The failure of altruism

Peter Goodspeed
National Post
July 2, 2005

Fifty years of aid has done little to lift Africa from poverty. Despite an estimated $500-billion in assistance, it continues to head the lists for poverty, corruption and disease. In a three-part series that begins today, Peter Goodspeed examines the problems and prospects of the world’s neediest continent. Today, he describes how well-intentioned efforts have failed to improve life for most Africans.

It may have been one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll concerts of all time, but Live Aid did not change the course of African history.

Twenty years ago, 1.5 billion people in 110 countries bonded via satellite during a 16-hour transAtlantic rock concert. From the moment Status Quo opened at London’s Wembley Stadium on July 13, 1985, with Rockin’ All over the World, to the grand finale, when a bevy of rock stars sang We Are the World, Live Aid was a defining moment in rock ‘n’ roll history.

It still remains right up there with Woodstock, the Monterey Pop Festival and the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

But, while Live Aid’s songs raised more than US$100-million for famine victims in Ethiopia and Sudan, they did almost nothing to alleviate Africa’s steady descent into disaster.

Two decades on, Africa remains a cursed continent, wracked with famine, malnutrition, high infant mortality, disease, mismanagement, corruption and civil war. Awash in refugees, it still lacks leadership. Declining economic growth, crime and unemployment are widespread.

Although some countries have held democratic elections in recent years, much of the continent remains a place of repression, with despots and corrupt officials feathering their own nests at the expense of their people.

Millions of Africans are condemned to die, without dignity or hope, from war, famine, AIDS and economic catastrophe.

According to the United Nations, since 1970 more than 30 wars in Africa have accounted for “more than half of all war-related deaths worldwide” and turned nearly 10 million people into refugees.

More than 12,000 African children die every day, mostly from preventable illnesses such as pneumonia, malaria, diarrhea and measles. Another 6,000 Africans succumb to AIDS daily.

Africa already has 16 million children orphaned through AIDS, a figure expected to climb to 50 million in the next five years.

The World Food Program says twice as many children under the age of five die each year in Africa as in 1960.

Africa’s position in the global economy is also steadily eroding. According to a World Bank report, it now contains the largest share of the world’s absolute poor.

“Africa’s poor are the poorest of the poor,” says the World Bank report.

“Large parts of the population are locked in a dynastic form of poverty, progressively less able to escape because children lack the basic capabilities to participate in a productive economy.”

The continent’s share of world trade has fallen steadily for 40 years and now accounts for less than 2% of the total, down from 6% in 1980.

While technological advances are transforming civilization everywhere else, Africa remains cut off from the information revolution.

At the most basic levels, it is isolated and destitute – 43 million African children do not even get an elementary education and 300 million Africans lack safe drinking water.

Despite decades of foreign aid and borrowing – estimated at almost US$1-trillion in the past 50 years – Africa has become steadily poorer. It is now home to 75% of the world’s poorest countries.

A new study by Development Policy Research Unit at the University of Cape Town calculates that 46% of Africans survive on less than $1 a day, 21% eke out an existence on less than 50 cents a day and the “ultra-poor,” about 6%, live on less than 25 cents.

“In absolute terms, while there were approximately 164 million poor individuals in sub-Saharan Africa in 1981, this figure had increased to 316 million in 2001,” the study says.

For decades diplomats and world leaders have recognized Africa was spinning out of control. Former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger once described it as “the festering disaster of our age,” while more recently British Prime Minister Tony Blair said its plight was “a scar on the conscience of the world.”

But while the problem has triggered periodic waves of activism and calls of concern, nothing has changed. Humanitarianism has been countered by genocide; altruism has been overwhelmed by corruption; hope has floundered on the hard rock of reality.

The Live 8 concerts are trying to pick up where Live Aid left off. But its organizers also tried to shift the focus on Africa from charity to a fight for justice. In the process, they are reigniting an old debate on how best to help developing countries.

As the leaders of the Group of Eight prepare to hold their annual summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, Live 8 organizers and their supporters are demanding the world’s richest countries focus on helping Africa on three fronts — debt relief, trade reform and foreign aid.

Their basic argument, outlined by Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at New York’s Columbia University and author of the book The End of Poverty, is that Africa needs a comprehensive “big push” to pull it out of its “poverty trap.”

According to this argument, Africa can be dragged back from disaster and set on the road to recovery through massive increases in foreign aid, debt relief and improved trade.

“When you are struggling to live from day-to-day, struggling to eat, you have no surplus capital to build roads or to acquire medicine or malaria nets – nor does your government,” says Mr. Sachs. “So your poverty literally traps you. There is no margin of income above survival that can be invested for the future.

“When people say Africa needs ‘trade, not aid,’ they miss the point,” he adds. “They need trade plus aid, or they will never get out of the poverty trap.”

African activists want the G8 leaders to go beyond last month’s commitment to write off about US$40-billion in bad debt owed by 18 countries, including 14 in Africa. They want total forgiveness of Africa’s outstanding loans.

This way, they argue, the billions of dollars poor African countries use to repay loans can be spent on health care, water purification and economic development.

The activists have joined a Commission on Africa, set up by Mr. Blair to draw up recommendations for the G8, to demand an immediate doubling of foreign aid to Africa. The commission called for increasing foreign aid to US$50-billion a year by 2010, US$25-billion a year by 2015.

“The developed world has a moral duty – as well as a powerful motive of self-interest – to assist Africa,” its report says. “We believe that now is the time when greater external support can have a major impact. This is a vital moment for the world to get behind Africa’s efforts.”

The final ingredient in this plan calls for abolishing farm subsidies and lowering trade barriers that hamper international trade. Mr. Blair wants the G8 to agree immediately to eliminate “trade-distorting support to cotton and sugar” and “commit by 2010 to end export subsidies and all-trade-distorting support to agriculture.”

The Commission on Africa says every cow in Europe receives almost $2 a day in agricultural subsidies – more than double the income of the average African. If the developed world eliminates its farm subsidies and removes trade barriers blocking African exports, farmers might become the continent’s saviours.

Agriculture could be an engine for growth, since it employs about 60% of Africa’s workers, contributes 17% of gross domestic product and accounts for 40% of foreign currency earnings.

Still, while nearly everyone agrees Africa is in trouble, not everyone believes a dramatic increase in foreign aid is the answer.

“The record of aid in Africa is not encouraging,” says Greg Mills, director of South Africa’s Brenthurst Foundation, an economic think-tank sponsored by the Oppenheimer family, major shareholders in diamond firm DeBeers.

“Despite more than $500-billion in aid transfers to the continent in the past five decades, Africans are poorer on average than they were 30 years ago,” Mr. Mills says. “The key challenge for Africa remains the need to create the conditions in which business – foreign and local – can flourish, to offer more than just transient alleviation of the worst conditions of poverty.”

“Flooding the continent with more money through debt relief and increased aid will not, by itself, put Africa on a path to recovery,” he says. “Sustained growth requires a long-term commitment by donors and African governments to build smart, diversified labour forces and efficient economies. This requires transparent governance and enticing private-sector buy-in.”

Some analysts say foreign aid creates and sustains an unequal relationship that leaves African governments dependent on foreign generosity. It undermines self-reliance, breeds resentment and encourages corruption.

“If aid could make Africa prosperous, it would have done so by now,” says Richard Dowden, director of London’s Royal African Society. “Despite nearly a trillion dollars of aid since independence in the 1960s, much of Africa is worse off now than it was then.”

In his view, there is no short cut to development. “Only Africans themselves can bring change to Africa,” he says.

Read the second part of this series.


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