Why shouldn’t Tanzania have air traffic control?

The furore over the UK's licence export for an air traffic control system in Tanzania reveals the impoverished vision of sustainable development.

John Pender

Topics Politics

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The UK Department of Trade and Industry’s decision to grant a licence for the export of a £28million BAE Systems air traffic control system to Tanzania, one of the poorest countries in the world, has been met with outrage.

The World Bank criticised the decision as inappropriate for Tanzania’s needs, as ‘too expensive and not adequate for civil aviation’ (1) – while Oxfam argued that investment in health and education should take precedence over the profits of BAE Systems. A Financial Times editorial argued against granting the export licence and for sustainable development (2), and the Guardian stated that Tanzania’s ‘prime need is sustainable economic development’: ‘It is far from clear why Tanzania, a nation which does not seem to be threatened by much in the way of air attack, requires such a system.’ (3)

Even the New Labour government is said to be split over the issue, with chancellor Gordon Brown and international development secretary Clare Short apparently opposed to the air traffic control system as an unproductive way for a poor country to spend its limited resources. The media have struggled to find anybody willing to defend the deal, and even leading government figures who are said to support it, including prime minister Tony Blair and defence secretary Geoff Hoon, have steered well clear of the debate.

Critics of the deal point to compelling statistics that show how half of all households in Tanzania are unable to meet food and non-food basic requirements; that mortality rate for children under five is 158 per 1000 live births; that malaria, anaemia and pneumonia remain major killers. Surely, say the critics, we should focus on sustainable development – and put the people of Tanzania before Tanzanian defence spending and British defence exports?

The theme of ‘putting people first’ has been at the heart of recent Western development policy programmes in Africa. Development policies for the poorest countries are no longer about making the transition from a low income to a middle income country. Today’s aim is ‘sustainable development’ – a notion infused with suspicion towards broader development strategies that focus on achieving real economic growth and modernisation.

Instead, sustainable development places far greater emphasis on meeting the perceived basic needs of the most marginalised and poorest in society. So contemporary development policy doesn’t ‘put people first’ – it focuses on a minority.

This new agenda has been put into practice in Tanzania, through the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) – which in the poorest countries has replaced the discredited Structural Adjustment Programme as the basis for access to desperately needed debt relief, aid and other financial flows. Poor countries must now organise their entire development strategy, not towards economic growth and eventual independence from the aid process, but towards meeting the very basic needs of the poorest sections of society.

Tanzania’s PRSP was initiated in August 2000 and commits state spending to focus on basic education, primary health, rural roads, the judiciary, agricultural research and extension, and treating HIV/AIDS. So it envisages that basic education alone will consume a quarter of government expenditure by financial year 2002/03 (4). This means that while the Tanzanian government plans to increase funds for the development of basic education from 173.3billion Tanzania shillings in 2001/02 to 215.5billion in 2003/04, it plans to decrease the funds available for the development of secondary education from 8.4billion in 2001/02 to 2.6billion in 2003/04 (5). Funds to develop secondary education will be around one percent of the funds available to develop basic education.

This donor-driven reorientation of development policy in the poorest countries towards an exclusive focus on the basic needs of the very poorest is the backdrop to the outrage over the air traffic control system for Tanzania.

A much-touted justification for focusing on the poorest is the World Bank’s ‘Voices of the Poor’ initiative – where focus groups were set up to find out what the poorest people in the world really wanted. But, as the Voices of the Poor study in Tanzania showed, the poor may well be consulted but their views are distorted through the filter of the World Bank’s sustainable development outlook.

A significant finding of the Tanzania’s Voices of the Poor study was that basic education was not perceived to be a major priority, with the report noting that ‘despite the fact that the poor recognise the value of education and make much effort to send their children to school, the PPA found that lack of education was not seen by them as an important cause of poverty’ (6). Indeed, education was regarded as the number one problem only by two percent of men and one percent of women. Women regarded food shortages as the biggest problem, while men pointed to the lack of transportation. But when the views of the poorest conflict with the views of the donors, it is the donor agenda that takes overriding precedence (7).

The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the UK government claim that the new PRSP process means that the governments of poor countries are not dictated to, but can determine their own development priorities. As a recent IMF/World Bank report concluded, in Tanzania ‘the PRSP process is strongly owned domestically’ (8). In reality, whatever the outcome of the furore over Tanzania’s air traffic control system, the UK government has promised to make future military deals with Tanzania subject to stringent sustainable development criteria – illustrating how poor countries are coerced into a poverty focus that is externally dictated, rather than choosing it for themselves (9).

Critics argue that the purchase of the air traffic control system is inappropriate or unproductive. But they would oppose any project that did not fit in with the basic needs straitjacket that is being imposed on poor countries.

In fact, it is the sustainable development strategy that is inappropriate and unproductive. If the Tanzanian government focuses all available resources on meeting the basic needs of the poorest, where will the country be in 10 years time? Will the majority of people still be exceptionally poor by international standards? Yes. Will it still be highly aid dependent? Yes. Will it still be subject to the whim of shifting fashions in the donor and aid agency agendas? Yes.

The suggestion that any country in the twenty-first century should not have a modern air traffic control system is absurd. The fact that this argument gains such currency in Western society reveals an appalling lack of vision for the development of the world’s poorest countries.

Read on:

Voices of the Poor – who’s talking?, by John Pender

Third-rate technology?, by John Conroy

spiked-issue: International

(1) Cited in ‘Just what they need – a £28m air defence system’, Guardian, 18 December 2001

(2) ‘Controlling Tanzania’, Financial Times, 13 August 2001

(3) ‘Not at this price – Britain must block Tanzania deal’, Guardian, 19 December 2001

(4) ‘Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper’, United Republic of Tanzania, 1 October 2000

(5) ‘Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper Progress Report’, United Republic of Tanzania, 14 August 2001

(6) Voices of the Poor: Poverty and Social Capital in Tanzania, Deepa Narayan, Washington: World Bank, 1997

(7) Voices of the Poor: Poverty and Social Capital in Tanzania, Deepa Narayan, Washington: World Bank, 1997

(8) ‘Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper – Progress Report: Joint Staff Assessment’, Staffs of the IMF and IDA, 1 November 2001

(9) ‘From “Structural Adjustment” to “Comprehensive Development Framework”: conditionality transformed?’, John Pender, Third World Quarterly, Vol 22 no 3 2001

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Topics Politics


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