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. They promise.

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 wreck Africa?

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.

Africa Watch

Index of Website

Home Page