The African project has lasted over a century now. So what’s changed?

I did my bit for Africa this weekend - by re-reading some Dickens. For Bleak House provides a reminder that we British have long regarded it as our special mission to bring uplift to Africa.

Mrs Jellyby, Dickens devotees may recall, is "a lady of very remarkable strength of character who devotes herself entirely to the public. She has devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects at various times and is at present (until something else attracts her) devoted to the subject of Africa." Sound familiar?

In Mrs Jellyby's own home, chaos prevails. The living room is strewn with papers. Tea is an hour late. One of her children, unattended, tumbles headlong down the stairs. Mrs Jellyby scarcely notices. Her eyes, Dickens tells us, "had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if they could see nothing nearer than Africa." Know the type?

"The African project," Mrs Jellyby explains, "at present employs my whole time. It involves me in correspondence with public bodies and with private individuals anxious for the welfare of their species. It involves the devotion of all my energies, such as they are; but that is nothing, so [long as] it succeeds; and I am more confident of success every day."

Let me hasten to add that it is not Sir Bob Geldof I am inviting you to compare with Mrs Jellyby. Sir Bob's Victorian counterpart is not the absurd Mrs Jellyby, for whom charity begins anywhere but at home, but David Livingstone, whom no doubt Mrs Jellyby revered as we today revere Sir Bob.

The comparison may strike you as improbable. Livingstone, after all, was a missionary, as proper as Geldof is profane, as God-fearing as Geldof is godless. Yet in other ways our favourite Irishman is the direct lineal heir of the Victorians' favourite Scotsman.

Like Livingstone, Geldof discovered Africa in the course of a mid-life crisis. Livingstone gave up being a missionary to become an explorer; Geldof gave up being a singer to become, well, a missionary. Like Livingstone, Geldof plainly relishes travelling in Africa and writes rather well on the subject. But he also shares Livingstone's passionate ambition to alleviate the poverty of Africans. Livingstone's recipe was "Commerce, Christianity and Civilization". Geldof's is, in the words of the Live 8 website, to "double aid, drop the debt and make the trade laws fair".

No one should deprecate Geldof's sincerity, or the seriousness of Africa's plight. It is indeed a scandal that so many millions of Africans live on or below the subsistence line, prey to hunger and life-shortening diseases. But the question is how far the modern-day Jellybys who congregated yesterday in Hyde Park and elsewhere can really do anything about this.

Like Mrs Jellyby, the Live 8 crowd not only want to Do Good; they want to Feel Good while doing it. She got her kicks by dictating sanctimonious letters to public bodies. They think they can "stop 30,000 children dying every single day of extreme poverty" by chanting along with Coldplay.

Why, you may ask, should philanthropy not be fun? No reason - so long as it's also effective. Unfortunately, Live 8 will not be, even if it achieves all its stated objectives.

It may come as a surprise to Live 8 fans, but the top three reasons why most African countries are economic basket cases are not lack of aid, excessive debt service payments and protectionism by developed countries. They are in fact chronic misgovernment, recurrent civil war and the high incidence of diseases such as malaria and Aids. It is just possible that more aid, debt relief and freer trade could mitigate these problems. But experience is not encouraging.

Between 1975 and 1984, real net aid from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development to Sub-Saharan African countries grew at a rate of nearly 8 per cent, two and a half times faster than in the past 10 years. Yet African growth was 2 per cent a year, compared with more than 3 per cent since 1995. With the exception of the compulsively optimistic Jeff Sachs - Bono's new best friend - most economists today acknowledge that higher growth in Africa will only come when there is real political reform in countries such as Zimbabwe, and real peace in countries such as the Congo.

Will Live 8 put pressure on Robert Mugabe to step down? Will it put pressure on Congo's warring factions to lay down their arms? Hm, that's funny; those demands don't seem to have made it into Sir Bob's manifesto. And it's easy to see why not. It's so much more satisfying for the Jellybys to make believe that Africa's woes are the responsibility of those "eight (white, terminally uncool) men" who lead the G8 countries.

So yesterday's feel-good / do-good extravaganza was fundamentally misconceived. But it was also - and hence my allusion to Dickens - deeply anachronistic. A century ago, it made some sense for Victorian Britons to believe that they could help Africa. Britain in those days was the workshop of the world - the first industrial nation, but also the first financial nation.

Britain was in a position to do more than dispense aid to Africa. British warships stamped out the Atlantic slave trade. British capital built the railways and ports that encouraged more benign kinds of trade, not to mention the mines that remain central to South Africa's relative prosperity. British missionaries built an impressive network of schools.

Today, however, the world economy is very different. The G8 countries' economies are important, yes. Taken together, the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia account for around half of world economic output. Yet over the past decade economic growth in Japan and the continental European members of the G8 has been miserably slow. Meanwhile, the United States has become by far the world's biggest debtor, with a $2 billion daily borrowing requirement and net external liabilities in excess of 30 per cent of gross domestic product. Question: Which country is the biggest source of new funding for the US deficit? The answer is China.

Economic projections should always be viewed with caution. Still, it seems reasonable to assume that China will be able to sustain a higher rate of growth than any of the G8 members over the coming decades. According to Goldman Sachs, China's GDP will exceed that of the United States in around 2041. The economist Angus Maddison puts the Oriental sorpasso as early as 2015. By 2050, the combined output of China and India may well exceed that of the entire G8.

Already, China is making its presence felt both economically and strategically in - guess where? - Africa. While Western journalists have been wringing their hands impotently about the genocide being perpetrated in Darfur, the Chinese government has done a deal with the Sudanese government to exploit that country's oilfields. That says it all. While we indulge our Victorian urge to give alms to the Africans, Beijing is pumping black gold.

Looking ahead to the 40th anniversary of Live Aid, I foresee a difficulty for Lord Geldof (the peerage is only a matter of time). Either Africa's problems will all have been solved, or - more likely - aid will once again have failed. Either way, it will be hard to muster support for another big gig like yesterday's.

But I have a suggestion. Relocate the 2025 event to Beijing. And this time appeal for more aid, debt relief and fairer trade. for the G8 countries.

Two decades of uninterrupted Asian economic growth will surely suffice to produce a receptive audience of jiving Chinese Jellybys.

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