Der Spiegel, the German paper, has an eye-opening interview with James Shikwati, a Kenyan economist, who pleads with the West to stop sending aid to Africa. Shiwati's argument is that the aid stops local institutions from forming and provides such cheap agricultural and other products that local farmers and manufacturers can't compete and so never develop their own independent enterprises.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Shikwati, the G8 summit at Gleneagles is about to beef up the development aid for Africa...Bush tried to propose that both Europe and America give up their farm subsidies and he got nowhere. This would be one great way to aid African and Latin American farmers who just can't compete with our subsidized farmers. It seems like such a win-win for everyone except for rich corporate farmers who have come to depend on those subsidies. I don't see these subsidies ever disappearing. There are too many politicians who represent farm states who will never cast that vote. And European farmers would shut down the continent if the EU ever tried to do this. Farmers would block all the highways with their tractors if they didn't get their subsidies.
Shikwati: ... for God's sake, please just stop.
SPIEGEL: Stop? The industrialized nations of the West want to eliminate hunger and poverty.
Shikwati: Such intentions have been damaging our continent for the past 40 years. If the industrial nations really want to help the Africans, they should finally terminate this awful aid. The countries that have collected the most development aid are also the ones that are in the worst shape. Despite the billions that have poured in to Africa, the continent remains poor.
SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation for this paradox?
Shikwati: Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa's problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn't even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit. Which is why they maintain that the world would stop turning without this development aid.
SPIEGEL: Even in a country like Kenya, people are starving to death each year. Someone has got to help them.
Shikwati: But it has to be the Kenyans themselves who help these people. When there's a drought in a region of Kenya, our corrupt politicians reflexively cry out for more help. This call then reaches the United Nations World Food Program -- which is a massive agency of apparatchiks who are in the absurd situation of, on the one hand, being dedicated to the fight against hunger while, on the other hand, being faced with unemployment were hunger actually eliminated. It's only natural that they willingly accept the plea for more help. And it's not uncommon that they demand a little more money than the respective African government originally requested. They then forward that request to their headquarters, and before long, several thousands tons of corn are shipped to Africa ...
SPIEGEL: ... corn that predominantly comes from highly-subsidized European and American farmers ...
Ruandan President Kagame has over a million deaths on his conscience, says Shikwati.
Shikwati: ... and at some point, this corn ends up in the harbor of Mombasa. A portion of the corn often goes directly into the hands of unsrupulous politicians who then pass it on to their own tribe to boost their next election campaign. Another portion of the shipment ends up on the black market where the corn is dumped at extremely low prices. Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away; no one can compete with the UN's World Food Program. And because the farmers go under in the face of this pressure, Kenya would have no reserves to draw on if there actually were a famine next year. It's a simple but fatal cycle.
SPIEGEL: If the World Food Program didn't do anything, the people would starve.
Shikwati: I don't think so. In such a case, the Kenyans, for a change, would be forced to initiate trade relations with Uganda or Tanzania, and buy their food there. This type of trade is vital for Africa. It would force us to improve our own infrastructure, while making national borders -- drawn by the Europeans by the way -- more permeable. It would also force us to establish laws favoring market economy.
Sadly, I don't see this calamitous aid cycle that Shikwati describes ever ending. It just feels too good to western politicians. Whether it accomplishes anything is besides the point. Remember, as Bob Geldof said,
Something must be done, even if it doesn't work."Even if it's counterproductive, let's just do it. And if we can throw in some rock and roll or some hearty back-patting while doing it, all the better.
Read the rest of Shikwati's interview. You rarely see such forthrightness as his. Sadly, I don't think he has a snowball's chance in the Sahara of changing things. If you want to read more along these lines, try George Ayittey's Africa Unchained.