Friday, November 23, 2007

Aid to Africa wiped out by war

This essay is part of a (more or less) weekly feature on this blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel, Iraq, North Korea and Iran.

I hate to succomb to Afro-pessimism. And I hate even more to write something that risks perpetuating crude western stereotypes about the continent. But at the same time, I can't read the news and be disingenuous about my reaction.

Pessimism in general is not in my nature. And having lived in West Africa, I know that the place has some of the most in innovative and resilient people in the world. I love the continent and its people and that's why events piss me off so much. I can't simply shrug my shoulders and say, "Ah, that's just the way people are there" because I know it's not true. At least not of the vast majority.

I am convinced that if the continent's post-colonial leaders had been just mediocre, if its leaders had simply stayed out of the way, then Africa would be in far better shape than it is now. Instead, it's been cursed with morons, megalomaniacs, gangsters, psychopaths and, at the best, mere crooks.

In recent weeks, I've read stories like this...

-Sudanese strongman Gen. Omar al-Bashir is preparing for a return to war in the south of the country. Perhaps the general is trying to prove his grim multitasking abilities by conducting a war and a genocide simultaneously;

-Renewed conflict in Somalia, primarily Mogadishu, has caused the homelessness of some one million people;

-The head of the DR Congo's army insists that a return to all-out war is the only solution to the crisis in the east of the country;

-There are rumbles that Ethiopia and Eritrea may start another installment of the 'world's stupidest war';

-The Nigerian parliament is trying to reverse the handover of the Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon. The handover was agreed by former president Olesegun Obasanjo after the International Court of Justice ruled that the land belonged to Cameroon;

-As usual, Zimbabwe's collapsing dictatorship is whipping up hysteria, this time by accusing Britain of preparing to invade the country. This wouldn't be a surprise. After all, the UK already stands accused by the regime of manipulating the weather.

All this comes in the wake of a report showing how armed conflict has cost Africa nearly $300 billion during the period 1990-2005.

The non-governmental organization (NGO) Oxfam says the cost of conflict was equal to the amount of money received in aid during the same period.

Being on the board of an NGO, I follow development issues pretty closely and receive a lot of news from and about the NGO world. I always read about this or that charity damning the western world for not giving enough in development aid. They use words like 'shame' and 'disgrace' and 'pitiful.'

Incidentally, African leaders tend to be more focused on securing fairer trade deals that getting more western handouts.

I understand the tactic. NGOs are trying to appeal to liberal western guilt to get more money.

But the biggest problem isn't western 'stinginess' but a small minority of armed African thugs who hold the majority hostage.

There are many reasons aid hasn't improved things in Africa. Africans like to point to things like neo-colonialism, like foreign exploitation of natural resources, like unfair trade deals. And all of these are legitimate complaints.

But one of the biggest can't be addressed by blaming others.

Aid isn't contributing to African economies. It's merely replacing the money that's being lost because of insane wars. So the continent is staying stagnant in absolute terms and regressing in relative terms.

Africa's so-called intelligentsia likes blaming everything on Europe and the United States. And these parties hardly have clean hands on the continent. After all, where do the arms for all these armed conflicts come from?

However, the result is that anyone who ever was an anti-colonial freedom fighter (Zimbabwe's Mugabe, Ethiopia's Meles, Eritrea's Isaias) seems to get a free pass... no matter how gravely they've betrayed the ideas of their own 'liberation' struggles... no matter how much they've destroyed their own countries or their neighbor's.

The US government spent 'only' 0.14 percent of GNP (in 2003) on international development assistance. Bear in mind that this 'mere' 0.14 percent translated to $15.7 billion, by far the biggest of any country... and that PRIVATE donations by Americans accounts for another $15 billion.

People aren't being killed in the Central African Republic because the US provided 'only' $30.7 billion in aid instead of, say, $35 billion or $50 billion. Europeans aren't killing Sudanese in Darfur. Americans aren't killing Congolese in Kivu. Canadians aren't starving people in Bulawayo or making them homeless in Harare.

Ending all armed conflict won't instantaneously eradicate all poverty in Africa. But if you want to get out of a hole, the first step is to stop digging.


Mark said...

Have you heard of or read William Easterly's "White Man's Burden," on Western foreign aid to developing countries? Right up your alley.

Brian said...

I'm quite familiar with Easterly. In fact, I've sparred with him in the pages of Foreign Policy. I'm familiar with his book, though I haven't read it.

I've heard his schpeel many times. I think he makes many legitimate points but he seems to advocate an all or nothing (ie: nothing) approach whereas I'm careful about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Mark said...

I am currently about 200 pgs in, with 180 left to go. This is one of the better books I've read this semester for grad school- in fact, I read about 170 pgs just today in a few hours, it reads quick. His criticisms of bureaucracy and the top-down approach are very interesting. I look forward to wrapping it up and seeing what he says at the conclusion.

A Social Skidmark said...

Good post.
I know that for the most part, the average peroson isn't looking to fight constantly. Most people just want a reasonablely safe place to live and raise their families. But with that, there seems to be alot of critisism for the amount of aid comeing from 1st world counries. When in reality, there is usually enough aid if it wasn't for the abuses from almost everyone involved. I hate that the people who actually need the help aren't getting it. They're put on videos showing how much they need help but then the money is taken by the people who are causing them to need the help, in a lot of cases. Then they are told by the people stealing the aid money from them that WE are the cause for their suffering. I don't see how it can be fixed without the people who need the aid atleast stand up for themselves. For us, it's just throwing money on top of money hoping someday, some of it will finally reach the people who need it.