Monday, 11 June 2007

Killing Africa with kindness

Anyone with half a brain can understand that modern Africa's issues stem from the large amounts of aid that pour in from 'compassionate' Western countries looking to help in the only way they know how. What this aid has done is to prop up tinpot dictatorships and corrupt leaders, promote inefficiency and, paradoxically, increase dependency and helplessness.

My family lived in Kenya for three years due to my father's diplomatic posting there. His official duties included representing the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Environment Program and the UN Commission on Human Settlements. In his career he served as a United Nations rapporteur and was a representative on the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, handling human rights and associated issues. One of the reasons that I get stuck into the UN for its corruption and fecklessness as much as I do is because of the greater understanding I gained of the organisation due to my father's interactions with it.

The corruption we saw in Kenya (and in trips to other African nations) was not only endemic but also, in a sense, tribal in that in Africa it's understood that the chief owns all of the tribe's assets to do with as he sees fit. Paying off one's supporters is a key part of propping up any corrupt official's ongoing tenure and that's what we saw in spades. In one glaring instance of corruption, a certain aid organisation made a one million dollar donation to Kenya, which went straight into the President's pocket. No questions asked.

There is a general naivety in rich nations regarding corruption in Africa. People see leaders such as Zimbabwe's lunatic Robert Mugabe wrecking their countries and respond by not only ignoring the cause of people's plight but also turning a blind eye to massive corruption at the highest levels. To understand how massive it actually is, it's estimated that 80% of Zimbabwe's budget is now spent on paying off Mugabe's supporters including the military, police, government officials and business associates.

As an aside, the reason that World Bank chief, Paul Wolfowitz, was forced to resign is that he brought an attitude of cleaning up the bank's lending practices, tying loans to improved governance. The Europeans, with their vested interests in maintaining the gravy train status quo, didn't like that too much and took action as soon as they had an opportunity.

The naivety that allows people to ignore Africa's corruption is based on a misunderstanding of the depth of corruption that actually exists there. They see corruption as being something like that which brought down Enron and Worldcom or the corrupt activities of someone like Congressman William Jefferson. What these people miss is that corruption occurs at every level in the system. Get pulled up by the police for any offence - slip them some money. Go to the department of motor vehicles to get your licensed renewed and, if you want it done at all then - slip them some money. The amount of money paid determines the speed of response. Corruption is endemic, and expected, throughout nearly all of Africa.

What is the rich nations' response to this ongoing bad behaviour? To reward it - in the name of compassion. As any judge or lawyer will tell you, what gets rewarded gets repeated.

Why, then, do rich nations continue to provide massive amounts of aid to Africa if it's untied to any actual outcome? Basically, it's to buy the votes of these countries in international organisations such as the UN and to smooth the way for business interests to be able to operate to their advantage. Reality? Yes. Cynical? Absolutely.

Given all of that, it comes as a pleasant surprise for a leading Kenyan economist to speak out against aid in order to force Africa to face its own issues and solve its own problems. As he points out - before Europeans got involved in the place they took pretty good care of themselves.

Here's the interview with Germany's Der Spiegel:
The Kenyan economics expert James Shikwati, 35, says that aid to Africa does more harm than good. The avid proponent of globalization spoke with SPIEGEL about the disastrous effects of Western development policy in Africa, corrupt rulers, and the tendency to overstate the AIDS problem.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Shikwati, the G8 summit at Gleneagles is about to beef up the development aid for Africa...

Shikwati: ... for God's sake, please just stop.

SPIEGEL: Stop? The industrialized nations of the West want to eliminate hunger and poverty.

Shikwati: Such intentions have been damaging our continent for the past 40 years. If the industrial nations really want to help the Africans, they should finally terminate this awful aid. The countries that have collected the most development aid are also the ones that are in the worst shape. Despite the billions that have poured in to Africa, the continent remains poor.

SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation for this paradox?

Shikwati: Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa's problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn't even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit. Which is why they maintain that the world would stop turning without this development aid.
Take note of that, people, as it's a very, very important thing to understand. "If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn't even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit." One reason people would use to not stop giving aid is that it would hurt those at the bottom of the pile. The fact is they don't see any of it anyway.
SPIEGEL: Even in a country like Kenya, people are starving to death each year. Someone has got to help them.

Shikwati: But it has to be the Kenyans themselves who help these people. When there's a drought in a region of Kenya, our corrupt politicians reflexively cry out for more help. This call then reaches the United Nations World Food Program -- which is a massive agency of apparatchiks who are in the absurd situation of, on the one hand, being dedicated to the fight against hunger while, on the other hand, being faced with unemployment were hunger actually eliminated. It's only natural that they willingly accept the plea for more help. And it's not uncommon that they demand a little more money than the respective African government originally requested. They then forward that request to their headquarters, and before long, several thousands tons of corn are shipped to Africa ...

SPIEGEL: ... corn that predominantly comes from highly-subsidized European and American farmers ...

Shikwati: ... and at some point, this corn ends up in the harbor of Mombasa. A portion of the corn often goes directly into the hands of unscrupulous politicians who then pass it on to their own tribe to boost their next election campaign. Another portion of the shipment ends up on the black market where the corn is dumped at extremely low prices. Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away; no one can compete with the UN's World Food Program. And because the farmers go under in the face of this pressure, Kenya would have no reserves to draw on if there actually were a famine next year. It's a simple but fatal cycle.

SPIEGEL: If the World Food Program didn't do anything, the people would starve.

Shikwati: I don't think so. In such a case, the Kenyans, for a change, would be forced to initiate trade relations with Uganda or Tanzania, and buy their food there. This type of trade is vital for Africa. It would force us to improve our own infrastructure, while making national borders -- drawn by the Europeans by the way -- more permeable. It would also force us to establish laws favoring market economy.

SPIEGEL: Would Africa actually be able to solve these problems on its own?

Shikwati: Of course. Hunger should not be a problem in most of the countries south of the Sahara. In addition, there are vast natural resources: oil, gold, diamonds. Africa is always only portrayed as a continent of suffering, but most figures are vastly exaggerated. In the industrial nations, there's a sense that Africa would go under without development aid. But believe me, Africa existed before you Europeans came along. And we didn't do all that poorly either.

SPIEGEL: But AIDS didn't exist at that time.

Shikwati: If one were to believe all the horrifying reports, then all Kenyans should actually be dead by now. But now, tests are being carried out everywhere, and it turns out that the figures were vastly exaggerated. It's not three million Kenyans that are infected. All of the sudden, it's only about one million. Malaria is just as much of a problem, but people rarely talk about that.

SPIEGEL: And why's that?

Shikwati: AIDS is big business, maybe Africa's biggest business. There's nothing else that can generate as much aid money as shocking figures on AIDS. AIDS is a political disease here, and we should be very skeptical.
Sounds like global warming alarmism, doesn't it?
SPIEGEL: The Americans and Europeans have frozen funds previously pledged to Kenya. The country is too corrupt, they say.

Shikwati: I am afraid, though, that the money will still be transferred before long. After all, it has to go somewhere. Unfortunately, the Europeans' devastating urge to do good can no longer be countered with reason. It makes no sense whatsoever that directly after the new Kenyan government was elected -- a leadership change that ended the dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi -- the faucets were suddenly opened and streams of money poured into the country.

SPIEGEL: Such aid is usually earmarked for a specific objective, though.

Shikwati: That doesn't change anything. Millions of dollars earmarked for the fight against AIDS are still stashed away in Kenyan bank accounts and have not been spent. Our politicians were overwhelmed with money, and they try to siphon off as much as possible. The late tyrant of the Central African Republic, Jean Bedel Bokassa, cynically summed it up by saying: "The French government pays for everything in our country. We ask the French for money. We get it, and then we waste it."

SPIEGEL: In the West, there are many compassionate citizens wanting to help Africa. Each year, they donate money and pack their old clothes into collection bags ...

Shikwati: ... and they flood our markets with that stuff. We can buy these donated clothes cheaply at our so-called Mitumba markets. There are Germans who spend a few dollars to get used Bayern Munich or Werder Bremen jerseys, in other words, clothes that that some German kids sent to Africa for a good cause. After buying these jerseys, they auction them off at Ebay and send them back to Germany -- for three times the price. That's insanity ...

SPIEGEL: ... and hopefully an exception.

Shikwati: Why do we get these mountains of clothes? No one is freezing here. Instead, our tailors lose their livelihoods. They're in the same position as our farmers. No one in the low-wage world of Africa can be cost-efficient enough to keep pace with donated products. In 1997, 137,000 workers were employed in Nigeria's textile industry. By 2003, the figure had dropped to 57,000. The results are the same in all other areas where overwhelming helpfulness and fragile African markets collide.

SPIEGEL: Following World War II, Germany only managed to get back on its feet because the Americans poured money into the country through the Marshall Plan. Wouldn't that qualify as successful development aid?

Shikwati: In Germany's case, only the destroyed infrastructure had to be repaired. Despite the economic crisis of the Weimar Republic, Germany was a highly- industrialized country before the war. The damages created by the tsunami in Thailand can also be fixed with a little money and some reconstruction aid. Africa, however, must take the first steps into modernity on its own. There must be a change in mentality. We have to stop perceiving ourselves as beggars. These days, Africans only perceive themselves as victims. On the other hand, no one can really picture an African as a businessman. In order to change the current situation, it would be helpful if the aid organizations were to pull out.

SPIEGEL: If they did that, many jobs would be immediately lost ...

Shikwati: ... jobs that were created artificially in the first place and that distort reality. Jobs with foreign aid organizations are, of course, quite popular, and they can be very selective in choosing the best people. When an aid organization needs a driver, dozens apply for the job. And because it's unacceptable that the aid worker's chauffeur only speaks his own tribal language, an applicant is needed who also speaks English fluently -- and, ideally, one who is also well mannered. So you end up with some African biochemist driving an aid worker around, distributing European food, and forcing local farmers out of their jobs. That's just crazy!

SPIEGEL: The German government takes pride in precisely monitoring the recipients of its funds.

Shikwati: And what's the result? A disaster. The German government threw money right at Rwanda's president Paul Kagame. This is a man who has the deaths of a million people on his conscience -- people that his army killed in the neighboring country of Congo.
And don't forget what the French did to enable that particular slaughter.
SPIEGEL: What are the Germans supposed to do?

Shikwati: If they really want to fight poverty, they should completely halt development aid and give Africa the opportunity to ensure its own survival. Currently, Africa is like a child that immediately cries for its babysitter when something goes wrong. Africa should stand on its own two feet.
Huzzah for James Shikwati. The man has more wisdom than the combined wisdom of all the liberal arts faculties in the United States, Europe and Australia.

Giving money with no strings attached doesn't empower people it simply increases dependency.

What do you want - to assuage your 'guilty conscience' for having done well or to actually achieve positive outcomes? It's the major question facing rich nations in the 21st century.

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