Here’s this Chinese guy in the midday sun. Straw hat, faggy in his mouth, bright eyes, tanned face. I feel like crying. We’re in the middle of nowhere and he’s building this fantastic road through the Tanzanian bush. He’s fit, young, staring into the future, like one of those Mao-era posters. I give him the thumbs-up. ‘Keep up the good work, mate!’ He ignores me and I don’t blame him.
As I zoom down smooth tarmac through wide-open spaces, I think about how my family has been associated with Tanzania on and off for 81 years. My British forefathers in Africa had purpose, a devotion to duty. Hardship or loneliness did not scare them. They came here to advance themselves and their nation. That’s what the Chinese are doing now. I admire them for it.
But today, across most of Africa, the British are finished. They associate the continent with poverty, filth and danger. They’re afraid of skin cancer and malaria. They’re soaked in DEET and they’re worried about the food. Even if they want to, Britons can’t leave home for more than two months to work in Africa because their spouses will divorce them. The most adventurous Brits are middle-aged Rochdale women visiting Mombasa to pick up beach boy prostitutes. Frankly, you can’t blame them either.
I don’t mean to be arrogant. I include myself in this hesitant crowd of pathetic British has-beens — I’m just from a sub-tribe of post-colonials. We survive in Africa but can hardly be said to be thriving. I’d be just as afraid of Africa as metropolitan Britons if I wasn’t so damn lazy. But it’s not too late for Britain to avoid becoming irrelevant in Africa.
Africa is the world’s Next Big Thing. The investment opportunities here are just staggering. I’m back in Tanzania, trying to start a business. Four decades ago, Julius Nyerere expropriated my family’s ranches — thousands of acres and a successful beef enterprise. I wouldn’t return here if I was not absolutely convinced times are changing.
But there’s almost nobody else around. Britain has invested just £230 million in Tanzania since Tony Blair won his first election. Local people take me for a Swedish aid worker, or an American priest. They are astonished when I tell them why I am really here.
In Dar es Salaam, the odour of scandal still hangs over British business because of the dodgy 2001 sale of a BAE Systems radar that Tanzania did not need. It seems to me that both parties were at fault. But, for a certain kind of Africa expert in London, British companies need to be policed for their ethics. Otherwise they might force fat brown envelopes into the hands of unsuspecting African ministers.
Presumably for this reason, the local British High Commission’s website offers a downloadable ‘human rights toolkit’. No business advice. Nothing about the treaty Tanzania signed with the UK to protect investment from expropriation. Beijing gives its businessmen billions in loans to set up in Africa. But, as a Briton, I am entirely on my own. When I finally get inside the terrorist-proof High Commission, I find myself talking to a young local hire investment adviser.
I ask, ‘Is anything going to change under Cameron?’ ‘Ooh, yes,’ he says. ‘We expect the Conservatives to be much more in tune with what Africans want.’ He explains what I hear every day, that Africans want to do business. They don’t need aid. ‘It’s all balls, isn’t it?’ I say. ‘Aid, I mean?’ ‘Er, yes,’ he agrees.
The truth is that under the Conservatives little is likely to change. OK, so the new international development secretary Andrew Mitchell has axed funding for a Brazilian dance troupe in Hackney. Labour justified this as part of its overseas-aid programme. But Mitchell still talks about alleviating ‘global poverty’ and ‘moral obligations’. You have to search hard for the words ‘wealth creation’. The party manifesto promised to ‘empower people in poor countries by giving them more control over how aid is spent’. Even if I knew what this meant, I doubt I’d know how it might work.
No, Tory MPs will probably still take part in creepy little trips and stay in mud huts in Rwanda to learn about Africa’s problems. Britain will still promise to set aside 0.7 per cent of national income for aid by 2013. Why?
The Department for International Development should be abolished and merged with the Foreign Office. Britain should pull funding for aid groups and UN agencies and put all the money into a bank or fund to promote aggressively enterprise in Africa. That’s what ordinary Africans want, and UK companies should be at the heart of it.
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