Edinburgh Book Festival: Shedding light on dark side of Africa

David Pilling outlined the shortcomings of GDP as an indicator. Picture: Contributed
David Pilling outlined the shortcomings of GDP as an indicator. Picture: Contributed
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What I know about a) African corruption and what to do about it, and b) whether we’ve all become obsessed by economic growth would fit on the back of an embarrassingly small envelope.

On Thursday, that envelope grew a tiny bit wider.

The Africa double-bill with former Panorama journalist Paul Kenyon and academic Tom Young mirrored their backgrounds as you’d expect: documentary-maker Kenyon coming up with attention-grabbing stories of egregious corruption and dictatorships; Young shading in the kind of details that prevent generalisations, pointing out, for example, that corruption isn’t particularly endemic to Africa, and was just as prevalent in 18th century England, 19th century America or 1950s South Korea.

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Yet for all Kenyon’s tales of the mad (literally) excesses of Equatorial Guinea’s first president or the full extent of Nigeria’s oil kleptocracy, it was Young’s questioning of the value of western aid that sticks in the mind. We should, he said, respect the sovereignty of African countries, not assume that we know better, nor make aid contingent on elections or anything else. If African nations wanted to practise female genital mutilation, for example, that was their choice, just as our insistence that it shouldn’t happen here is ours. In fact, he added, apart from a few small medical charities, Africa might well be better off without western aid at all. The Chinese approach of mutually beneficial deals to provide costly transport infrastructure or regular electricity would do far more to boost GDP.

Not that GDP is such a great way of measuring anything, as Financial Times associate editor David Pilling pointed out in the next Spark Theatre event. While it’s a good way of measuring how much we’ve produced in goods and services, there is a whole host of things it doesn’t measure, such as innovation, longevity, how we care for our relatives or for the planet. Before 1950, when no party’s manifesto mentioned the economy, none of this mattered much: now, he argued, this inadequate and old-fashioned way of calibrating our economy dominates far too much of our life.

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GDP is only useful if we can compare like with like, and as other countries include the value of their sex industries, in 2012 British economists had to do the same (£10 billion, since you ask, although as the four out of ten sex workers who are male weren’t included, it is probably a lot more). After that figure was added to our GDP, the size of which determines our defence budget, Pilling’s newspaper received a letter from a retired brigadier.

“If only our prostitutes worked a bit harder,” he pointed out, “the Army would have a lot more guns.”