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Sunday, 10 February, 2002, 20:43 GMT
Blair's missionary zeal confounds critics
Tony Blair and Clare Short meet cocoa farmers in Ghana
Mr Blair was warmly received by ordinary Africans
Nick Assinder

It is impossible to stand next to Tony Blair in a village in Sierra Leone, surrounded by some of the poorest and most traumatised children in the world, and argue that he is wrong to have come to Africa.

And to suggest he is simply playing politics with these people is, frankly, insulting.

Only a fool would suggest the poverty, internal strife and economic problems of Africa can be solved overnight

If one thing has become clear during this whirlwind tour of west Africa it is that Tony Blair means what he says when he talks about the West's moral duty to help this struggling continent.

It is also clear that the prime minister feels personally driven to use his position to do what he can.

Talking to him on the trip has only served to convince most of those travelling with him that he is absolutely sincere.

This is nothing to do with grand politics or sweeping gestures, it is about not standing by. And the prospect of failure is no excuse for not trying, he insists.

And it would also seem particularly odd if a leader of the Labour party, which prides itself on its internationalism, did not lift his eyes beyond purely domestic politics.

It comes as a shock to realise that Tony Blair is the first British prime minister since Harold Macmillan 30 years ago to visit Ghana and the first ever to come to Senegal.

'Crisis, what crisis?'

It is probably fair to say that for a generation or more, British politicians have been running scared of getting involved in the problems of huge parts of this continent.

Tony Blair
Critics have questioned Mr Blair's motives
There is good reason for that.

As the prime minister has discovered, critics will attack you for allegedly turning your back on domestic problems - Jim Callaghan's "crisis, what crisis" being the best example.

Then there is the high probability of failure.

Only a fool would suggest the poverty, internal strife and economic problems of Africa can be solved over night or as the result of the intervention of one man.

Lastly there is the ever-present danger that the relatively benign regime you have been working with one day suddenly turns into a monster of repression and torture the next.

Grandstanding claims

So it is by far the safest option to look away until the occasional eruption of public outrage turns into demands for action - such as Band Aid.

When Tony Blair set off on his latest mission, the cynics he so despises claimed he was grandstanding and engaging in a fool's errand.

They claimed his trip was more about boosting his post 11 September image as the most engaged leader in the west than genuinely trying to do something positive.

And it is certainly the case that his globetrotting has helped raise his standing in the world and strengthen his position at home.

Concrete proposals

It was also claimed that he had nothing to offer the countries of western Africa beyond warm words and sympathy.

There was plenty of that during the four days, but there were also moves towards concrete proposals on issues like conflict resolution and the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad) which should yield significant results at the next G8 meeting in Canada in June.

The prime minister's visit may not have produced instant results but it would be hard to argue that it achieved nothing

Plans to help train and organise local peacekeeping forces, to remove trade barriers and to combat corruption should, at least, provide a good starting point in what all agree will be a mammoth task.

The prime minister's visit may not have produced instant results but it would be hard to argue that it achieved nothing.

His critics will have their work cut out trying to make political capital out of this particular piece of "global grandstanding."

The BBC's Nick Robinson
"Partnership has been the theme of this trip"
Tony Blair
talks to the BBC's Nick Robinson about action needed to be taken after his trip to Africa
Shadow Foreign Secretary Michael Ancram
"I think he has been in the wrong part of Africa at the wrong time"
See also:

10 Feb 02 | Africa
Blair seeks support for Africa
10 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Sierra Leone opens its arms to Blair
09 Feb 02 | Africa
Blair praises Sierra Leone troops
08 Feb 02 | Africa
Blair targets African dictators
08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Perils of a globetrotting PM
07 Feb 02 | UK Politics
In Africa with Blair
07 Feb 02 | Africa
Blair begins African tour
09 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Blair gets African message
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