Leaky bowls

Sarah McGregor, Embassy

May 18, 2005

The direct transfer of development assistance to African “vampire states” from Western governments that “do not want to criticize black African leaders for fear of being labeled racist” are two related aspects hobbling international aid programs, charged a Ghanaian scholar and author addressing the Foreign Affairs Senate Committee last week.

“This overt sensitivity to racial issues does not help us in Africa, because it inadvertently supports misguided policies in Africa,” said George Ayittey, a professor of economics at American University in Washington D.C.

The “leader-centred” mindset is a Cold War relic, when African politicians who paid lip service to anti-Communist rhetoric were rewarded with Western support, said Mr. Ayittey.

“Naïve Westerners assume that the best way of helping the African people is by handing money over to the government, upon the assumption that the institution called government exists in many African countries. This is not so,” said Mr. Ayittey. “What we have as government is a mafia state or vampire state. That is a government which has been hijacked by crooks and bandits, who use the instruments of the state to enrich themselves.”

He noted corruption is endemic in most African nations and the bureaucracy, ministers and African heads of state – “quite often the chief bandit” – pocket money intended to help the poor, as well as offer patronage appointments. He pointed to a 2004 study by the African Union that shows the continent loses $148 billion annually to corruption – roughly the same amount UN special advisor Jeffrey Sachs said is required annually to end poverty in Africa over the next decade. It also equals about one-quarter of the continent’s total gross domestic product according to that report.

“Africa’s begging bowl leaks horribly. If African leaders were able to curb corruption, they would find all the money [they need],” Mr. Ayittey said. “If these leaders could invest half of that loot in Africa, things will turn around. We do not want to be in position where we are always asking the West to do something for us when the leaders are not doing anything for their own people and countries.”

Institutional failure, and particularly the lack of a free and independent media, is a major factor that allows lawlessness and corruption in some African nations. “The first thing to solving a problem is exposing it, and that is the job of the media,” he later said in an interview with Embassy. “Radio is the media of the masses there. [Supporting] Radio Free Africa is the greatest gift Canada could give.” Independence of other key bodies must also exist, namely a central bank, judiciary, electoral commission, professional Armed Forces and efficient civil service, he said.

Mr. Ayittey was on a panel of four experts discussing the value of development assistance in Africa, and his boiling testimony clearly raised the most eyebrows during the May 10 meeting on Parliament Hill.

Mr. Ayittey was a beneficiary of the CIDA scholarship program, studying at Western University in London, Ontario in the 1970s. He returned to his homeland of Ghana before returning to Canada and earning his PhD at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. He is the author of Africa Unchained: the Blueprint for Development.

In a phone interview following his Ottawa appearance, Mr. Ayittey said the new plan by CIDA to give most of its aid to fewer needy nations is controversial. Eligibility based on good governance, one of its key criteria in choosing recipient countries, has been influenced by many other factors, he noted. “There might be certain sympathies toward certain countries that are fighting against terrorism, or have mining interests or commodities that Canada wants,” he explained.

Canada has selected a list of 25 bilateral partners, over half of which are in Africa. Mr. Ayittey pointed to the list, saying Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Kenya, Tanzania, and “possibly” Zambia are nations which are set to “implode” for reasons stemming from different simmering civil tensions. “The aid isn’t being used properly, it’s just being consumed,” he said.

Mr. Ayittey said an apparent movement in CIDA toward bilateral programming, coupled with less money available to civil society, is startling. He noted that some government-to-government funding ends up in general operating revenues and could pay the salaries of a bloated bureaucracy and political line-up. “The leaders reward their supporters with posts in the state sector … In Ghana we have 88 cabinet ministers and deputy ministers with a population with less than 20 million,” he says. “In Africa if you want to be rich you go into the state sector.”

The development agency’s partnership funding is expected to drop next year – 2005-2006 – by about one per cent. Meanwhile, most of the other branches of CIDA are growing and foreign aid overall is increasing by at least 8 per cent annually. “The time has come to empower the African people, not corrupt governments. We must know who we are helping in Africa,” said Mr. Ayittey. “The NGOs can respond far more quickly and they also know where the needs are.”

Mr. Ayittey also called for greater involvement of traditional leaders and civil society in signing peace accords and in the effort to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and other deadly diseases.

Gerry Barr, President of Canadian Council for International Co-operation, an umbrella group of international NGOs, also testified before the committee, and said the transfer of funds from developed economies to the Third World is about $60 billion annually ­ not nearly enough. He agreed, however, that transparency in transferring cash is required to give it any impact. “Well used, aid is a boon. Badly provided, it is a curse,” he said.

Panellist Ian Smillie, a widely respected international development expert, said global trade rules that encourage African entrepreneuralism – the real driver or long-term growth – must be part of the aid package. “Governance is very much a two-way street. If we expect Africans to take us seriously when we talk about corruption and good governance, then we need to look to ourselves in the North as well,” he said.

Categories: Africa, Odious Debts

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