Western Aid isn’t Working in Africa Part III

These days, it’s gotten so bad in Africa that the discussion doesn’t bother with “What’s wrong?” anymore.  It runs immediately to “How bad is it?”  Human suffering in less than biblical proportions isn’t even reported in the Western press and aid agencies answer their phones with “What fresh Hell is this?”  The expectations for the continent are so low that the stated purpose of most international organizations is merely to minimize the damage – recovery and stability are no longer on the table.  The recurring cycle of aid and disaster has destroyed everything in its path except the rhetoric. And that just regurgitates “We need to deal with the root causes of poverty and hunger.” without ever looking beyond the Zeitgeist of well-meaning dollars donated for wrong-headed reasons.  One economist, Dambisa Moyo, however, has looked at the roots of poverty and hunger in Africa.  Using undisputable numbers, she has drawn a direct connection between Western aid and widespread African suffering.  She states categorically that aid is the problem and it needs to be stopped.

Moyo believes that the West should quit thinking of Africa as a basket case and start thinking of it as an economic opportunity because, in strictly economic terms, Africa is the Garden of Eden.  The continent is huge.  It has a bounty of natural resources.  Its climate for the most part is made for unlimited agriculture. Africa could, and should, be able to feed itself within a generation.  It has safe renewable sources of energy from the sun and the wind.  Its people are willing to learn, willing to work and they want to improve their lives.  The labour force is abundant and inexpensive.  Africa is, in fact, the last economic frontier where locally developed commerce could challenge the multinational strangle hold industry has on our world.  Moyo says that all we need to do is change our attitude.

For example, tourism, the world’s largest, cleanest and most sustainable industry could bring untold billions to the continent.  Wild Africa could become a primo destination for Western and Asian tourist dollars.  Photo safaris alone could generate employment for hundreds of thousands of people directly and possibly millions more indirectly.  The potential is virtually unlimited because Africa is overflowing with zoological diversity and botanical wonders.  Camels wander the deserts of the north and penguin colonies thrive along the southern seas.  Nature could be Africa’s ticket out of poverty without ever having to chop it down or dig it up.  And this is only one example; there are thousands more.

Moyo says that these opportunities are everywhere across Africa waiting for seed money, expertise and the vision to realize them — clothing manufacturing in Ghana, solar power in Mali, water pumps in Zaire and on and on.  The problem is Western attitudes are stuck in a time warp forever revolving around charity.  Moyo says Africans don’t want charity.  They want electricity, clean water and a job.  They want to be able to feed their kids and send them to school.  They want to drink beer on Saturday and watch the football game.  They want the stability and safety good government brings to local lives so their kids can have a better life than they do.  And Moyo says the only way that’s going to happen is if local people have a vested interest in their community and use the resources available to improve it.  Ownership breeds pride and responsibility, literally and symbolically, whether it be individual property or villages, towns and cities.  Aid, handouts, charity or whatever we want to call it this week, kills that.

Moyo maintains that the best solution to the massive problems of Africa is relatively easy.  People in the West have to quit thinking about Africans as half witted cousins who can’t seem to get it right.  They need to see Africa and Africans as poor cousins who need some assistance, which is not free for the asking.  Africans should be considered equal partners in development not just unequal recipients of well-meaning Western generosity.  She suggests that all developmental aid to Africa should be phased out over a five year period.  She believes that with a Western attitude adjustment, this is enough time to replace aid money with investment money.

This isn’t just theory and chatter.  Here’s a curious example.  Somaliland, an independent rebel province of Somalia, is not recognized as a legitimate government.  It receives no aid from anybody.  Yet, situated on the top end of the train wreck that is Somalia, this area has not only survived, it has thrived.  The people there are building a nation.  They have a responsible government which is, in fact, one of the few Islamic democracies in the world and the only one – so far – which was home grown.  Surrounded by famine, warlords and pirates these people seem to be doing something right without the benefit of Western largesse.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the continent, China, which gives very little direct aid to Africa, is investing billions developing industry and agriculture – and it’s working.   Wherever Chinese money goes, Africans are benefiting.  They’re working, feeding themselves, sending their kids to school and demanding better services from their government.  All the things Western aid is supposed to do but doesn’t.  The Chinese model is less than perfect but it’s better than what was there before.

In the end, Moyo’s theories may be a bit radical but, whether you agree with her or not, you have to admit that what we’ve been doing in Africa isn’t working.  Maybe it’s time to try something else.

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