News & Comment

18 March 2005

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Africa needs confidence, not more aid

For 40 years, western-led donors have been putting money into Africa. Yet its citizens have got poorer. So how do aid ministers and NGOs justify this wasteful spending? At least we all agree on one thing; Africa is in a mess.

By Michael Holman

lt is when we come to solutions to the long-running crisis that we Afro-realists part company with Tony Blair and the Africa commission. We wonder whether the commissioners - including those from Africa -

really understand a continent whose citizens have been demonstrating their lack of confidence in the continent's future.

For decades, Africa's elites have been taking billions of dollars of donors money - not to mention their peoples' money - and salting it away abroad. And it is not just capital flight. Africa's brain drain saps the continent of its vitality - a process encouraged by Western governments, who give visas to the best and the brightest. And in return send Africa their "experts" and "consultants", to fill a gap they have helped create.

Should well-meaning outsiders put good money after bad, at a time when there is little evidence that Africans themselves are repatriating and reinvesting their loot; and when the continent's diaspora is getting bigger not smaller. Should not donors consider the possibility that something is lacking in their recovery plan?

Perhaps the battered continent needs not more aid, but confidence boosting measures that will restore its belief in itself. Instead the commission treads familiar ground. They call for the write-off of most of Africa's external debt. Conditionality is frowned on. Western banks are castigated for their part in Africa's corruption. And above all, the commission call for even more money, an extra $25bn a year! And no doubt donors will send even more "experts" to help Africa waste it.

Yet all the evidence suggests that additional cash will not solve Africa's problems. For 40 years, western-led donors have been putting money into Africa. Yet its citizens have got poorer. So how do aid ministers and non-govemment organisations justify this record of wasteful spending to their electorates and to their supporters?

Aid to Africa is working, they maintain. But too slowly: "Give us more money," they say, "and recovery will come sooner." And yet again, Africa is told about partnership, ownership, and donor co-


Yet again Mr Blair's Commission tells us about the "solutions" to the crisis - invest in infrastructure, boost the private sector, improve management, reform terms of trade, support women, combat corruption, tight Aids.

All good stuff. But why, we Afro~realists ask, why will it work now? Because, says Mr Blair, it is the first time these proposals have come from people in power. And half of the commissioners are African.

Is this supposed to make Africans feel better? Do they feel encouraged that their fate is the hands of leaders like Ethiopia's Meles, who flouts with impunity a supposedly binding international border agreement with Eritrea, and who refuses to reform Ethiopia's feudal land system?

Ah, says Mr Blair, Africa is changing. Fewer wars, more democracies. But is corrupt, disintegrating Nigeria, the home to one in five Africans, an example of democracy? Can Uganda's Museveni, trying to cling to power, encourage us? Should Kenya's Kibaki, who leads a government as corrupt as his predecessor Moi, be an Africans mentor'? Can Tanzania's Mkapa, who rigs elections in Zanzibar, inspire the continent? And these are Africa‘s good guys.

It‘s deja vu all over again.

"This report is the product of a prolonged enquiry that has extensively involved African researchers, private businessmen, and public officials, as well as a broad spectrum of donors... Step back from the immediate problems and take a longer view Most African countries are now embarked on comprehensive programs of economic adjustment This report must be matched by improved policies... including measures to reduce Africa‘s debt. Can optimism be justified by recent experience in Africa? The answer is an emphatic 'yes'."

Great stuff… but for the umpteenth time. It could be from the Blair report - but it's not. These extracts comes from World Bank proposals, published 20 years ago.

No mistaking, however, the authentic sound of a New Labour focus group:

"We want to find solutions which are sufficiently radical to make a real difference to the people of Africa, but which are not so radical that donors cannot politically deliver".

This rallying whimper is from a politician who leads from behind, from the man who sees himself helping Africa blaze its recovery trail: Britain‘s aid minister, Hilary Benn.

He should be ashamed of himself.

Michael Holman is the former Africa editor of The Financial Times.