Book reviews

24 October 2010

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Why aid has become one of Africa's biggest problems

Foreign donor organisations often end up exacerbating issues that require local solutions, writes Greg Mills

"African leaders can become more accountable to donors than their electorate "

You can date the decline of the continent, observes the colonial “Oldest Member' caricature in Michael Holman's vivid and entertaining new novel, Dizzy Womws, by the decay of its buildings, farms and institutions, what he terms "rings on Africa's post-independence trunk".

Holman's story is set in the slums of Kuwisha, a bustling African capital, around which_aid consultants flock and locals, in the African tradition, "make a plan" to survive.

Kuwisha could be Kenya, and Kireba its teeming slum. Then again, it is possible to envisage many African personalities and spots in Holman's writing: the Thumaiga Club where the cantankerous OM carries out his "unceasing battle against the follies of post-independence life"; and his description of State_,House might be Lusaka, where Kenneth Kaunda‘s nine-hole golf course has sunk into disrepair, and where "the air conditioners creaked and groaned to little effect, and the ceiling fans spun sporadically and erratically, and did no more than move the heavy wamt air about the poorly lit rooms“.

Dizzy Worms is enriched by Holman's characters, from the proprietor of the Harrods' lntemational Bar (and Nightspot), Charity Mupanga; and Ngwazi, Who Mounts all the Hens, President Dr Josiah Nduka, President for Life; to Digby Adams, Senior International Profile Co-ordinator and Cross-Cutting Media Expert for Wor|dFeed, the Oxford-based aid agency.

lt's also possible to see Holman himself, a long-time Africa editor of the Financial Times, in Cecil Pearson, the world-weary "Africa hand", though he may take exception, given Pearson‘s pricking of his boredom by preying on Norwegian aid types at stultifying African Union conferences.

Holman's own experience includes a year under a restriction order in the '60s in then Gwelo, Zimbabwe, due to his student "trouble-making activities" against lan Smith's regime. His knowledge of that country, too, and its idiosyncrasies shines through in the text - not least in the person of Didymus Kigali, elder in the Church of the Blessed Lamb, and circumspect steward to a retired London banker.

But Holman describes much more than places and people. His target is the aid community for attempting to help itself by helping Africa. His message is consistent with his earlier two novels, Last Orders at Harrods and Fat Boy and the Dancing Ladies, in the trilogy: African development is going to rely on local identification and ownership of its challenges. He also makes a profound analytical point in asking: what will it take for Africa to do better? The answer is partly in understanding better why policy decisions are made in the way they are.

Holman has spent much of his novel-writing time in Kenya, at an idyllic spot near Msambweni, south of Mombasa. But why is the ticket from Dar es Salaam in neighbouring Tanzania to Mombasa - little more than an hour's flight- more expensive than Europe to New York? En route to Msambweni, one can queue for ages to get the Mombasa ferry south. Why has no one built a bridge or an alternative route in the last half century of independence?

The reasons can often be found in poor decisions, and their origins are in the vested interests of politicians. African leaders can get away with poor results, as Holman points out, because, in a perverse cycle, aid distorts the link of accountability between the populace and its leadership. It makes the latter more responsive to donors than their electorate since that is where the money is.

The former UK High Commissioner to Kenya, Sir Edward Clay, tried to change this relationship by declaring in 2004 that the gluttony of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki‘s government caused them to "vomit all over our shoes". Clay's campaign eamed simultaneously the respect and apprehension of his own ministry and Kenya‘s government, both of which feared consequences for the distribution of British aid to Kenya. ln the case of the Foreign and Commonwealth Ofhce (FCO), they were most worried about their relations with the Department for lnternational Development (DflD).

(Clay's alienation was not complete until he fell out in late 2006 with No 10 and DflD over his public criticism of Prime Minister Tony Blair“s interference with the Serious Fraud Office‘s inquiries into BAe Systems'

business. As Clay highlighted the contradiction between the politicisation of British business activities and the UK government‘s lecturing of other governments - in Africa and the EU - on the necessity of the rule of law, due process, and so on, Whitehall vindictively withdrew a minor part-time job he had been recruited for after his retirement.)

In Africa, there is seldom a cost to leadership's bad behaviour or bad decisions, in part because humanitarian agencies genuflect to backstop even the most egregious of governments and policies - such as their ongoing activities to feed Robert Mugabe's people despite the origins of their hunger in the Zimbabwean leaders actions.

"So what has happened to the bloody social contract" snorts Holman's OM. "lf you are starving, the UN will feed you; if the mozzies are killing your kids, Bill Gates will provide a mosquito net; if your road needs rebuilding, UKAid or DanAid will help; if no water, WaterAid will dig a few wells; if the railway is falling apart" - he tapped that day's paper, with its ads for UN posts - "WorldFeed will bring in a foreigner to co-ordinate and help out."

As Pearson makes to leave Kuwisha in the company of Lucy, the outgoing WorldFeed representative, making way for a new generation of imperialists in the form of aid activists and consultants, they conclude they did not do much good. "All your editorials, news stories and features, Pearson, did they amount to a row of beans?" asks Lucy. His reply: "About as effective, I suspect, as your projects, and the briefings and press releases that you issued in the name of WorldFeed."

But the message of the novel is much deeper than the personal ambitions of the individual characters. lt is about their effect on Africa. Holman puts his linger on this in citing W E B du Bois's question of over a century ago, then about African Americans but pertinent to Africa of today: "How does it feel to be a problem?"

Until that mentality changes, as does the pity, excuses and soft money that go with it, Africa has little chance of holding its leaders to account and escaping its poverty trap.

Dr Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation. His latest book, Why Africa is Poor:

And what Africans can do about it (Penguin) was published in August