Africa Doesn't Matter

How the West has failed the poorest continent

by Giles Bolton

Arcade Publishing, 2007, paperback


In 2006 [Americans] spent nearly as much money subsidizing the U.S. cotton industry, $4 billion, as the entire value of the cotton it produced. [Europeans] are paying to subsidize every cow in the European Union at $3 a day. [The Japanese] recently spent more than 1 percent of [their] annual income - at least $600 per household' - on rice through a combination of high prices and farmer support.

Five Myths about Africa

Famine is due to food shortages.

Drought or conflict can certainly lead to much-reduced food production in particular areas. But it's rare that a country as a whole has insufficient food, and the market can always bring supplies in from other places, or even from abroad. Famine occurs because individuals can no longer afford to buy food, so there's no point in traders bringing in any to sell. Famine is really the result of fragile, poor lives, where just one bad harvest-or the death of your cow, a collapse in crop prices, the loss of a job-can leave you with nothing, and no means to provide for your family.


Africa is overpopulated and they keep having too many children

For its size, Africa is relatively underpopulated. India is barely a tenth as big and supports more people. Rwanda has the heaviest land pressure in Africa yet still has fewer people per square mile than England. The problem is that economic growth too often lags behind population growth, land use is inefficient, and pressure on good land intensifies in the absence of other opportunities for employment. With stable growth and the new jobs it brings, Africa's population could afford considerable expansion. But in any case, birth rates tend to fall where growth, education, and health care improve.


Africa has many killer diseases

No, it doesn't-or at least, little more so than other parts of the world. Most deaths in Africa don't occur elsewhere simply because there is treatment available in hospitals and clinics, drugs we can afford, and inoculations we have as children. Some of Africa's big killers?

* HIV/AIDS (over 2 million a year). It's pretty simple. If you get HIV in the West, you take antiretrovirals, which have a very high success rate at keeping you alive and healthy for years. If you get it in Africa-and 70 percent of the people in the world with HIV Live in Africa-you probably don't, and you will soon die once full-blown AIDS takes hold, unless you're one of a lucky few.

* Malaria (about 1 million a year). Aside from the deaths, malaria takes a massive toll in sickness and loss of productivity, with hundreds of millions suffering bouts every year. But with proper treatment and use of bed nets, it could be reduced enormously. Southern Europe used to suffer from malaria; it's now all but extinct there.

* Diarrheal diseases (about 700,000 a year). Yes, people die from diarrhea, especially the vulnerable, such as young children, all for want of simple treatment like oral rehydration and access to clean water.'

And so on and so forth. More than 4 million children in Africa under five die every year; two-thirds of their deaths could be avoided with low-cost solutions like vitamin A supplements, insecticide-treated bed nets, and oral rehydration tablets. Want to know how easy it is to stamp out a disease if you put enough effort behind it-and enough resources? In a rare success story, polio is close to being wiped out in Africa, Largely due to a mass inoculation campaign since 1988. Nearly all disease is about poverty.


Africa has many dangerous animals

In some ways this would be quite romantic if true, even though frightening. But elephants don't rampage through backyards on a regular basis, and leopards don't make a habit of chewing farmers in their fields. Most wild game is confined to relatively few reserves; there are thought to be only around 23,000 Lions across the whole continent, a decrease of 90 percent in two decades.' They kill only a couple of hundred people a year (and barely ever a tourist).8 In killing terms, it's the malaria-carrying mosquito that is the true king of the jungle.


The climate isn't conducive to development

People tend to forget that much of Africa is in the tropics and receives lots of rainfall. It is, after all, the continent we're all descended from, so people have been living there successfully for millennia. Even on dusty plains, livestock can survive well as long as there is reliable access to water. It is thought that Uganda, a smallish country of around 25 million people, could still probably feed the whole of Africa if commercially farmed. If you can irrigate, almost anything will grow with all that sunshine. The bottom line is that if you are able to extract enough water-substantially an issue of cost-climate is hardly a problem: look at the agricultural heartland of the American South (though it has been pointed out that part of the reason the American South got rich in the first place was African slave labor).

It's easy to forget how young most current countries on the oldest continent are. The landmass from which mankind originated was dotted with various realms and territories up until the 1870s, but these bore little relation to subsequent borders. The few European spheres of influence were little more than trading posts along the odd stretch of coast, plus the longer-established British colony of South Africa at the tip. The rest of the continent got on with life as usual, having escaped the colonial march of Europe's powers across other parts of the globe over previous centuries. There were powerful kingdoms at various different times, such as Ashanti, Dahomey, and Oyo in the west, KanemBornu in the center, Abyssinia and Buganda in the east, and the Zulus in the south. Meanwhile, the detail in European atlases tended to peter out as soon as they covered any distance inland in Africa, and whole rivers, lakes, kingdoms, and mountain ranges failed to bother the illustrators' pencils.

Then came Europe's mad scramble for Africa. This was the era of eccentric explorers and compliant cartographers, backed by the incomparable force of modern weapons. Gaps on Western maps were filled in apace. A small and reckless breed of land-grabbing adventurers traversed their way across the continent, establishing "facts" of ownership by signing treaties with bullied or gift-flattered local leaders, or through the direct imposition of force. The resulting paperwork made its way back to European conference rooms, where it was considered and contested until pretty much the entire continent was divided up between Britain, France, Portugal, Germany, Italy, and Belgium. Then the mapmakers were called in to transpose these rough agreements into indelible ink, agreements that owed everything to imperial bickering, bribery, and the gun and little to the logic of landscape or ethnicity. Thousands of miles of borders ended up in geography-defying straight lines purely because they were nice and easy for Europe's hungry aggressors to negotiate. It's a strange situation when cartographers have a greater influence on the birth of countries than the inhabitants of those regions themselves; and it would come back to haunt much of the continent.

In the space of fifteen years, thirty new colonies and protectorates were established.

The late 1950s and early 1960s saw liberation and independence spread like wildfire across the continent, starting with Ghana in 1958, decades before the colonialists had expected it. A generation of African heroes of independence triumphed after years of struggle, reclaiming their land for African rule: Nkrumah in Ghana, Kenyatta in Kenya, Senghor in Senegal, and countless others.

... Fresh from the success of independence - Africa's new leaders faced a stunning set of challenges. Three stood out above the others.

First, the entire continent remained desperately poor and grossly ill-equipped to thrive as a bunch of newly independent nation states. Few of the colonial powers had done much to educate their subjects in the running of the territories they had claimed.

There was little transport infrastructure to connect different regions and peoples in the same country, not least because what roads and railways there were had been designed to deliver raw materials to the coast for export rather than enable people to get together. Entire constitutions were created in an instant, sometimes copied word for word from other countries. State institutions, modeled on idiosyncratically European systems, were handed over in a job lot, with vacancy signs hanging over every senior post. In former British colonies, African judges dispensed sentences wearing eighteenth-century-style London periwigs. In French ones, communications between African civil servants were written in the highly formalized legalese of old-fashioned Parisian government. The surrealism of Europe's arrogance in trying to rule Africa in the first place was outdone only by the inevitable culture clash of the legacy it left behind.

... While many thousands of new politicians and public servants across the continent were inspired by their new responsibilities to build a fresh future, for thousands of others the brief celebrations of independence were soon superseded by more practical questions of securing their own status. People's loyalty to a state that had done little or nothing for them to date was too often overtaken by attempts to get the best deals for traditional allegiances of family and tribe. In many countries, a struggle for power and a culture of corruption took root.

... Desperate poverty, lack of national identity, hugely disproportionate rewards of office ... not exactly a great foundation on which to build a brave new future. Plunged headlong into a global economy on a competitive basis just as Southeast Asia was beginning to thrive, Africa lacked a workforce educated and skilled to compete, let alone the contacts and guaranteed custom of colonial powers. Freed from foreign rule, it was also cut off from the capacity to control access to the rich markets it needed to reach, or to influence international prices for the few exports on which so much now depended-exports that were attractive to the West but not essential enough to give Africa a strong voice at the negotiating table.

While Africa struggled to make a success of its future, the international community hardly covered itself in glory. The enthusiasm of cold war powers for compliant support for their cause saw them provide assistance to a number of dubious African rulers, which was often as inept as it was inapt. The Soviet bloc, short on cash, handed out arms shipments to favored leaders across the continent, even though most were communist only to the extent of quotes crafted for Kremlin consumption. Conflict boomed. Almost as inappropriately, the West courted its own set of shady allies with large loans that bought immediate loyalty but left rising debts and nourished corruption. Western companies were happy to make deals to exploit the continent's raw materials even if they were signed by evidently crooked leaders with no intention of sharing the rewards with their countrymen.

By the 1980s, President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire ... was thought to be the fifth richest man in the world thanks to his own knockout combination: the rape of his country's resources and the reliable flow of poorly monitored external loans (and other aid: by the late 1970s the United States was splurging nearly half its aid budget for sub-Saharan Africa on Zaire). Mobutu built monuments and personal bank accounts but little else, while the West, especially the U.S., found itself in the absurd position of encouraging ever more loans for fear that Mobutu's previous failure to use them responsibly left Zaire increasingly fertile ground for a socialist backlash. The irony was only deepened by the fact that Patrice Lumumba, the leader who probably had the best chance of leading his country smoothly through independence, had been murdered back in the 1960s in a crime widely thought to have been carried out by Belgian agents with CIA support for fear he might not prove sympathetic enough in the fight against Marxism.* Zaire may have been one of the more extreme examples of corruption and ill-advised Western efforts, but it was these kinds of loans that did so much to give aid a bad name and make Western taxpayers skeptical their money would ever be well used. The ongoing civil war that has beset Mobutu's country (now known as D.R. Congo) since his eventual departure and death in 1997 is a reminder of what can happen when people receive no benefit from their citizenship of a state for too long: they are much more likely to fight to get their own hands on the few assets left lying around.

The predicaments of Africa's highly stressed societies were worsened [in the 1990s] by a new ideological stringency - the "structural adjustment" policies [the West] now insisted borrowers follow were overly prescriptive and frequently ill judged.

Optimistic about the power of markets to provide solutions for populations too poor for the market to have any interest in them, structural adjustment policies generally included rigid diets of privatization and severe cuts to essential services like health and education in order to balance budgets. While the desire to get the books in order was understandable, in business terms this was the equivalent of selling off many of your best assets at the same time as cutting spending on training and research and development and guaranteeing a large increase in sick days taken by your staff. Many economies declined further, debts continued to build, and budgets still weren't balanced.

What was the effect of these difficult years on Africa's great nation-building challenge? Unsurprisingly, faith in governments and the nation-state failed to grow in many places as people gained little from their still-new capitals, while tales of pocketlining politicians gave even the good guys a bad name. The temptation to vote for your local big man regardless of his policies or honesty-who at least promised your town a tangible new road or school or paid you directly for your vote-grew bigger than ever, compounding the calamity of corruption.

An astonishing 70 percent of U.S. aid is "tied" to U.S. consultants and materials, and fully 47 percent of U.S. aid spending in one recent year went to consultants. Nearly half of U.S. national aid never even got anywhere close to Africans in terms of food, water pumps, or direct support for African systems: it went into consultants' pay envelopes, the vast majority of whom are American.

Only about $4 in every $10 of global aid goes to low-income countries (most of which are in Africa).

Many donors' aid still goes to "strategic partners" in support of Western national interests rather than need... the two largest traditional recipients of U.S. assistance in the last couple of decades have been Israel and Egypt.

Being lending institutions, the [World] Bank and [International Monetary] Fund are closely involved in the unsustainably high levels of debt most African countries built up in the couple of decades after independence.

How did Africa's debt crisis come about? In the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, African governments took out countless loans that Western governments and banks happily farmed out to them with little regard to how they would be repaid. Some went to prop up bad governments or military regimes that are now long gone, often in pursuit of cold war agendas. Some were simply wasted by the governments that received them. Others foundered on false expectations of economic growth.

Skyrocketing interest rates and bad economic policies multiplied these old debts over and over again. Many African countries reached a point where they needed new loans simply to pay off old ones. The full crisis hit when the lenders stopped lending at all, losing faith that new loans would ever be repaid, and Africa inevitably started to default on existing payments. It was at this point that the international community, mainly through the Fund, started to apply stringent conditions for any new money.

The blame for the debt crisis is a classic example of Africa's problems. It lies primarily with the continent's governments that wasted the money. But the West was highly irresponsible to support so many corrupt regimes, and naïve in the extreme to allow Africa's debts to build up when economic growth was clearly insufficient to enable repayment

... Regardless of who was at fault, the debt crisis left the West in what ought to have been a terrible dilemma. On the one hand Western countries wanted to be repaid and want the principle of repayment to be maintained. On the other, they were demanding billions of dollars from countries that were simply unable, by anyone's calculations, to meet the basic needs of their people. Should modern African governments and their impoverished people pay for the faults of previous regimes? Which comes first: repayment or basic human rights?

... Western finance ministries didn't seem to find this much of a dilemma until public pressure built up among Western electorates, not least through an international campaign in the late 1990s, for debts to be written off on a one-time basis. Until that point, many African countries simply continued to default and saw their debts rise and rise...

The campaign for debt relief has seen gradually increasing amounts of money written off, not least an agreement at the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles to write off the entire debt of the world's eighteen poorest countries, most of which are African - an initiative that has since been delivered on and expanded to other countries. Finally, Africa's debt problem is being tackled in a serious way. But it has yet to benefit all needy countries and, rather depressingly, some Western governments continue to pay for debt relief out of their aid budgets-which means as an African president that you might get some debt canceled, but you get less aid as a result.

... Africa's continuing debt problem continues to grab headlines. But is debt relief more important than aid, and would we need aid at all if we wrote off all the debt? Uganda, the first African country to benefit from debt relief and a big recipient of aid, used the money saved to help double primary school enrollment and invest in its national HIV/AIDS plan, which has contributed to the country's successful reversal of HIV infection rates. It's an example of what can be achieved... In 2004, Uganda received $760 million overall in aid grants, more than eight times the savings from its debt relief and hence could achieve much more with it.

The truth is that a dollar of debt relief is pretty much the same as a dollar of (good, systemic) aid. Writing off debt is important, but far more aid will still be required if African countries are to have a chance of meeting their basic needs. In many ways, debt is simply a useful rallying point for public attention, an issue where the inequity and unsustainability of Africa's plight stands out particularly clearly. It's unconscionable to make people who have almost nothing send money to people who have lots, just because they used to have some bad leaders to whom the West gave money in the past.

A 2005 Washington Post survey revealed that about half of Americans thought that more money was spent on foreign aid than on Medicare or Social Security (combined 2006 cost: $921 billion - forty times more than the aid budget). A similar 1996 survey showed that the median amount of the federal budget Americans thought ought to be spent on aid was 15 percent-fifteen times the actual sum.' When informed in a 2005 survey about the 0.7 percent GNI aid target, 65 percent of Americans wanted their government to meet it as long as other rich countries were doing the same.

There is no doubt, therefore, that America's government persistently spends less on aid than its electorate wants or believes. The reality is that spending of 0.17 percent of GNI on aid (2006) is dwarfed twenty to thirty times by funding for the military. And very little of that little aid is the systemic support Africa needs. After the 40 percent or more going to consultants, much of the rest is spent through charities, leaving those charities loath to criticize administration policies for fear of losing funding.

There is a simple, if shocking, reason why the West doesn't do better by the poorest continent. Africa Doesn't Matter. Its poor markets hold little interest for Western business, and the continent provides almost no political or strategic threat to the West's stability, for the moment at least. There are thus no natural incentives to allow it a fairer deal.

Unlike poor groups within our own societies, or potentially volatile countries near America or Europe's borders, Africans provide almost no threat to this new global market's stability. Africa can remain marginalized, whereas marginalized groups within national and regional markets had to be brought (or bought) in.

What it means is that Africa becomes increasingly affected by the international decisions we make in a globalizing world-especially those on aid and trade arrangements-but has little or no ability to influence them. It has no markets of its own to interest us, only a few tempting natural resources, and no major military machinery to make it geopolitically dangerous. It doesn't produce terrorists that we need to take account of (not yet, at least). Everything from aid to trade to our attitude toward conflict resolution and humanitarian relief is affected by its impotence.

In theory, the [World] Bank and [International Monetary] Fund are global bodies. This is certainly how they are presented. All countries are represented on their executive boards, which make all key decisions. But look at the small print. Who actually holds the votes on these boards? The combined share of the vote of all sub-Saharan African countries adds up to around 5 to 7 percent. The people with a real stake in Bank and Fund activities do not have ... a real stake.

This is a fundamental flaw at the heart of these two key institutions. Sure, donors provide much of the money so they are bound to demand much of the say, yet they must have an interest in effectiveness too. Not only does common sense suggest that those countries with most experience of Bank and Fund work should have some real input to their policies. But the sometimes painful reforms required in their programs are much more effectively accepted and implemented if they result from self- and peer analysis, rather than external imposition.

It's that old measure of effective aid again: ownership. African countries have been demanding a larger share of the vote on the issues that most affect them for several years now. Rather typically, America and Europe, which currently hold the vast majority of votes (and all the aces), have decided not to listen.

Denied an effective vote, African countries also lack the human resources to try to inform and influence the discussions that take place when the Bank and Fund boards consider how much and what kind of support to give them-or to cut back on. To put this in some kind of context, the office of a large European country in the Bank and Fund in Washington will have nine or ten highly qualified staff working full-time to prepare for board votes and policies, and a permanent place on the boards. Then there are large support teams carrying out and commissioning further research back in European capitals, of which I was once part (the United States, of course, has the whole of its Treasury Department just up the Street). And sub-Saharan Africa? Its forty-eight countries have two seats on the boards between them, and are lucky if they have one single official from their own government among the teams there.

The final irony is that while Bank and Fund programs are sometimes used by Western powers to increase pressure on African countries to move toward democracy (not in itself, of course, a bad thing), their own procedures are far from democratic. The idea is that Africa should move to electing leaders by merit, on the basis of popular mandate, in order to try and get the best man or woman for the job. Strange, then, that the leaderships of the [World] Bank and [International Monetary] Fund are, by tradition, never voted on. Instead, the United States gets to choose the leader for the Bank (how else did you think that neocon and Iraq war architect Paul Wolfowitz ended up as its last / president?). And Europe gets to appoint the head of the Fund.

What of the World Trade Organization, often held up as an example of a more democratic institution? It's certainly true that the WTO doesn't deserve the demonization it suffers at the hands of antiglobalization protesters. Each country in the WTO has a vote, nominally giving African nations as much influence as anyone else-and much better representation than in either the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.

Unsurprisingly, however, some nations are more equal than others. Unlike the Bank or Fund, the WTO rarely votes-it is more of a talking shop in which agreements are gradually hammered out, and no institutional design could ever change the fact that poor African countries need access to rich markets much more than vice versa. The rules may be nominally fair, but the contenders are utterly mismatched.

The UN is a genuinely democratic organization, and powerful Western countries dislike giving their money to bodies they can less easily control. Yet, in a sign of how difficult international governance will be - and we will surely move toward it over the next 200 to 300 years - the inconvenient truth is also that having many, equal bosses also makes it much harder for UN agencies to be operationally effective.

Edmund Burke

No one could make a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.

ln the long term, Africa's prospects must eventually be bright, if only because it will eventually be the world's only remaining repository of cheap labor.

Africa watch

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