The Real African problem?

The following was posted as a comment but I think it’s deserving of it’s own space – thanks to Hans for pulling together his thoughts, some of which I’d heard in isolation before, into a fascinating little article. Note that Hans wrote this, not me – I’ll pass on any comments about this to him, if you don’t want to post them here.

To save the world by going (or listening) to a pop concert: how gratifying to the self-importance and sentimentality of youth! And what better way could there be to transform self-indulgence into deep moral responsibility? Whatever else one might say about Bob Geldof’s remarkable efforts, he is certainly astute when it comes to mass psychology.

Alas, the problems of poverty, especially in Africa, are intractable, and not to be solved by gushes of charitable donations at 20-year intervals. It is true that it would take a miracle of disorganisation and incompetence to do no good whatever with the huge sums of money that will no doubt be donated: which is why subsequent depictions of the benefits of such donations will be not so much untrue as misleading.

However, aid can do harm as well as good, and this truth is much harder to grasp or depict in a few simple, emotional images. The balance, in fact, is on the side of harm. Civil wars in Africa – in Somalia, Ethiopia and the Sudan, for example – have been kept going by food and medical assistance, which puts tremendous power in the hands of both governments and insurgents. In conditions of famine brought about by war, he who controls the distribution of food aid is king.

Even in countries at peace, aid on a large scale fosters patronage and corruption. The Nordic countries now admit that it was their aid to Tanzania that allowed the late Julius Nyerere forcibly to remove three quarters of the rural population into semi-collectivised villages: in other words, that the billions of aid quite unnecessarily impoverished Tanzania for decades and produced an economic disaster from which the country is still recovering.

Charity is therefore not what Africa needs. No country grows rich by the grace and favour of another. What Africa needs is good – which is to say limited – government, as well as more trade. It is likely to get neither, and no number of rock concerts will help to bring them about.

Why is Africa, alone of all the continents, poorer per capita now than 20, or even 40, years ago, despite the fact it has received something like $500 billion from the rich in that time? And why is it always hovering on the brink of chaos? The answers usually given are wrong.

It is true that the boundaries of the countries of modern Africa were drawn up arbitrarily by European colonising powers with an almost complete disregard for the ethnic groups living in them, whose lands often straddled those new boundaries. This meant that, after independence, the people of Africa seldom felt much attachment to their country and they therefore regarded the state as a source of plunder. But in fact few “rational” boundaries could have been drawn up in Africa, since its land is so often occupied by more than one ethnic group; and in any case, of the few “rationally” constituted countries, several (Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia for example) have not produced altogether encouraging results.

Pan-Africanism, which leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana favoured, is not a solution, either, because it is unlikely that what cannot be achieved on a small scale can be achieved on a vast one. Nor is a lack of trained and educated people the problem. Those countries, such as Sierra Leone, with a comparatively high level of education, have fared no better than those with a low level (the Congo, notoriously, had no graduates at independence). Education in Africa means, overwhelmingly, entry into government service, which is to say a position from which to obstruct and then to extort bribes from fellow citizens. When I worked in Tanzania, and later when I crossed Africa by public transport, I saw how money was extorted from ordinary Africans at every available opportunity. Even to keep a child at school meant a constant flow of bribes to officialdom. It is little wonder then that an increase in the number of educated people does nothing to increase the wealth of the country, quite the contrary.

In Africa, natural resources are a curse rather than a blessing. They heighten political tensions, because control of the revenues that they bring is the one sure means of becoming immensely wealthy. The oil of Nigeria not only destroyed the country’s export agriculture within a few years but also turned the control of the resulting billions into the sole important – indeed, burning – question of Nigerian politics; the diamonds of Liberia and Sierra Leone led to prolonged civil wars; the Congo’s mineral deposits gave immense powers of patronage to its long-time dictator, Sese Seko Mobutu, and have sustained a long-running international and civil war since he was deposed.

Decolonisation devolved power not to traditional African rulers, who by and large had ruled with the consent of their subjects and in accordance with traditional customs that limited their power, but a new class that was European in its education and taste for material goods but African in its mentality and sensibility. This class inherited the colonial state intact, with all the immense powers that the state had arrogated to itself, but without any colonial office supervision to reign in personal extravagance or dishonesty. Being African, the new class felt obliged to dispose of favours to their kinsmen, their villagers and their tribesmen. A man who achieved a position of power, and who failed to use it in this fashion, to enrich himself and all those who depended upon or who were connected with him, was not only a fool, but a bad man who failed to fulfill his most basic social responsibilities.

The stage was thus set for the winner-takes-all game of African politics in which 80 cents of every dollar lent ends up in the secret bank accounts of the continent’s rulers. This game is completely inimical both to democracy and to economic development. Almost the sole route to personal advancement in Africa has been via politics, or at least via political influence. “Seek ye first the political kingdom,” said Nkrumah, and that is what ambitious Africans have been doing ever since. Only a change in the political culture of the continent, easier to wish for than to bring about, will result in a real decrease in poverty. Only when politics is not the sole path to advancement, and education is no longer merely the means to obtain a government position, will Africa advance.

The problems of Africa are therefore not to be solved by a few pop stars singing their hearts out every 20 years to tens of thousands of people who couldn’t find Burkina Faso on a map. Even if all the money raised went directly to the poorest people on the continent, without passing through and sticking to the hands of aid workers, bureaucrats, politicians and warlords (which experience shows is a highly unlikely eventuality), it would do little lasting good. It is actually likely to do more harm.

Africans are capable like all other people of responding to economic opportunity. They need to create the conditions in which productive activity can flourish on the continent. Even improved access to our markets will not do this for them. Providing them with further opportunity for corruption is not the way forward, rock concert or no rock concert.

Powerful stuff.