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Chancellor Brown Goes to Africa

By Rootsie
January 17, 2004

In our time, direct colonialism has largely ended; imperialism...lingers where it has always been, in a kind of general cultural sphere as well as in specific political, ideological, economic, and social practices... Neither imperialism nor colonialism is a simple act of accumulation and acquisition. Both are supported and even impelled by impressive ideological formations that include notions that certain territories and people require and beseech domination. (Culture and Imperialism, 9)
The late Edward Said's Orientalism, and its companion work Culture and Imperialism, crack the code of imperialist rhetoric, chronicling an essentially unchanged Western view of its 'subject peoples.' His central point is that Europe, and now also the United States, view Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean as little more than arenas for the playing out of their imperial dramas.
" this view, the outlying regions of the world have no life, history, or culture to speak of, no independence or integrity worth representing without the West." (Said, C&I, xix)
Whether the theme is 'democracy-building' in Iraq, or 'saving' Africa, whether military aggression or rice is being delivered, the assumptions and motives remain the same. And because this is the case, because no shift has taken place in Western attitudes towards the colonized and formerly colonized world, all 'Marshall Plans for Africa" and "Millenium Goals" are like a poisoned apple: they look pretty and shiny but are rotten at the core. Nothing good can possibly come of them. Moral bankruptcy is not a piece of rhetoric; it is a very real thing.

British Chancellor of the Exchequer Raymond Brown has been on a promotional tour of Africa, viewing slums, being sung to and called 'grandfather,' exclaiming daily , "This is unacceptable, this cannot be, and this is what we must do about it." All of this sudden interest must strike Africans as a phenomenon capricious and unexpected as any tidal wave, a tsunami of concern: in Chancellor Brown's words, "a passion of compassion."
'"My father was a Church of Scotland minister and there were many contacts between the Church of Scotland and Africa", Gordon Brown explained, stopping in Dar Es Salaam.

"We repeatedly heard the stories of people coming back from Africa including this area, Malawi and Kenya, telling us what needed to be done."

"I think from a very, very early age, you were hearing the tragedies and tribulations of Africa, but also the fondness of people for the continent", added Brown.' (
Yes indeed there is a long tradition of British 'fondness' for 'the continent,' which they have over the centuries become accustomed to sentimentally regarding as their continent.

John Stuart Mill said:
"These [outlying possessions of ours] are hardly to be looked upon as countries...but more properly as outlying agricultural or manufacturing estates belonging to a larger community...the place where England finds it convenient to carry on the production of sugar, coffee, and a few other tropical commodities." (quoted in C&I, 59)
There has been not a peep in the British press or any other mainstream news outlet that the horrors Brown is beholding might have a thing to do with centuries of British 'fondness.' This sudden interest in the suffering of Africa is curiously disconnected from any discussion of Britain's long involvement there, as colonial powers, as slave-brokers, as violent oppressors. Brown declaims in general about rich countries' 'moral obligation' to poor ones, as if it is a matter of divine grace or comparative virtue that some countries are rich and others poor.
"[A young student]...Bryson Nyahungo, asked Mr Brown a question, inquiring whether Britain was also poor and if not, why not. This was a foolish move, a bit like asking Edward Gibbon whether by chance he has got any views on the decline of the Roman Empire.

Mr Brown cleared his throat and took Bryson through the era of inventions, the fact that the government made sure everyone had a living wage, that all three- to four-year-olds had free nursery education, and the importance of child benefit to mothers." (Guardian 1/14/05)
Wouldn't it have been something if Chancellor Brown had replied, "Well Bryson, we are rich because you are poor. There are many billions of African dollars lying in British banks."

I have to admit I am insulted by the lack of irony in Brown's grand mission of mercy, complete with a bus named 'Hope Africa.' Africans no doubt have nightmare memories of what tends to happen when British conveyances come rolling into town.

And how is this time different? Well this time we are not coming to kill you and steal from you, but to save you, because you cannot save yourselves. We come with debt relief and money for schools and an invitation to join the world economic community. Of course it goes without saying that you cannot be trusted to handle this influx of pity, mercy, and charity on your own:
... He [Brown] is calling for new international rules to stamp out corruption, and said Britain hoped to secure a system of independent reports on the true state of government finances around the world to ensure aid money was spent wisely. (
Without irony, we speak of 'aid' and relegate to the far fringes any who call, more properly, for reparations.

In fact the only time Brown has had anything to say about the colonial period during this trip is when he declared the time has come for everybody to stop talking about it.

One article reports:
"Britain's chancellor used a trip to Africa to say the days of the United Kingdom having to apologize for its colonial past are finished....Brown said, in general, English settlers were honorably motivated to colonize Africa." ( 1/15/05)
This is exactly what I mean by moral bankruptcy. If they are unwilling to come to terms with 500 years of their history, how should they be trusted to behave honorably anywhere in the world now?
"Britain is a trailblazer here. It's a historic step but we want to lead by example," he [Brown} said. (times online 1/14/05)
Such habitual self-celebration should be a signal to the objects of Western generosity to view it all with deep suspicion. The West indeed urgently needs to see itself as world-savior, and is willing to pay a pretty penny to maintain the fiction, so I imagine that many in Africa are thinking they might as well get on the gravy train.

I believe that this is Nelson Mandela's pragmatic assessment, and why he is willing to play along. Perhaps he has concluded that these guys will never own up to the history, and that this is as close as Africa is going to get to any historical accounting. I believe it is a mistake on Mr. Mandela's part to lend his name to this endeavor, but it's understandable. He is elderly; maybe he would like to see some justice before he dies.

Here is what the august Royal Africa Society has to say about Brown's journey into the Heart of Darkness:
"Gordon Brown wants a Marshall Plan to save Africa, just as America "saved" Europe at the end of the Second World War. His speech at the National Gallery in Edinburgh on Thursday was full of missionary zeal to save Africa from poverty and disease.

It's good that Mr Brown cares about Africa but he is wrong. He has not asked why Africa is poor. He seems to think that a lack of aid has created its poverty. The sad truth is that Africa has had a Marshall Plan several times over in the last 50 years and has little to show for it. Until we understand why, Mr Brown could be raising expectations for Africa yet again - and making things worse by failing to deliver.

...If aid were the solution to Africa's problems, it would be a rich continent by now. It is potentially rich but it has been made poor by unstable politics. Africa's ruling class has failed to create viable states that provide health, education and economic opportunity for their people. As a result literacy rates are low and African civil services are weak. Until the politics come right, huge amounts of aid would make things worse."
Well, what historically accounts for Africa's 'unstable politics' and the failures of its 'ruling class'? Could it be that the colonial powers left Africa in ruins, and continue extracting far more than they ever put in, leaving European–educated leaders to preside over the mess? All over the continent, similar events unfolded as the people's patience with their revolutionary heroes-turned Western toadies ran out, and they turned to family and clan ties for the security and material resources their governments denied them. Europe's pre-appointed 'nations' devolved into kleptocracies vying for Western approval and Western dollars. People out of the money-loop eventually took up arms, and there, too briefly, is where things stand today. At this point it is fruitless to speculate on what Africa would be like had it been left alone.

The difference between The Royal Society and 21st–century good-guys like Brown is that the former has come up with an analysis that allows it to wash its hands of the entire matter, chalking it all up to Africans' incompetence and lack of gratefulness for all the good that has been done them, while ones like Blair and Brown do, I believe, feel some sense of obligation to Africa, and even I daresay some inkling of guilt. But what they all have in common is the deep-seated assumption that Africa exists only to have things done to it, or for it, or not, according to a Western assessment of what is best.
"Without significant exception the universalizing discourses of modern Europe and the United States assume the silence, willing or otherwise, of the non-European world. There is incorporation; there is inclusion; there is direct rule; there is coercion. But there is only infrequently an acknowledgement that the colonized peoples should be heard from, their ideas known." (C&I, 50)
Earlier this year, Brown made a speech in which he said:
"The richest countries cannot continue setting targets, failing to meet them and then expecting the poorest countries to trust our word. Only comprehensive policies for economic and social development - promoting growth, fair trade and aid - will bring a lasting exit from debt and poverty. That is why, as we approach our G8 presidency, we need a new debate on how the richest countries can discharge their responsibilities to the poorest, encourage economic development and debt relief, and win the fight against illiteracy, disease and poverty.

So, too, next year can mark a new beginning: a worldwide campaign for justice on a global scale, a sea change in the way rich countries address the needs of the poor and an affirmation that, even amidst the tensions of globalisation, we are - as we should always have been - not a world permanently divided but one moral universe: today's rich and poor ready to act as one, recognising our shared needs, mutual interests and linked destinies." (Global Policy Forum, June 2004)
This all sounds very fine and uplifting, doesn't it? But look closely, and you see Western narcissism in a nutshell. This is all about what Europe and the U.S. give, and the rest of the world receives. It is in the West's hands to deliver 'justice on a global scale' and 'win the fight against illiteracy, disease, and poverty.' It is up to the West to dictate the time and circumstance of 'one moral universe.' It is crucial to recall that less than 100 years ago the same people were using words like "inferior" or "subject races," "subordinate peoples", "dependency," "expansion," and "authority." And it must not be forgotten that concurrently, in Iraq, the United States and Europe are carrying out their ongoing imperial project without shame or apology.

The extraction of Africa's wealth also proceeds under the radar. In essence, Brown is saying to his comrades, "let's take a bit less out, shall we?"

When I glance at the celebratory headlines accompanying Chancellor Brown's safari:

"Chancellor's Relief Crusade to Africa"
"Can Gordon Save Africa?"
"Brown Tours Africa Slum, Plants Tree"
"World Needs to Help Africa Out of Poverty"
"Chancellor Leaves on Africa Mission to Assault Poverty"
"Brown Calls for New Plan to Raise Africa out of Poverty"
"Brown Finds Extra $1 Billion to Help Poor Nations Out of Debt"

I think of Edward Said, and how he would have deconstructed language like "Crusade," "Save," "Help," "Mission," and "Raise Africa Out of Poverty". He would point out that these rhetorical habits have been extant in the West since the Crusades. The imperialist discourse existed before invasion and colonization, and normalized these activities after. It is a discourse which denies non-Western peoples their humanity and their ability to frame their own issues for themselves.

The same hand that slaughters can also bestow, as it wishes. But there is no good to be had from this sort of generosity. Chancellor Brown hopes to succeed Tony Blair, and this journey to Africa is his chance to dress down his dour image and demonstrate his 'common touch.'
"He has told us that in the last day or two he has seen "Grinding, abject relentless poverty and glimpsed the aching souls of millions", but has also seen, "The hopes in the eyes of young people".

...The Chancellor crams into a tiny two-room mud hut to hear one dying man tell him that he was too poor to travel to see his doctor, too poor to eat properly.

He added that his neighbours hated him, but he believed that all men were brothers.

The Chancellor touched the man's wrist and said indeed they were." (BBC news, 1/13/05)
Sorry to rain on this parade of self-congratulation.


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