Africa Doesn't Matter
How the West has failed the poorest
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.