New Vision (Kampala)
March 18, 2004
The previous week I participated in a controversial debate: “The Best way to help Africa is to leave it alone”. It was held at the Royal Geographical Society in London, sponsored by The Evening Standard of London and organised by Intelligence Squared, a public issue debate organisation.
The debate was well attended and the organisers admitted that it was the largest meeting they had ever organised. It was a ticket – only event and they had more than 1,000 people willing to pay but the space could only accommodate 800 people.
It may be because the British public is very much interested in Africa or the controversial nature of the topic attracted people. Or it could be that the presence of Mrs Clare Short, the former secretary of state for international development for the UK who resigned from Tory Blair’s government after initial prevarication and blew the whistle on the continuing blatant Blair lies about the unjust war against Iraq and recently upped the stakes by exposing British Intelligence dropping unwanted milk in the coffee of gentleman secretary-general of the UN, Kofi Annan.
Whatever the reason(s), the debate was all-ticket sold. I was arguing for the motion along with Richard Dowden, former Africa editor of The Independent and The Economist and now director of the Royal Africa Society and also Matthew Parris, a former Conservative Member of Parliament and leading right-wing newspaper columnist.
Clare led the other side supported by veteran journalist and writer and Nelson Mandela’s friend and biographer, Anthony Sampson, and Lord Maulding, a former senior civil servant and diplomat, now head of St Antony’s College Oxford, as genuine representative of the Patrician English gentleman.
It was a strange line-up because ordinarily there was more shared between Richard, Clare and Sampson and myself than with Matthew Parris who is an unrepentant Afro-pessimist, whose understanding and expectation of Africa has never gone beyond Joseph Conrad’s ‘dark continent’. The more he travelled in Africa, the more evidence he claimed to gather for confirming Conrad. Is that the only evidence or is that the only thing he is looking for?
I had agreed to argue for the motion not because it was controversial but because of a firm conclusion I have reached after more than two-and-a-half decades of being a strugglist. Aid does not and cannot develop any society. Development must be the direct result of people’s efforts to take control of their own destiny because nobody owes us a living: we owe it to ourselves. The argument is not whether Africa needs help or not but that it is too weak, fragmented and vulnerable to be able to decide where and when it needs help now. In this situation Aid has created an artificial atmosphere of a few ‘good guy states’ that are kept in power by donor funds and external support without any accountability to their own peoples.
We lost the debate but I believe not the arguments. One, nobody can point to any society whose development has been the result of external help that remained sustainable. Two, Aid creates Aid dependence and Aid addiction that undermines Africa’s capacity to help itself. Three, a situation where Aid becomes the biggest component of the annual budget of a country’s recurrent expenditure and almost all of its capital expenditure undermines democracy and accountability to citizens. If our governments are not in power due to our taxes, why should we expect them to be accountable to us? They will be accountable to those who are paying the pipers. That is why our leaders troop to London, Washington, Paris, Brussels and other non-African capitals to show their masters they are ‘good guys’. Unfortunately the same apply to our successful NGOs too. Four, it is immoral that governments that cannot build roads, schools or hospitals but are ready, willing and able to wage all kinds of unjust wars without needing IMF/World Bank should turn round to make a claim on the outside world to help them feed, clothe, educate and make their people healthy.
Five, most African states do not need aid; they need proper government that respects its people and put their interest above personal and cliquish interests. Why should anybody give Aid to Nigeria, for instance? It has more than it needs but has not got what it deserves in leadership?
So if the West really wants to help Africa, there are a number of things it can do. One, Western governments and financial institutions should remove all obstacles to free and fair trade which benefits them at our expense be it IMF/World Bank, WTO or other unfair multilateral agreements. Two, it should accept that the debt owed by all African and developing world is odious and should be written off immediately for everybody, not just favorite strong men rulers who they hope will act or are acting as their foremen in Africa. It does not make for sustainable development for Uganda for instance to have HIPC if the rest of East Africa and the great Lakes region is denied it.
Uganda’s growth and development will be constrained as we have seen in recent years.
Three, the west should show its true commitment to free trade by removing all the trade and tariff barriers that continue to prevent Africa and other poorer countries from competing fairly in their markets. For instance, the grotesque subsidy enjoyed through the common agricultural policies of the European Union that protects its unproductive and uncompetitive farmers in the industry or the protectionist measures of the US government that advantages its industry.
Four, globalisation should be truly global in terms of the freedom of labour to move across continents without any hindrances. Remittances to Africa are now more than total budget for Aid collectively and in some countries it may even be more than the national budget. Let these largely illegal immigrants in Europe and America be legalised and they will help develop their countries.
Without this, Aid to Africa will only be a case of someone beating you and at the same time offering you a handkerchief to wipe your tears.
Do you thank him or whack him back?
Categories: Africa, Odious Debts
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