Thursday, July 14, 2005

Cruel To be Kind?

On a slightly belated note, last week Jude Wanniski wrote this piece on the G-8 and African aid. He recommended reading this Der Spiegel interview with Kenyan economist James Shikwati titled "For God's Sake, Please Stop The Aid!" It's interesting stuff. Excerpt:
And at some point, this corn ends up in the harbor of Mombasa. A portion of the corn often goes directly into the hands of unscrupulous politicians who then pass it on to their own tribe to boost their next election campaign. Another portion of the shipment ends up on the black market where the corn is dumped at extremely low prices. Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away; no one can compete with the UN's World Food Program. And because the farmers go under in the face of this pressure, Kenya would have no reserves to draw on if there actually were a famine next year. It's a simple but fatal cycle.
And this:
Why do we get these mountains of clothes? No one is freezing here. Instead, our tailors lose their livelihoods. They're in the same position as our farmers. No one in the low-wage world of Africa can be cost-efficient enough to keep pace with donated products. In 1997, 137,000 workers were employed in Nigeria's textile industry. By 2003, the figure had dropped to 57,000. The results are the same in all other areas where overwhelming helpfulness and fragile African markets collide.
I'm no expert on Africa or U.N./NGO aid. In the past year or so, however, much of my leisure reading has been about the parts of Africa that don't get a lot of Western press---places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, and the Central African Republic. There is some excellent and fascinating coverage of "back-alley" Africa by outfits like the BBC; predictably, the mainsteam media in the U.S. is missing-in-action on this part of the world. Part of my interest is purely historical---the history of the West in some of these places is truly sordid---but, looking forward, it is based in finance and geopolitics as well. Africa's natural resources are staggering; parts of the continent are swimming in copper, cobalt, diamonds, gold, uranium and coltan. Some of these resources are crucial to products we consider essential like cell phones and laptops. Not surprisingly, China realizes this; it has been ramping up its presence and alliances all over the continent, particularly in unstable but emerging places like the DRC (a nation recovering from a civil war in which millions died, that suffers from a permanent state of tenuously-controlled turmoil, and has a working nuclear reactor from which fuel rods have disappeared in the past). Part of me is slightly saddened at the inevitability of modernization and its effects---there are not a lot of cities left on the planet with millions of people and no McDonald's, and Africa has just about all of them---but I also find the dynamic of development in these places fascinating.

An important part of that development is Western aid, thus my interest in the G-8 meeting as well as articles like the one above. The argument that this aid is essentially a type of insidious, self-perpetuating welfare is not new. But it does make sense from a broader perspective, particularly when seen in the context of African success stories like Ghana and Botswana. Of course, the broader perspective becomes irrelevant when people are starving and simply need help as quickly as possible. And from what I've read, the Bush administration's efforts in the fight against AIDS have been nothing less than fantastic. But if aid to Africa is to be anything more than a band-aid that undercuts local development and benefits mostly middlemen and corrupt leaders, I agree with Wanniski's long-standing argument that we need to think beyond the headlines of food and AIDS and address the harder stuff like banking systems, interest rates and taxation. Certainly not easy, and on the totem pole of what's happening in the world right now, not a priority. But in the long run we have an important humanistic as well as geopolitical stake in this.

If there are any readers with a personal or professional interest in this, perhaps someone with U.N. or NGO experience, I'd be interested in reading your take.

35 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Was reading a book by Thomas PM Barnett and he talks quite a bit about what he calls the Gap - which includes most of Africa. He includes something that you left out but may come before banking systems, interest rates, and taxation in many African countries - security. Without that the rest (and any foreign investment) are near impossible.

7/14/2005 8:35 AM  
Blogger G said...

You should look into picking up a copy of John Burnett's Where Soldiers Fear To Tread:A Relief Worker's Tale Of Survival.

Ostensibly about the horrors and dangers faced by relief workers who went to Somalia to provide aid in the late 90s, the book actually touches upon much of what you mention above. What Burnett discovers when in Somalia is that much of the hate directed towards relief workers is due largely to failed or inefficient relief efforts that either did not deliver any goods or money to the population itself, or only served to put the few with incomes and livelihoods out of work.

What relief programs should do is support the local industries. Build them up so they can be sustainable. So there can be an economy. The programs cannot stay there 50 or 100 years - but going there for 5 to 10 to build and support a local economy via local industry (farming, tailoring, construction, etc) will have the greater impact of creating a self-sustaining economy that will last well beyond 50 to 100 years.

7/14/2005 10:41 AM  
Blogger BullandBearWise said...

Ultimately, it boils down to the conceptual grasp of the rule of law. It took the West about 1,000 years to get it. We expect others to pick it up in 100 years.

7/14/2005 11:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Economist has a lot of very good insight into African Aid, the fight against HIV and Malaria, FDI, etc. Most of these require a subscription but their website has a lot of good info as well. One recent article is at:
http://www.economist.com/world/africa/displaystory.cfm?story_id=4157589


Also, bullandbearwise, I believe that is a common misconception. The rule of law and "civilization" was in place in India, Fedual Japan, China, and the Ottoman Empire quite some time ago. However, the idea of "western civilization" is the only one that seems to matter, and this was spread throughout the world by the British . And in doing so the natural progression of the native civilizations to "grasp the concept of the rule of law" may have been thrown off pace. I agree with the fact that more patience is needed in regards to these situations. In case anyone else is interested in more of the history the rise of the west and the possible reasons why it happened the way it did I highly reccomend "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond and "Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power" by Neil Ferguson.

7/14/2005 12:06 PM  
Anonymous howard said...

actually, it is important now.

if you believe that failed states can breed terrorism - and i'm certainly prepared to accept that as a working premise, even though, pace some recent research, failed states may not produce suicide bombers - then the future risk from africa, and especially the orphan generation, is enormous.

so encouraging africa onto a better path now is highly important.

7/14/2005 3:10 PM  
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This is why I like the Heifer Project.

7/14/2005 5:19 PM  
Blogger Antonie said...

I would not put extra money in the hands of corrupt leaders. They just syphon off the funds to buy personal property or put it in Swiss bank accounts. They don't seem to care very much about the welfare of their citizens. One excellent example used to be Mobutu of the former Zaire.

7/14/2005 7:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've heard Jeffrey Sachs speak on this topic. He's the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He said there are some relatively simple agricultural things we could invest in and teach them that would dramatically increase their agricultural output, while doing less damage to the land. He said that most of the money is going to fix catastrophies once they have occurred, but very little is going into infrastructure, prevention, or education.

Not a place you'd expect, but Oprah has done several shows on Africa (she sends National Geographic's journalist Lisa Ling). Oprah is building schools in Africa. I also like investor Jim Rogers view on the world. Yes, Africa's natural resources will be a blessing and a curse. 60 Minutes did a piece on oil in Equatorial Guinea and what is happening to the people (whatever happened to Thatcher's son who was arrested there). It is funny how these things will turn around and bite you. As these places are abused, the people and environment suffer, and then they become prime candidates to become the next terrorists. I can't look at a diamond without wondering if someone lost a limb or died for it.

Most of my information about Africa has been thru PBS and the Peace Corp. We take such things as access to fresh water for granted in our country.

We either help them out, or open our markets (and that includes getting rid of subsidies).

b-span at the worldbank also has videos to watch.

When I hear or see stories about non-profits gathering used clothing and sending it to a regions and not meaning to, destroy the local clothing industry, I am amazed. We are so naive. I read that even where the tsunami hit, they are saying they have enough money, what they need are the skills and people to build housing and use the money constructively.

This was an educational story on Jamaica's economy. For example, we decimated their local dairy industry by dumping tons and tons of powered milk.

One thing I always liked about the company The Body Shop, at least when Anita Roddick first started it, her philosophy was trade not aid.

7/15/2005 12:08 AM  
Blogger OskarShapley said...

I take my cues on Africa from the War Nerd...

7/15/2005 5:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I object to one of your statements, the one about Bush's AIDS work in Africa being nothing less than fantastic.

It's important to note that Bush is using the US' monetary muscle to push his Christian-moralist agenda: US foreign aid goes only to organizations that preach abstinence over protection. In some cases, funds have been cut or cuts have been threatened to organizations doing good and successful work in connection with dispensing free condoms and related safety advice. Though I'm afraid I don't have links handy, I remember reading about this happening in South Africa (where pragmatic methods are so far are proving amazingly effective) and in Brazil, where US aid was linked to dropping a socially useful prostitute support program.

Spreading incorrect information about sex and STDs, and enforcing the spread of such information and policy, is costing many lives - is this what Christianity is all about? When will they realize that most sane yet warm-blooded human beings will never pass up sex just because the Church says so?

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