Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Africa Needs More Than Aid

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday,  August 8 / 09

Zack Gross

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just kicked off an eleven-day, seven country tour to strengthen ties with three African powers (Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa), to show support for three nations coming out of conflict (Angola, Congo and Liberia), and just hanging out in Cape Verde. 

It is amazing how the Clintons continue to grab those international headlines, with ex-President Bill having just been the key American in a rescue mission of two journalists in North Korea.  Hopefully both trips will lead to our world being safer and more equitable.

Hillary Clinton follows in the wake of President Barack Obama’s visit to Ghana earlier in the summer and is her first to sub-Saharan Africa after six months in office.  In Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, she is speaking to a forum of forty African states that enjoy trade preferences in the US market as long as they hold free elections and follow a free market economy. 

She also wants to talk about insurgency in the Horn of Africa as the US Administration fears that this region is becoming a new home for the likes of Al-Qaida.  Currently, the US is very popular in Africa.  Polling done in seven sub-Saharan countries gives its black President, whose father was born in West Africa, an 87% approval rating.

While Obama vowed, while in Ghana, that the US would deliver help to the world’s poorest continent, he reminded African leaders that good governance was vital for development.  Speaking at Cape Coast Castle, a seaside fortress used in the slave trade by the British in the 17th Century, he said that the painful memories of slavery “remind us that as bad as history can be, it’s always possible to overcome”. 

While admitting that colonialism has left a difficult legacy, Obama stated that “Africa’s future is up to Africans”.  He said, possibly somewhat naively, that the West is not responsible for some current problems, such as the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy or the enlistment of child soldiers in Central Africa. 

“Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions – strong parliaments, honest police, independent judges and a free press”.

Part of Clinton’s agenda is to “call out” Africans leaders for their lack of democratic governance.  National elections held in Kenya in December 2007 led to extreme violence.  1300 people were killed because of what the media called ethnic tensions, but mainly these incidents were related to economic issues. 

The US is concerned that a reform agenda to address these issues, that would hold government accountable for social change to alleviate poverty, is not being implemented, and that prosecution of those who led the violence is not proceeding. 

Hillary Clinton’s message is that investors are not attracted to states with questionable leadership and civil unrest.  She said:  “The solution starts with transparency.  A famous judge in my country once said that sunlight is the best disinfectant.  And there’s lots of sunlight in Africa.” 

She also wants to shine a big spotlight on Africa’s women, saying that they have often been marginalized but are a key to building local economies.  Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga has responded by saying that trade is his priority, not receiving lectures on corruption.

Relevant to Clinton’s visit, outspoken economist and author William Easterly, who has worked in Africa with the World Bank and taught at large US universities, says that the “Save Africa” movement is doing more harm than good. 

He says that while high profile aid programs pump billions of dollars into Africa and big name celebrities tour the continent, adopting children and singing songs, Africans are portrayed only as victims and are not fully involved in leading the struggle against their own poverty.  Easterly says that mega-projects don’t reach the grassroots, so many opportunities to do relatively small things very well are not recognized and supported.

“Africans are not all genocide casualties, child soldiers, AIDS patients and famine deaths”, says Easterly, whose influential book White Man’s Burden was published in 2006. 

He describes projects in Kenya that provide students with textbooks and meals, a Ghanaian who has started a successful private university, and a Liberian entrepreneur who is bankrolling media and Internet outlets.  He echoes Clinton and Obama’s words that “Africa’s true saviours are the people of Africa”. 

Easterly says that if delivering aid the traditional way doesn’t work, doubling the budget won’t help. 

He does this not because he lacks sympathy or generosity, but because he’d like to see more effective programs implemented.  Likely the leaders of the rich world are in the same boat – they want to see a better life for the poor. 

But, after the speeches and the high-level meetings are done, they need to talk to ordinary Africans about how they would proceed, what works and what doesn’t, and what the ultimate goal should be.

Zack Gross coordinates a provincial fair trade outreach program for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of 38 international development organizations.
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