The Blog

The Right Kind of Help?

The aid from George W. Bush and Tony Blair may help Africa fail again.

5:30 PM, Jun 15, 2005 • By RICHARD TREN and ROGER BATE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

DID LAST WEEK'S Blair-Bush aid commitment "do enough" for Africa? The question posed by media commentators, is answered by campaigners, notably rock stars like Bono, in the negative. And they may be right, but for entirely the wrong reasons. For while humanitarian assistance undoubtedly saves lives today, and debt-write off and new aid have their place, they send the same signals Africa has been receiving for the past four decades--the entire continent is a basket case in need of aid.

The Blair-Bush announcement of $674 million in aid for Eritrea and Ethiopia is worrying. While we except that food aid is warranted, the leaders of these two countries are among the worst in Africa, and we are rewarding them for bankrupting their agricultural economies through corruption, mismanagement, and communist collectivization. Yet on May 24 President Issias Afwerki of Eritrea even blamed the United States for his economic failure.

In the last week Ethiopians killed 36 protesters who were up in arms over the failure to release election results on schedule. These results have been embargoed for several months so that its government can cook the books. In the meantime, they are declaring martial law. Did the Blair-Bush announcement give them license to conduct these acts? Probably so, given that United Kingdom has just suspended $54 million in new aid to Ethiopia.

MIND YOU President Bush is generally taking a better line on Africa than any other leader. His rejection of British chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown's aid plan for Africa may have led to nasty headlines, but it's the right policy in the run-up to the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in Scotland next month.

Brown's plan, promoted in lukewarm fashion by his boss, Prime Minister Blair, last week, is simply a variant on the old theme that all Africa needs to solve its problems is more money. While the G-8 will spend its time discussing the legacy of colonialism and rich countries' obligations to Africa, a far more fruitful debate would be on what real, concrete steps African governments are taking to improve their policies and the institutions that keep most of the continent locked in poverty.

Developed countries should forgive debt created by previous rulers who mismanaged their countries while accumulating fabulous wealth. However, a 100 percent forgiveness of debt sends the wrong message to the current stock of administrators: filch some aid money and waste the rest; in 10 years or so an ageing rock star will come to your aid and demand you be let off the hook. Furthermore, Africa desperately needs private investment and private capital. It is hard to fathom how debt forgiveness will improve the continent's credit rating in the financial capitals of the world.

Moreover, aid transfers and debt forgiveness do little to change the basic institutional failures of the past 30 years that have made Africa poorer and sicker while the rest of the world has become richer and healthier.

The danger in sending more aid to Africa is that the very governments that frustrate economic growth with laws and regulations, which entrench the power of political elites, will handle that money. Giving them more money empowers them further and ensures that they are removed from the populations that, theoretically, voted them into power.

In many ways, the leaders of some African countries recognize that they are ultimately responsible for improving their lot. President Thabo Mbeki has created the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), which is supposed to promote better governance in Africa in return for aid and investment from the West.

Mbeki's idea is that Africa can and should be standing on its own feet, developing its own credible, democratic institutions, and creating an environment in which its people can prosper.

Yet even Mbeki finds it hard to let go of the politics of the past. In his weekly Letter from the President, Mbeki criticized Brown for reportedly saying, while on a recent trip to east Africa, that "the days of Britain having to apologize for its colonial history are over." Mbeki took issue with this, highlighting the many human rights abuses that occurred under British colonial rule.

Mbeki's criticism of Brown may resonate well with other African leaders, particularly those who lived through colonial rule. But how an apology for U.K. government policies 50 years ago helps Africa today is anybody's guess. If African countries wish to become more prosperous, they need to stop perpetuating their victim status. A far more brutish, violent, and totalitarian country colonized much of eastern Europe far more recently, yet these countries did not wait for apologies before improving their lot.