of a surplus in that regard, to be frank. On the other hand, there are probably very few old-Etonian culture-vulture auctioneers, so Hugo will be able to plug that gap, though there may not be sufficient demand for those services to occupy the full fortnight.

David's website records:

"Born in Dumfries in 1962, son of an hotelier, he went to Lockerbie Academy, read law at Edinburgh University and took a master's degree in business administration at Strathclyde University Business School. He worked as a solicitor in private practice before joining BT as group legal adviser for Scotland in 1991, rising to become BT Scotland's head of national affairs."

So that's one more lawyer to add to the pile then. But at least, as a Scottish Tory, he will be able to empathise with the plight of Africa's embattled minority tribes.

Come on, Clemency. You may buy the line that this isn't "simply to allow UK politicians to impose their expertise while taking advantage of a good photo-op in a beautiful place". The rest of us are not so naive. Phrases such as

  • "a genuine two-way learning process, with each side leveraging the skills and knowledge of the other",
  • "targeted professional help in support of the development of Rwanda",
  • "learn[ing] at first hand the sort of progress and governance issues faced by their African counterparts",
  • "the importance of the project's legacy",
  • "proposals for a series of long-term partnership arrangements which will sustain it over the coming years"
  • "agencies such as VSO and the UN....have committed their support to ensuring best-practice in-country"

are bullshit straight out of the corporate PR manual. Like trips to glaciers and picking up constructed piles of rubbish, this is all about the image of the Tory party, and very little to do with the benefit to those for whom the service is supposedly being performed.

If you really want to help poor Africans, we already know what is needed (if you're not sure, try speaking to someone like Professor Paul Collier, Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at the University of Oxford). We don't need MPs with paintbrushes. We need free markets, strong democracies, small, honest and efficient bureaucracies, the rule of impartial law, low taxes, budgetary and fiscal restraint, strongly-enforced and widely-dispersed property rights, no appropriation by the ruling class of profits from the country's resources, and so on. You don't need to go to Africa to work that out. And you won't help Africa to get closer to those ideals by spending a fortnight there. You need to work to dismantle international barriers, encourage bi-lateral trade, and provide strong partnership to honest, democratic rulers and harsh action against despots. That is, if you are really interested in helping Africans, rather than improving your image. But what am I talking about? This is the new-model Tories....



While checking other reporting on this story, I found this classic example of Freudian bad grammar in the Grauniad:

"George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, will deliver the pledge [to spend $1bn (£510m) a year on malaria treatment] at the end of a three-day visit to Uganda with Jeffrey Sachs, the UN adviser also known as aid "guru" to the singer Bono who is widely acknowledged as the world's leading development economist."

Bono, "the world's leading development economist"? We know what they meant, or as it's the Grauniad, do we? Perhaps they really think that wearing dark glasses, speaking with your heart on your sleeve, and chatting with presidents makes you a leading economist. After all, the title wouldn't be much more appropriate if applied to Professor Sachs. Leading advocate of throwing aid at problems, maybe, but leading development economist? I think not.  

Jeffrey Sachs thinks the solution to African malaria is the distribution of mosquito nets. So that's what the Tory MPs will be doing. I guess even an MP has sufficient skills for that.

The trouble is, as usual for Prof Sachs, it's the wrong answer to the problem. Roger Bate of the American Enterprise Institute explains at spiked-online why nets are no more than a band-aid to this gaping wound, when what is needed to provide proper treatment is the destruction of the malarial mosquito population through the use of DDT.

Had a very interesting debate, including Adrian Yalland, the organizer of the trip, on Iain Dale's site. Iain is going to Rwanda to make a film about the projects and cover the trip for the Tories. Much remains to be seen about this trip. Perhaps I have been too harsh.

I'm tracking the reporting on the trip on a separate thread here.