Wednesday, October 03, 2007

No More Aid to Africa?

Via We Live Our Lives Among Giants, a distinctly heterodox take on foreign aid, and in particular aid to Africa.
Here, eight year-olds toting AK-47s massacre whole villages and eccentric dictators feast on the organs of the opposition, believing it’ll boost their mojo. Tsetse flies nibble on the eyelids of starving children who sport distended bellies like it’s their birthright, not to mention the fact that by the time you finish reading this article, another six Africans will die from malaria, five from AIDS, and seventeen from poverty and hunger. Also, the wildlife is beautiful and the people like to dance and sing.

That’s Africa, and it’s in desperate need of our help. Luckily, a few enlightened megastars from America and Europe have come to save it.

Curiously, not all the natives are grateful.

Last month, world leaders and Bono met in Heiligendamm, Germany for the G8 summit to renew their commitment to increase aid to Africa. Vanity Fair’s special Africa issue, edited by the man himself, hit newsstands with 20 celebrity covers, a gaggle of celebrity writers, and a conspicuous shortage of Africans.

Meanwhile in Arusha, Tanzania, at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference, a group of the continent’s intellectual elite issued a very different plea: stop flooding Africa with aid. Since 1984, an assortment of Silicon Valley billionaires, child prodigies, ex-presidents, artistic geniuses, mad scientists, and movie stars have descended on Monterrey, California for TED, for an annual event The Economist called “Davos for optimists.” Three weeks ago, TED held its first-ever conference in Africa, bringing together trademark optimism with an even more humbling sort of A-list.

Eleni Gabre-Madhin, a World Bank economist, returned to her native Ethiopia to start a commodities exchange to prevent future famines. Daniel Annerose invented software in Senegal that allows farmers to track market prices via SMS text messaging. Alieu Conteh built the first cellular network in the Congo, Florence Seriki, Nigeria’s first computer manufacturing company.

Then there’s William Kamkwamba, the undisputed showstopper, a teenager from rural Malawi who, at age fourteen, built a windmill from plastic scrap and an old bicycle frame that generates enough electricity to light his family’s house.

These speakers were selected to support a thesis, painfully obvious but somehow radical in this age: Africa won’t be “saved” by aid, but by the ingenuity and determination of its own people.

Andrew Mwenda, an outspoken Ugandan journalist who was jailed last year for criticizing President Museveni, lambasted the Western world’s “international cocktail of good intentions” for robbing Africa of its future. After all, what country has ever gotten rich from aid? What Africa needs is investment.

For the thousands of foreign-educated lawyers, businessmen, and architects from the Diaspora who are leaving cushy corporate jobs corporate jobs to return home with their skills and their dynamism to open businesses, it’s about creating wealth, not reducing poverty. Africa is not a victim in need of saving: it’s a land of opportunity.

Kenyan economist James Shikwati, who in advance of the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles famously asked rich nations, “for God’s sake, please just stop” giving Africa aid, thinks even misery is an opportunity.

We can fight malaria by distributing free mosquito nets, which may cost $10-$60 each by the time you get them down often impassable dirt roads. Or, as Shikwati suggests, we can train locals how to operate a business spraying homes with an insecticide that will keep them mosquito-free for six months at about $2 a family.

We can spend billions importing medication, or you can invest in local farms that grow the Artemisinin, a Chinese herb with potent anti-malarial properties, and the factories that process it.

We can continue the endless cycle of need and dependency, or you can create jobs, develop indigenous capacity, and build a sustainable future.

Aid not only crowds out local entrepreneurship, it makes governments lazy and deprives countries of the incentive to build effective institutions. Public revenue derived from taxes makes governments directly responsible to their citizens. Free money builds white elephants and bloated bureaucracies, it being far easier to create new government jobs than implement policies to fight unemployment, especially when someone else is footing the bill.

The perverse result is that many of Africa’s best and brightest become bureaucrats or NGO workers when they should be scientists or entrepreneurs. Which is why some are wondering: why not just take the aid money and invest in local business?
Nothing here, of course, suggests that emergency aid in a crisis is a bad idea. But the notion of Africa as a perpetual do-gooder project for elites from the First World is not only demeaning to Africans, it’s counter-productive.

Here, as with so many issues, there is a conflict between what makes affluent elites feel good, and what actually helps poor people.

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