Africa: Debt, Aid and Race

16 June 2005

Africa: Debt, Aid and Race

By Gwynne Dyer

“We are very sorry and apologise to viewers and other people who felt offended,” announced the Japanese cosmetics firm Mandom early this month, but mass ritual suicide would have been a more appropriate form of apology. The company had aired a TV commercial that showed several black people wiping the sweat from their brows with a Mandom facial wipe while a chimpanzee wearing an afro wig imitated them.

Meanwhile, Augsburg city zoo in southern Germany has just finished a special event in which an “African village” was erected between the baboon cage and the zebra cage. Black people living in Germany were persuaded to populate the village wearing various sorts of “tribal” regalia and playing drums, cooking food for sale or selling curios. The good citizens of Augsburg were astonished when people from elsewhere took exception to this display.

Germans and Japanese are less sensitive about race in general and about Africa in particular than, say, people in France or the United States, where a significant minority of the population is of African descent, but patronising attitudes about Africa are chronic in all the rich countries. Take, for instance, the current debate about increasing aid to African countries and cancelling their debts.

The leaders of the eight biggest developed countries will probably make a deal at next month’s G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, that doubles aid to Africa and slashes the debts of its poorest countries. Prime Minister Tony Blair, this year’s host, is determined to make Africa a priority, and Bob Geldof is seeking to repeat his success with the Live-Aid concerts twenty years ago by staging Live8 concerts. But what good will they actually do for Africa?

This is where the debate begins, and most people on both sides seem to see Africans as wayward children. Africans are just as intelligent and resourceful as other people, and if their countries are still poor it is because they face special and very intractable problems, but the argument in the rich countries takes almost no account of this.

The pessimists point out that vast amounts of aid money have been poured into Africa over the years — around $5,000 per African — without relieving the continent’s poverty. The problem, they say, is the near-universal corruption of Africa’s ruling elites: there are 100,000 millionaires in Africa, and yet an African child dies of malnutrition or preventable disease every three seconds. Cancel the debts and pour more aid in, and the same elites will steal that, too.

No, say optimists like Blair, things have changed now. A new generation of African leaders is bringing democracy and good governance to the continent, and so long as we put strict conditions on how the new aid and debt relief will be used, this time round most of it won’t be wasted.

It is a debate in which both sides essentially believe that Africans are childlike. One side assumes it openly: don’t give them any more aid until they behave better. The other side is subtler: yes, they are backward, but now they have better leaders who won’t steal the money. We give monkeys in the zoo more respect than that.

Africa’s problem isn’t dishonesty or immaturity, which are fairly evenly spread around the planet. It is too many relatively small ethnic groups trying to share the same country. Social traditions that expect successful people to support even distant relations often make the situation worse, but no other continent has such extravagant ethnic diversity, so it’s really up to Africans themselves to overcome the problem. The G8 can help, but only in limited ways.

Much of Africa’s debt burden was not really aid in the first place, but money that the West (and the old Soviet Union) handed over to keep their African clients loyal during the Cold War, knowing full well that it would be stolen. A lot more was “tied” aid that funded foolish mega-projects in order to create work for Western companies. So cancel the debt with no nonsense about the beneficiaries proving that they can behave “responsibly.” And if you do give aid, give it without crippling “conditionalities.”

This is where Africans really get treated like backward children, forced to privatise everything in sight in obedience to the fundamentalist market doctrines that now hold sway in most of the West (which, by the sheerest coincidence, creates new investment opportunities for Western companies). Consider Uganda’s experience, for example.

Uganda, a reasonably well-run country, was forced to impose “user fees” on basic healthcare and primary education in the late 1980s to qualify for World Bank debt relief and aid — so school attendance collapsed and the death rate among the rural poor soared. Eventually, in 1997, President Yoweri Museveni rebelled and restored free primary education throughout Uganda. Primary school enrolment more than doubled. In 2001 he restored free basic healthcare, and the number of hospital outpatients almost doubled.

There will be an orgy of self-congratulation at the G8 next month as African debt is allegedly cut and aid is allegedly raised, and many well-meaning people who have pressured their leaders on this issue will feel that something has been accomplished. It can be, but only if they insist on knowing what strings are attached to the help. Africa is not poor because Africans are more stupid or less honest than people elsewhere.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The pessimists…wasted”)