Review: The Trouble with Africa–Why Foreign Aid Isn’t Working

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Credible, Pointed, Relevant, Useful, Essential,

July 17, 2009
Robert Calderisi
I read in groups in order to avoid being “captured” or overly-swayed by any single point of view. The other books on Africa that I will be reviewing this week-end include:
Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa
The Challenge for Africa
Africa Unchained: The Blueprint for Africa’s FutureUp front the author stresses that since 1975 Africa has been in a downward spiral, ultimately losing HALF of its foreign market for African goods and services, a $70 billion a year plus loss that no amount of foreign aid can supplant.

The corruption of the leaders and the complacency of the West in accepting that corruption is a recurring theme. If the USA does not stop supporting dictators and embracing corruption as part of the “status quo” then no amount of good will or aid will suffice.

The author emphasizes the pettiness and egotism of African leaders, another recurring theme distinct from their corruption. He praises Nelson Mandela, Leopold Senghor of Senegal, and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania as wise men and models.

He also emphasizes the need to eliminate monopolies, and I have for myself a note, “need to map monopolies–governmental and corporate as well as religious and tribal–down to the district level.”

Opening quote (p 7):

“…most not … aware that Africa has steadily lost markets by its own mismanagement; that most countries–including supposedly “capitalist” ones like the Ivory Coast–have been anti-business; that African family loyalty and fatalism have been more destructive than tribalism; that African leaders and intellectuals play intentionally on Western guilt; that even Africa’s “new” leaders are indifferent to public opinion and key issues like AIDS; and that, in recent decades, Africans have probably been more cruel to each other than anyone else has been.”

The author is also optimistic, observing as so many have the richness of Africa in talent, resources, and tradition.

In the author’s view, aid works best when the government and society are already moderately effective, and a new approach for Africa might start with Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique [this was written before the recent implosion of that country], Ghana, and Mail. He praises Botswana and Mauritius as success stories of lasting importance. I am reminded that four countries have 50% of Africa’s population: Nigeria, Congo (CD), Ethiopia, and South Africa.

Practical impediments to African develop identified by the author include a lack of deep-water ports (to which I would add multiple land-locked countries); a failure to achieve unity as a whole and even unity at the sub-region level–he spends time on the collapse of Central Africa.

Highlights from this book, which “tells a story” in a very credible way and also improves my appreciation for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both of which I have considered part of the problem for over a decade:

+ Home-grown corruption & despotism is the leading cause of decline.

+ The greatest need is for open debate, a free and informative press, a full disclosure to the public of public information about problems, programs, incoming aid funds, and the contributions of outsiders as well as the negative impact of insiders. On page 55 the author is eloquent in condemning “the ignorance, uncertainty, dishonesty, and insecurity that rule African lives.”

+ Core issues include the importance of primary education, family planning, giving women access to credit, fighting corruption, and opening internal markets for farmers and workers, not just business.

+ A full chapter discusses culture, corruption, and correctness, and here I learn more about the connection between the family tradition and corruption, the fatalism and acceptance of hardship, the community culture that discourages individual imitative (which is successful is drained by family claims for “sharing), and so on. I am especially impressed by the author’s urgency in condemning Western acceptance of continued corruption at all levels of any government.

+ I learn that racism is alive and well and that hypocrisy runs deep in Africa.

+ Only one aid program has truly worked in the author’s view, the fight against river blindness.

+ If the World Bank annual budget for Africa were given directly to the poor, it would last ten days (this is one of the reasons I believe we must empower the poor with cell phones and access to information so they can create infinite wealth on their own).

After case studies of Tanzania, Ivory Coast, and Central Africa (region), the author concludes with ten recommendations that I find gripping in their practical value:

01 Introduce mechanisms for tracing and recovering public funds [i.e. from Switzerland, Caymans]

02 Require all Heads of State, Ministers, and Senior Officials to open their bank accounts to public scrutiny

03 Cut direct aid to individual countries in half

04 Focus direct aid on four to five countries that are serious about reducing poverty

05 Require all countries to hold internationally-supervised elections

06 Promote other aspects of democracy including a free press and an independent judiciary

07 Supervise the running Africa’s schools and HIV/AIDS program

08 Establish citizen review groups to oversee government policy and agreements

09 Put more emphasis on infrastructure and regional links

10 Merge the World Bank, IMF, and United Nations Development Programme

As something of a bottom line, I conclude from this book that decades of Western tolerance for massive corruption and ineffectiveness at the leadership level in Africa, combined with aid generosity lacking in practical direction has allowed Africa to rot from within.

A final quote from the last page (230):

“Only those familiar with the human beauty, potential, and suffering of the continent will dare hope for breakthroughs in the next ten years. More than others, they know that only Africans can break the cycle of terror, poverty, and mediocrity that keeps them subdued.”

Other books I recommend with this one:
Deliver Us from Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords and a World of Endless Conflict
Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World’s Last Dictators by 2025
The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It
The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits (Wharton School Publishing Paperbacks)
A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility–Report of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change
The leadership of civilization building: Administrative and civilization theory, symbolic dialogue, and citizen skills for the 21st century
How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, Updated Edition

My take-away: Africa is an Information Operations (IO) challenge; create a regional Range of Needs table at the household level that the one billion rich can plug into while also harmonizing the giving and the investments of organizations, and Africa can be the first Smart Continent that uses information as a substitute for violence, corruption, time, and space.

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