Save the world from naive do-gooders

By Simon Jenkins

Many years ago I was invited to dinner with the actress
Shirley MacLaine. I was a serious fan. I watched
mesmerised as she held the company in thrall, eyes
flashing, red hair bobbing. She was talking not of her latest
show but of her recent visit to China, then reeling in the
aftermath of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Slowly my
wonder turned to horror. The great star had been taken
for the mother of all rides. She said that Mao was a hero
of all time. He had fed and clothed his people and led
them into the promised land. No, no, she cried against all
protest, we should go and see for ourselves.

Mao's corpse count was then surpassing those of wartime
Germany and Russia, but Peking offered a well-oiled
welcome for sympathetic celebrities. The effect was
impressive. The killings and famines went unreported and
Mao became a cult in the West. Nor was Mao the first at
this game. The same was true, in their day, of Stalin,
Mussolini and Hitler, and more recently of Nkrumah,
Amin, Castro, Mengistu and Pinochet. Through the fog of
distance shines the glamour of power. The eye reports
what it sees, not what it fails to see - or is not shown.

All political globetrotters should watch Daniel Wolf's
BBC2 documentaries, Tou rists of The Revolution,
being aired at the ludicrous time of 5.50pm on Saturdays.
It is no travelogue. It is a testament that travel narrows as
well as broadens the mind. We are shown Britons exulting
at Mussolini's charisma. We see Lloyd George describing
Hitler as "the greatest German of his age". We hear an English
journalist telling Hitler: "England's youth loves you, Führer".

George Bernard Shaw visited Russia in 1931 and
witnessed "an atmosphere of hope and security as has
never before been seen in a civilised country on earth".
The veteran Marxist, Christopher Hill, still refuses to
believe in Stalin's deliberate Ukrainian famine. Barbara
Castle, then a journalist, reported "no atmosphere of
repression" in prewar Moscow, only glorious
opportunities for women. After the fall of Stalin, the
Writers Union lavishly entertained British celebrities. I
wonder if the young Melvyn Bragg was aware that he had
been "framed" by the KGB for star treatment on his visit.

These "tourists of the revolution" may have given only
scant satisfaction to the regimes that hosted them. Some,
such as Nigel Nicolson, are now gracious in contrition.
Like others who admired German fascism, he recalls the
impact that a disciplined nation with a clear sense of
mission made on a radical young mind, when Britain
seemed reactionary and lost in depression. Michael Burn
was so ashamed of saluting Hitler that he subsequently
fought in the Second World War, was imprisoned in
Colditz and became a communist.

Tyrants have always evoked idolatry, especially in those
far from home. Less explicable are the cheerleaders for
post-colonial Africa, depicted in tomorrow's programme.
For them the habits of empire died hard and the inclination
to meddle was irresistible. The role of white advisers in
bringing socialist planning to sub-Saharan Africa has long
been ridiculed. Wolf's description of these adventurers as
"tourists of the revolution" seems apt. Reg Green, aide to
Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, appears single-handedly to
have wrecked an entire economy. No disaster inflicted on
Africa by imperialism seems to have been worse than that
inflicted by its successor ideologies, socialism and
"overseas aid". Ghana's Volta River project made the
colonial groundnuts fiasco seem a mere peccadillo.

The definitive Western intervention was in the Ethiopian
civil war of the mid-Eighties. Whether Bob Geldof and the
aid agencies saw themselves as tourists may be moot. In
retrospect their good intentions seem awesomely
misplaced. We see Geldof screaming on television, "Send
the money, just send the money". A billion dollars of aid
was duly sent, 90 per cent of it to prop up the disgusting
regime of the dictator, Mengistu. The World Bank and
United Nations lavished money on him. They paid for the
depopulation (now termed ethnic cleansing) of highland
areas. Food aid and vehicles followed his troops but were
denied to rebels, who had to wait until 1991 to topple the
United Nation's protégé. The UN chief in Addis Ababa
remarked on Mengistu's "intelligence, dignity and
courtesy" and asserted that the forced resettlements were
"voluntary". This was not 1885, but 1985.

Desperate not to stanch the flow of Western cash, aid
agencies colluded never to mention the civil war.
Throughout the Ethiopian crisis, the impression conveyed
to the West was that the country was suffering a natural
disaster, a famine, not the deliberate suppression of
rebellion by starvation. When the French agency,
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), could stomach it no
more and protested to the regime, it was duly expelled. Its
boss at the time, Rony Brauman, remarked that colluding
with Mengistu meant "saving a thousand lives to condemn
a hundred thousand". The fight between Brauman and
Michael Priestley, the UN chief in Ethiopia under
Mengistu, was a classic of the new imperialism. Priestley
accused MSF of "grandstanding to get publicity". The
charity accused him of being a "Mengistu pawn" and an
"accomplice of massive oppression". The spectacle of
Westerners playing professional games with a war-torn
African country is not edifying. Those who felt obliged to
eulogise Mengistu were in a line of descent from those
who admired Mussolini for "at least making the trains run
on time". They claim that they did more good than harm. I
would say, they badly need to prove it.

One sceptic of Western intervention in Africa, Alex de
Waal, asks: "How could so much good intention go so
tragically wrong?" The answer must be the same as drove
Dickens to create Mrs Jellaby in Bleak House: his
outrage that his London friends would give readily to
overseas causes but not to domestic ones. Starving
Londoners were regarded as "naughty". Starving Africans
were noble, and far less likely to land on your doorstep.

The thousands of aid workers, volunteers and journalists
who poured into Africa's periodic trouble spots
undoubtedly saw themselves as well-intentioned. They still
do today, as does the soldier in a UN beret. But then so
did the visitors to Stalin's Russia and Mao's China, and
the advisers who tried to socialise Africa's economies.
Just as aid is never impartial, so any traveller to a problem
land carries political baggage. He soon becomes a missionary,
in search not of evidence but allegiance. As Hannah Arendt
said: "The Third World is not a reality, it is an ideology."

The instinct to charity is natural. But these films make me
aware how horribly close is the path of charity to the
abyss of hypocrisy. Dickens was right. Abroad is so much
simpler and more glamorous than at home. The British find
it hard to secure peace in Northern Ireland or build a
hospital system that works. They hate being lectured by
outsiders. But they claim to know, beyond all
contradiction, precisely what is going wrong in Iraq and
Serbia and Chechnya and Indonesia. If the resulting
intervention screws up, if bombs land awry or dams go
bankrupt or dictators refuse to be toppled, nobody really
cares. Foreign crises are to hand when we need them, and
far away when we do not. Like servants, they know their
place. The imperialism of the mind is no more attractive
than that of the sword or the dollar. We can witness, but
not live, the lives of others. I find it ironic that the West
has become ever more disciplined towards the world's
natural environment, fighting to preserve its autonomy and
diversity. Yet we relentlessly abuse its political ecology.
We refuse to believe that we might not know what is best
for distant polities and peoples. This week British troops
are still dropping bombs on Iraq, believe it or not, and
overseeing the forced removal of Serbs from Kosovo.
Most Britons have probably forgotten the reason.
Meddling feels good.

The last word lies with that most sensitive student of
Africa, Basil Davidson. Surveying the deeds of Europeans
in that continent over the past century, he flatly denies that
they have known what is best for Africans. Please believe
me, he cries, "Dear friends, you don't know best, only worst."

So caveat viator. The tourist should stick to his sunbed,
and Shirley should stick to her song.

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