Tony Blair is back in Africa, somewhere he is committed to "healing". But what is it about the continent that troubles the consciences of politicians, pop stars and privileged school children? The prime minister is revisiting Africa three years after describing it as "a scar on the conscience of the world". His determination to help is mirrored by thousands of Britons who go there to try and make a difference.

Taking Africa in Hand

By Tom Geoghegan (October 6, 2006)

Africa has long been a "cause" for Westerners, often with good reason. While other parts of the developing world are moving forward, many African states are worse off than at any time in living memory.

Mr Blair's taskforce, the Commission for Africa, is meeting in Ethiopia and there is hope this initiative can succeed where others have failed.

But there are perhaps deeper reasons which help to explain Africa's enduring magnetism for altruists.

Ethiopia, which is hosting the current session of Mr Blair's commission, is seen by some as the spiritual home for the "African cause". It's a notion which harks back to Jonathan Dimbleby's noted broadcasts about the famine there in 1972 and continued by the Michael Buerk reports which famously stung Bob Geldof into action.

With his Live Aid extravaganza, Geldof, an Irish pop star, helped raise £90m and provided an ideological focus for youngsters in the Thatcher years.

The teenagers who saw those images of starving children and witnessed the landmark fundraising of 1984 and 85 are now approaching 40 and some are taking time out of work to volunteer on projects there.

Similarly gap year students, often from well-heeled backgrounds, have a history of travelling to Africa to lend a hand on development projects.

Christian Socialism

But is this huge and diverse land in danger of becoming condensed into a single issue - as a helpless recipient?

"People have particular images of Africa," says Dr Ian Taylor, lecturer in African politics at the University of St Andrews.

"On the one hand, wildlife and smiling natives, and on the other misery and begging. Aid agencies and politicians are quite adept at exploiting these images for fundraising or publicity-seeking, though some have genuine motives."

Band Aid raised millions but did not fundamentally change life in Ethiopia and it was media-driven whereas change must come from within, he says.

Dr Taylor says Mr Blair, as a Christian socialist, undoubtedly believes he can be a force for good. His hands-on approach to the continent was echoed by the appearance of another pop star, Bono, at the Labour Party conference last week, urging more help for Africa.

But post-Iraq, Africa can be exploited in a way the volatile political sensitivities of the Middle East prevent the same treatment, he warns.

"Africa is ripe for gesture politics because it's low-cost financially and low-cost politically. It makes good headlines, shows you care and plugs into New Labour imagery. But if nothing is achieved, then no-one expected much and they can blame others."

Career Boost

Gap-year students who go to Africa as volunteers fall into several categories, he says. "They may want to do something valuable or have the paternalistic attitude of 'I can help save the world.' Or maybe they want something for their career and CV."

They also usually have money behind them, because many volunteer groups demand individuals fund their own stay.

Ahmed Rajab, editor of Africa Analysis, says "gappers" get more out of it than the Africans because they come back richer in experience and their CVs look good.

"I don't object to those motives because they have to get on in life. The most important thing is that the Third World is not exploited and that people come with humility and don't think they know it all."

Britain's colonial legacy cannot be ignored in helping to explain our draw to Africa, says Patrick Smith, editor of news magazine Africa Confidential.

Tony Blair's "scar on our consciences" speech patronised Africa and reflects a deeper misconception shared by individuals who go to Africa to help, says Mr Smith.

"Because of Britain's colonial links, there may be people who want to atone for that and get it off their conscience. Whether it does any good is a different matter. What we really need to do is get resources into African education and the African health service."

It's easy to get cynical, but Africa's magnetism can be a help, not just a hindrance, says Professor Kenneth King, director of the Centre of African Studies in Edinburgh. He says Africans have a tremendous appetite to learn, despite the poor education system.

"The kind of problems you find in British inner city schools are not found in Lagos or Nairobi," says Professor King. "So an 18-year-old going to help in a school there will find an extraordinary determination to learn.

"But the media has projected Africa as a recipient, a place that needs help, so 18-year-olds go there as donors, rather than listeners or co-learners."

Originally appeared in BBC News Online Magazine.