By Aaron Sekhri
“Africa, for me, is an endless source of fascination, inspiration and challenge,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair told a packed audience Thursday in Cemex Auditorium. “I am fascinated by its possibilities, inspired by its spirit and challenged by the immensity of its problems, which ache for solutions.”
Blair’s talk, titled “A New Approach To A New Africa,” focused on using “effective governance” as a tool to develop partnerships between African and Western countries. The Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) and the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) co-sponsored the event.
Blair spoke in detail about the challenges he sees in Africa’s future, his opinions on how to address them and the work of his own initiative, the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), which works with several African nations to address development problems from the executive branch downward.
Blair began his talk by expressing optimism for Africa’s future, but also cited numerous hindrances to the continent’s development, such as inadequate food supplies, energy concerns, disease and poor or non-existent infrastructure.
“Today my focus is not [on] what we can give, but how we can partner,” he said.
Blair emphasized the advisory role his organization pursues, as opposed to “a dependency between developing and developed nations.”
Citing governance as “the distinguishing feature of successful emerging nations,” Blair said this means more than “simply honest government,” but an “effective government.”
He proceeded to give five “illustrations” of his assertion, outlining the role of the executive branch, infrastructure, foreign investment, education and healthcare, and social capital. Characterizing his organization as “differing from traditional consultants,” Blair argued that AGI “did not simply fly in and fly out, but works hard on transferring skills.” He outlined the key principles of AGI, which he said are working directly with the “key decision-maker” and focusing on “prioritization.”
“Show me a leader with 100 priorities, and I will show you someone who will achieve nothing,” Blair said.
He then discussed the progress AGI has made in countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia by coordinating on investments in the energy sector. According to Blair, putting resources into these types of efforts was more fruitful than small-scale projects.
“[Small-scale projects] may be very worthy in themselves, but don’t get a nation on its feet,” he said.
Echoing his belief in partnership, and drawing lessons from a variety of sources, Blair said that emerging nations should, in the spheres of education and healthcare, “leapfrog many of the constraints and limitations which the legacy of our systems have created.”
He also discussed the role of technology, which he said can be “something that generates extraordinary waves of emotion, feeling and impact.” Noting Stanford’s inextricable link to Silicon Valley, Blair challenged the audience to innovate and design new technologies to be leveraged for political good.
Blair followed his formal address with a conversation with Graduate School of Business (GSB) Dean Garth Saloner, during which he remarked on the difficulties of managing political realities with the public expectations.
“In my profession, you start as the most popular and least capable, and you leave the least popular but most capable,” Blair said.
He then praised the leadership philosophy of Lee Kuan Yew, stating that “the best leaders do not care who brings the expertise, but just is concerned with getting the job done.”
Blair noted that the world is experiencing “a paradigm change, where footloose capital coming from China, India and other countries means investors are looking for new opportunities.” According to Blair, African nations could benefit from this shift if they are able to “get their private sector framework right.”
Student sentiments toward Blair’s visit varied, with roughly 20 students protesting Blair’s alleged war crimes in the Iraq War, and the fact that the University allowed him to speak on campus.
Nicholas Moores ‘15, who attended the event, said he thought it was well-received.
“I thought that he presented a clear, progressive, perhaps simplistic at times, but overall, open-minded agenda to allow Africa to set the government framework it needs to, and ultimately take the matter of development into its own hands,” Moores said.