Bill was getting ready for his after dinner party piece – the Eton Boat Song which he would sing with gusto exhorting his guests to join in. Goodness knows why he sang the Eton Boat Song, he had been educated in Ireland, and no-one except he had a clue what the words were. In retrospect, it was odd. How likely would it be that the host of a dinner party in England would have led his guests in the singing of The Fields of Athenry or Finnegan’s Wake? (Then how likely would it have been that an English host would have had Bill’s stock of poitin, one bottle of which that evening seemed tinged with blue?)
We had had a heated argument at our end of the table earlier in the evening. I had vigorously maintained that Europe had a responsibility for the state of sub-Saharan Africa, which in the early-90s was on a knife edge. Bill had been a teacher in Africa at some point and suggested that liberals like myself weren’t really interested in Africa, but just wanted to assuage our guilty consciences and, anyway, all our efforts were a waste of time. I tried to point out that excellent work was being done in countless places, but the conversation had moved on to something else.
As he turned sideways to get up from his chair (the song had to be accompanied by extravagant conducting by Bill), he looked back at me. The earlier discussion had obviously prompted some reflection, “Ian”, he said, “Africa doesn’t need your aid. It doesn’t need your aid. What Africa needs is organization”.
There was no opportunity to ask what precisely he meant. He was swiftly into a loud and fairly tuneless encouragement that we should “Swing, swing together”.
Fifteen or so years later, there are leaders of aid agencies who would appear to agree with Bill’s diagnosis. Unless corruption is reduced and transparent and accountable government is introduced, aid programmes are never going to have a significant and lasting impact. Corruption in countries like Nigeria and Zimbabwe has reduced potentially prosperous nations to destitution, but at least they started out with some state organization. Bill’s words came to mind this evening reading a BBC report from Somalia :
Somali troops killed at least two people in the capital, Mogadishu, when they opened fire to halt riots over rising costs and counterfeit money.
Thousands of people rioted, burning tyres and throwing stones after traders refused to accept local notes and demanded US dollars instead.
The recent printing of local shilling notes on illegal presses has led to spiralling inflation, reporters say.
This and the increasing insecurity have seen food prices double.
Somalia has been without a central government for more than 17 years and for the past 17 months, the Ethiopian-back interim government has been struggling to exert its control over the country.
The United Nations reports that soaring food prices have already forced more than a third of all Somalis to rely on outside assistance to feed their families.
“Organization”, Bill would have said, “that’s what’s needed”.
Just imagine how willing to offer organization would be Europe and the United States if there proved to be oil fields in Somalia