Smart Aid for Africa

Published on 5th July 2005

Mired in grinding poverty and social destitution, Africa cries for help. A cacophonous galaxy of rock stars, anti-poverty activists, and heads of state are calling on the G-8 countries to cancel Africa’s $350 billion crippling foreign debt and double aid to the continent. British Prime Minister Tony Blair will make aid to Africa the centerpiece in Britain\'s presidency of the G-8 meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland in July. Live 8 was planned for July 2. After meeting with President Bush on June 10, modalities are being worked out to cancel at least $34 billion in debt of 27 of the world’s poorest nations, mostly African. Will this African Marshall Aid Plan work?

Africa’s plight follows a ten-year attention deficit cycle. Every decade or so, mega-plans are drawn up and rock concerts held to whip up international rescue mission for Africa. Acrimonious wrangling over financing modalities ensues. Years slip by, then a decade later, another grand Africa initiative is unveiled. Back in 1985, there was Live Aid and a “Special Session on Africa” held by the United Nations to boost aid to Africa. Then in March 1996, the U.N. launched a $25 billion Special Initiative for Africa. In September 2005, the plight of Africa will again take center-stage at a U.N. conference with clockwork precision. Expect another major initiative for Africa in 2015.

Helping Africa of course is noble but has now become a theater of the absurd – the blind leading the clueless. A recent IMF study estimated that Africans in the diaspora remit $32 billion annually back to Africa, with the main destinations being Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya. About $7 billion is sent to southern Africa (Ghana News Agency, Accra, May 31, 2005). The amount Africans abroad remit back exceeds the $25 billion Tony Blair seeks to raise.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo says corrupt African leaders have stolen at least $140 billion (£95 billion) from their people since independence. The World Bank estimates that 40 per cent of wealth created in Africa is invested outside the continent. Even the African Union, in a stunning report last August, claimed that Africa loses an estimated $148 billion annually to corruption – or 25 percent of the continent\'s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Rather than plug the huge hemorrhage, African leaders prefer to badger the West for more money. And the West, blinded by its own racial over-sensitivity and guilt over the iniquities of the slave trade and colonialism, obliges. This is the real tragedy of Africa.

Between 1960 and 1997, the West pumped more than $450 billion in foreign aid – the equivalent of four Marshall Aid Plans – into Africa with nothing to show for it. Contrary to popular misconception, foreign aid is not free but a soft loan. Outright debt relief and massive inflow of aid without any conditionalities, safeguards or monitoring mechanisms is absurd. It is akin to writing off the credit card debt of a drunken sailor and allowing him to keep the same credit cards. No African government has been called upon to give a full public accounting of who took what loan and for what purpose since many of Africa’s foreign loans taken in the past were misused and squandered. No government official has been held accountable; instead, irresponsible past borrowing behavior is being rewarded.

More distressing, much of the new aid money will flow directly into an African government budget – a huge black maze of vanishing tax receipts, extra-budgetary expenditure items, perks and off-budget “presidential privy accounts,” redolent with graft, patronage and waste. Over the past few decades, African budgets have careened out of control. State bureaucracies have swollen, packed with political supporters. Back in 1996, 20 percent of Ghana\'s public sector workforce was declared redundant by the Secretary of Finance and Guinea’s, 50,000 civil servants were consuming 51 percent of the nation\'s wealth. In Kenya, civil service salaries take up half the budget; in Uganda, it is 40 percent. Zimbabwe has 54 ministers; Uganda with a population of 35 million has 70, while Ghana, with a population of 22 million, has 88 ministers and deputy ministers. With bloated bureaucracies, soaring expenditures and narrow tax bases, budget deficits have soared.

They are covered with World Bank loans and foreign aid (Ghana’s budget is 50 percent aid-financed and Uganda’s is 60 percent). If the aid is insufficient, the rest of the budget shortfall is financed by printing money. Even when aid is available for “budgetary support”, there is no guarantee that it will be used productively to generate a return to repay the soft loan. It could well be “consumed” when it pays for the salaries of civil servants. Writing off Uganda’s debt does not eliminate the aid dependency. In fact, when the World Bank canceled $650 million of Uganda’s debt in 1999, the first item President Yoweri Museveni purchased was a new presidential jet!

British Prime Minister thinks he can cajole or browbeat African leaders into curbing corruption and ensuring that resources released by debt relief are put to some good use – such as increased spending on education and health care. But the push for good governance and reform must come from within – from African civil society groups, organizations and the people. However, in country after country, chastened by diabolical restrictions, these groups have no freedom or political space to operate.

Carlos Cardoso, an investigative journalist, was murdered in November 2000 for uncovering a bank scandal in which about $14 million was looted from Mozambique\'s largest bank, BCM, on the eve of its privatization. The official in charge of banking supervision, Antonio Siba Siba, was also murdered while investigating the banking scandals. Such was also the fate of Norbert Zongo, a popular journalist in Burkina Faso, who was gunned down on Dec 13, 1998, while investigating official corruption. In September 2001, President Isaias Afwerki closed down all the independent media and arrested its staff, quashing calls for democratic reforms. In all, the government shut down eight private newspapers and arrested its journalists, picking them up in their newsrooms and homes and from the streets. They were held in a central jail until April, 2002, when they threatened to begin a hunger strike to protest their detention. They were then transferred to an undisclosed location.

In neighboring Ethiopia, President Meles Zenawi, a member of Tony Blair’s Africa Commission, just held fraudulent elections. Anticipating public outrage, he banned street demonstrations for one month and assumed full control of the country’s security forces. When the opposition rallied to protest the results dribbling in, the police opened fire, killing 26; opposition leaders have been placed under house arrest. Witness the election
machinations in Egypt.

The paucity of good leadership has left a garish stain on the continent. Worse, the caliber of leadership has distressingly deteriorated over the decades to execrable depths. The likes of Charles Taylor of Liberia and Sani Abacha of Nigeria even make Mobutu Sese Seko of formerly Zaire look like a saint. In an unusual editorial, The Independent  newspaper in Ghana wrote: \"Most of the leaders in Africa are power-loving politicians, who in uniform or out of uniform, represent no good for the welfare of our people. These
are harsh words to use on men and women who may mean well but lack the necessary vision and direction to uplift the status of their people (The Independent, Ghana, July 20, 2000; p.2).

The crisis in leadership remains a major obstacle to poverty reduction and has many manifestations. It is characterized, among others, by the following dispositions and failings: The \"Big Man\" syndrome, subordination of national interests to personal aggrandizement, super-inflated egos, misplaced priorities, poor judgment, reluctance to take responsibility for personal failures, and total lack of vision and understanding of even such basic and elementary concepts as \"democracy,\" \"fairness,\" \"rule of law,\"
\"accountability,\" and \"freedom\" -- among other deficiencies. In some instances, the leadership is given to vituperative utterances, outright buffoonery, stubborn refusal to learn from past mistakes, and complete absence of cognitive pragmatism.

Believing that their countries belong to them and only them only, they cling to power at all costs. Their promises are worth less than Al Cappone’s. They stipulate constitutional term limits and then break them: Angola, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, and Uganda. African leaders themselves drew up a New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in 2001, in which they inserted a Peer Review Mechanism (PRM), by which they were to evaluate the performance of fellow African leaders in terms of democratic governance. What happened? To be fair, they acted in reversing the “military coup” in Togo in February but went on vacation when elections were stolen in Zimbabwe and Togo.

Ask them to cut bloated state bureaucracies or government spending and they will set up a “Ministry of Less Government Spending.” Then there is the “Ministry of Good Governance” (Tanzania). They set up “Anti-Corruption Commissions” with no teeth and then sack the Commissioner if he gets too close to the fat cats (Kenya) or issue a Government White Paper to exonerate corrupt ministers (Ghana in 1996). To be sure, multi-party elections have been held in recent years in many African countries but the electoral process was so contumaciously manipulated to return incumbents to power. Four such “coconut elections” have so far been held this year: Zimbabwe, Togo, Congo (Brazzaville), and Ethiopia.

Ask them to place more reliance on the private sector and they will create a Ministry of Private Enterprise (Ghana). Ask them to privatize inefficient state-owned enterprises and they will sell them off at fire-sale prices to their cronies (Uganda). Or ask them to move a foot and they will demand foreign aid in order to do so. In 2003, some 30,000 ghost names were discovered on the payroll of the Ministry of Education, costing the government $1.2 million a month in salaries heisted by living workers. When Ghana demanded foreign aid to purge the payroll of these ghost names, Japan coughed up $5 million.

The reform process has stalled through vexatious chicanery, willful deception, and vaunted acrobatics. Only 16 out of the 54 African countries are democratic, fewer than 8 are “economic success stories,” only 8 have a free and independent media.

No amount of debt relief and increased aid will help Africa until Africa cleans up its own house. But the leadership is not interested in reform. Thus, without new leadership and genuine reform, debt relief and increased aid would compound Africa’s problems and more African countries will implode. The continent is stuck in a veritable conundrum. What can Western donors do?

Smart aid would do one of two things. One, bypass the vampire state and target the people, who produce Africa’s real wealth. An African economy consists of three sectors: the traditional, informal, and the modern sector. The people who produce Africa’s real wealth – cash crops, diamonds, gold and other minerals – live in the traditional and informal sectors. Meaningful development and poverty reduction cannot occur by ignoring these two sectors. But in the 1960s and 1970s, much Western development aid was channeled into the modern sector or the urban area, the abode of the parasitic elite minority. Industrialization was the rage and the two other sectors – especially agriculture – were neglected. Huge foreign loans were contracted to set up a dizzying array of state enterprises, which became towering edifices of gross inefficiency, waste and graft. Economic crises emerged in the 1980s and billions in foreign aid money were spent in an attempt to reform the dysfunctional modern sector. Between 1981 and 1994, for example, the World Bank spent more than $25 billion in Structural Adjustment loans to reform Africa’s dilapidated statistic economic system. Only 6 out of the 29 “adjusting” African countries were adjudged to be “economic success stories” in 1994. Even then, the success list was phantasmagoric. Ghana, declared a “success story” in 1994 and is now on HIPC life-support system.

At some point, even the most recklessly optimistic donor must come to terms with the law of diminishing returns: That pouring in more money to reform the modern sector is futile. Greater returns can be achieved elsewhere – by focusing on the traditional and informal sectors.

Second, smart aid would empower the African people (African civil society groups) to monitor how the aid money is being spent and to instigate reform from within. Empowerment requires arming the African people with information, the freedom and the institutional means to unchain themselves from the vicious grip of poverty and oppression.


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