Well, yes, but "¦

BBC2 If "¦ we stop giving aid to Africa, Sunday June 27, 7pm

The BBC blurb really did not do this drama-documentary justice. It turned out not to be another Geldofesque exercise in simplistic thinking, but a thought-provoking insight into aid and charity work in Africa - even if, stuck within the parameters of the current capitalist order, it was unable to come up with anything approaching an alternative. The programme was exceptionally well shot and the images of a green Africa challenged the stereotypical view of sand dunes, deserts and scrubland many of us have in the west. As the main character commented, "Africa's not meant to be like this." Throughout, the programme challenged the ideas we have about this vast continent - the place, its people and the way in which we look upon it as a needy charity case and a 'good cause'. The unreported side of charity and aid in Africa was revealed through the character of Ben Swale, an aid worker who is drawn into an increasingly complex moral confusion, where charity seems to do as much harm as good. The programme is set in 2015 and is a reflection of his life and work until 2005, when he is killed in Rwanda. The process of aid in Africa runs parallel to his character's development and his death seems to symbolise the end of the road that aid and charity work has reached in their attempts at improving conditions. Introduced to his character through interviews with friends, family and his ex-girlfriend, it was difficult to remember he was not real. Contemporary news footage combined with photographs and extracts from letters written by the characters helped you understand Ben and his refusal to give up. You felt a real connection with him and his aspirations as an aid worker. The character was incredibly genuine and you could really understand the change seen in him from the young and enthusiastic graduate, out to save the world, to the cynical man tied down in endless bureaucracy struggling to make some inch of progress. It became clear that he knew deep down that he was not making significant headway and the character became increasingly agitated with his inability to do more. Frustrated, Ben began working on sanitation projects - the "real nitty gritty of unreported aid work". The misconceptions of Africa, the lack of understanding and communication were all shown when western charities sent top-quality wooden toilet seats that were completely inappropriate for the latrines being built. Other examples included starving Somalis being sent heartburn tablets and Mozambicans given high-heeled shoes. People did not appear to realise that second-hand clothes do not plough fields or cast fishing nets. The programme was a particularly personal account and the love story with fellow aid worker Charlotte Keane mirrored his affair with Africa. We saw them both become gradually more disillusioned with their work and question the impact of their efforts. The two grew apart and when Charlotte returned home Ben became visibly more sceptical of aid organisations and charities and angry at the lack of results. Raising awareness on various news interviews, he was clearly passionate about his work, but there was also something vacuous about what he said. He seemed to be striving for something which he knew he would never achieve but was unable to give up. The more interviews he did for different aid projects, the more he began to repeat the same arguments, betraying his fury at the lack of progress and change. Whatever project he worked on, he was undermined by the same problems of bureaucracy and graft. Talking from a comfortable living room in middle England, his parents gave an insight into Ben Swale, the boy and son, and detached him from the fiery activist seen in other footage. As characters, they epitomised the differences between the west and the 'third world' and did not seem to entirely understand their son's reasons for living in Africa. They were proud of him but at times appeared amused at his outspokenness and almost patronising in relation to his passion. To this extent they were the embodiment of well-meaning Brits, genuinely caring people who do not understand the politics of charity work in Africa and the consequences of it. The programme challenged the general assumption that charity is good. Yet it did not do so dismissively or aggressively. Instead, there was a reluctant realisation by those working for such organisations that, despite the efforts of so many dedicated people, charity can never deliver what it promises - even if it did not quite conclude that this is because, at root, charity can only but prop up the existing, exploitative and corrupt, order. I am sure there really are people like Ben Swale, his sister and his girlfriend. People who are fighting for aid to Africa, whilst also recognising that somehow it is not the way forward. In a sense, Ben symbolised the process of charity and aid to Africa in that he began so enthusiastically, caught up in the wave of desire to help, but in the end was swamped by the endless bureaucracy and killed by corrupt forces. Like charity, Ben Swale could only go so far in his work before he was held back and prevented from doing any more by the system itself. He had had so much potential, but the way in which it was used was misguided and ultimately self-defeating and damaging. At the start, the programme posed the question, if we were to stop giving aid to Africa, would we force people to stand on their own two feet or would we be pulling the ground out from underneath them? The answer offered was that aid has been effective when used appropriately. Yet Africans were shown to be unemployed whilst British aid workers built them toilets and schools. The programme asked why Africans could not be trained to do it themselves and escape from the 'culture of dependency' created and maintained by aid and charity work. But it did not question the national and global class relations that, time and time again, condemn the efforts of the Ben Swales of this world to futility. Simply cancelling the debt and doubling aid, as proposed by Geldof, would make very little or no difference to most ordinary Africans. The programme mentioned a typical year when African loan repayments to creditors was the equivalent of 80% of aid given to the continent. Aid is wrapped up with business and donor countries guarantee they benefit more than those receiving aid. Eight hundred million people live in Africa and the land is rich in resources. Yet capitalism has dedeveloped it and no drip-feed of aid and debt cancellation can put that right. The 'culture of dependency' is integral to the whole process. This drama-documentary tackled head-on the belief that charity is helping Africa. It proposed that charity does more harm than good and lines the pockets of dictators. Well, yes, but "¦ what is the answer? Just pull the plug and leave it to 'fair trade' and a non-exploitative capitalism? Or is it possible to envisage a genuine force for change, in the shape of the internationally organised working class? l Emily Branson