Don't Patronize Africa:
Give Trade, Not Aid
by Simon Jenkins
The Times, London, England, June 26, 2002
[World Press Review, September 2002]
If it is Wednesday, it must be, er, Texas, Paris, Sierra Leone,
Seville? No, it is Kananaskis in the Rocky Mountains [of Canada].
This is the protester-proof hideaway where [Prime Minister] Tony
Blair is taking his "hand of history" mission for 30
hours to talk poverty with his G-X colleagues. This time Africa
is top item. Mr. Blair has said he intends to "halve world
poverty" in 10 years, or something like that.
The Rocky Mountains poverty summit ranks with the New York
poverty summit of 2000 and the Genoa poverty summit of 2001 among
obscene re-enactments of the medieval Field of the Cloth of Gold.
Mr. Blair and his friends are oblivious to the irony of their
cavorting in the playgrounds of the rich, surrounded by ever more
fantastic protection, to discuss the poor. Thirty Canadian Mounties
reportedly collapsed vomiting at Kananaskis on Monday. We do not
know if the cause was the check or the agenda.
Why African poverty cannot be discussed on the phone, or at
least in Africa, is a mystery. On the Canadian dinner table is
a plan called a New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).
This predictably demands US $64 billion a year from the West for
health, education, roads, agriculture, and general economic development.
As usual there is a magic new ingredient. In return for receiving
the cash, African countries will pledge political reform. They
will not blow it all on war, cronyism, corruption, and kleptocracy.
On the mantelpiece in my study is a pantheon of household
gods. They are the gurus whose stern gaze holds me to the straight
and narrow whenever I am tempted by the fleshpots of conventional
wisdom. One is the Hungarian-born economist, Peter Bauer, who
died last month. A fearless intellect, Bauer served in Nigeria
in the 1950s and reached the conclusion, startling for a postwar
economist, that if you gave people lots of money for not working,
they would not work. If you gave governments lots of money, they
would not govern.
This finding so appalled his left-wing colleagues at the London
School of Economics that Bauer was treated as little short of
a nut case. His advice went unheeded and his writings ignored.
Not until Baroness [Margaret] Thatcher gave him a peerage, when
they were being awarded for merit, did anyone read Bauer. Only
then did some realize the truth of his prediction that aid to
Africa would be disastrous. By then it was too late.
The text of NEPAD would have Bauer weeping. He would see yet
more African regimes demanding money from the West with moral
menaces. Giving this aid, Bauer would point out, does not harm
the West. It eases the post-imperial conscience and wins domestic
contracts. It also excuses trade protectionism.
The real damage is done to Africans. To Bauer, Africa was
not inherently sick. "Despotism and kleptocracy do not inhere
in the nature of African cultures," he wrote. Such a neo-imperial
assumption was, to him, racist and illiberal. The poison was aid
and its consequential economic distortion and dependency. Africa
received more of it per head during 25 years than anywhere else
on Earth. Yet in Africa alone were life expectancy and standards
of living falling. A fifth of its people lived in conditions of
war. Only those contemptuous of Africa's plight could now wish
for more of the same. The scions of empire thought Africa unfit
to rule itself. That is also the assumption of modern aid.
The Canadian summit continues in this tradition. What could
be more absurd than to offer African countries billions of dollars
on condition that they refuse to allow those billions to corrupt
their politics, yet knowing that they will? What is the point
of telling politicians that to get aid they must promise free
elections and risk certain loss of office? They will promise.
They would be mad to deliver.
Bauer was not insensitive to hardship. He agreed that Africa
had long been cursed with famine and drought, "exceptional
and unforeseeable disasters" that needed the world's occasional
charity. But he also believed in self-reliance. He was horrified
at how aid promoted urbanization and impoverished agriculture.
I recall him scandalized at Nigerian doctors and nurses being
enticed to London for training and then induced by higher-paid
jobs not to return. To him such outside interference stood in
the way of Africa's economic and political maturity. We left Southeast
Asia and Latin America mostly alone. Why did we have to go and
Nobody would claim that all African aid is wasted or that
all is now in a Swiss bank account. Equally, lumping an entire
continent together under one banner of distress is crude. South
Africa, Senegal, Botswana, and Cameroon are not basket cases.
But the general argument holds. Aid corrupted even good men such
as Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda. It propped up the world's worst dictators,
from [the Central African Republic's Jean-Bedel] Bokassa and [Uganda'.s
Idi] Amin to the modern rulers of Zaire and Zimbabwe. It cursed
emerging states by denying them self-reliance.
Lobbyists hold that a poverty-stricken Africa is a breeding
ground for terrorism. They cannot believe, despite 25 years of
evidence, that the opposite might be true. Pouring cash into these
states, whatever the conditions, distorts incomes and corrupts
power bases. It is likely to be more destabilizing. I cannot see
the peace and prosperity intended by Mr. Blair's $42 million military
air-traffic-control system for Tanzania, or the $300 million of
arms with which Britain is now flooding Southern Africa. Africa
needs AIDS drugs, not Hawk jets.
The truth is that the empire never died. It lived on as aid.
African countries are treated by the West as still infant political
economies. Angola is raped for its diamonds and Sudan for its
oil. The continent is flooded with cheap loans that the West always
knew it could not sensibly repay. Trade barriers are kept high
and rising, blocking the export of African produce.
Meanwhile, British troops are in Sierra Leone with a 17,()00-strong
U.N. force ensuring political stability. In Somalia, Americans
tried to do the same. From the heights of Canada, Africa is to
be told how to conduct its politics. The moral basis for the intervention
is no different from that of the l9th century-the assumed superiority
of Western capitalism and the assumed superiority of Western governance.
What would I do? I would impose an arms embargo on Africa,
starting with Britain's Tanzanian and South African contracts.
I would restrict foreign aid to health and education projects.
I would treat all past debts as "bad" ones, as morally
corrupt. There would be no more construction contracts, no defense
agreements, kickbacks, sweeteners, commissions, or skim. There
would be no more telling Africa its business.
The one help that Africa most needs is trade. It needs Western
markets open to its primary produce. This, of course, is the one
help it will not get. George W. Bush and the G-8 leaders do not
hold with free trade; indeed, they have just raised farm subsidies
and steel tariffs to shut out foreign produce. They are protectionists
to a man. So the poorest on Earth can take their aid and say thank-you.
But they must stay poor.
Few events in the diplomatic calendar are more hypocritical
than these G8 junkets. When they pretend to tackle poverty, they
are truly revolting. I cannot think why the British prime minister,
who is not an insensitive man, feels obliged to attend. Next time
he should stay at home, donate his expenses to Oxfam, and launch
a "buy African" campaign in Trafalgar Square.