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February 20, 2008

William D. Rubinstein on the trouble with Africa's rulers: The Trouble With Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn't Working - Robert Calderisi

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

The Trouble With Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn't Working
by Robert Calderisi
Pp. 249. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2007
Paperback, 9.99

There are few books by expert administrators of foreign aid which frankly and openly discuss its failures, political pressures and political correctness cast to the winds. Robert Calderisi's book is therefore to be especially welcomed. The author, a Canadian, has had a thirty-year career with the World Bank, and in 1997-2000 was its international spokesman on Africa. He knows Africa and its prospects for development like the back of his hand, and in this work pulls no punches about its past or future.

If we are honest, I suspect - when we think of sub-Saharan Africa at all (Calderisi does not include Arabic north Africa in his discussion) - think of it as a giant continent, endemically condemned to war, corruption, famine, poverty, and AIDS. Overwhelmingly, something like this impression is borne out in Calderisi's book.

According to the author, Africa (p. 4):

is the only continent that has grown steadily poorer over the last thirty years.. [and] ...the only region of the world where savage wars break out on a regular basis.
Out of fifty or more sub-Saharan African nations, only three - South Africa, Botswana, and Mauritius - according to Calderisi:
have escaped economic and political catastrophe.
Most African states have actually seen per capita incomes steadily decline since about 1970 in stark contrast to virtually any other part of the globe.

According to recent U.N. statistics, there are currently 22.5 million known HIV-positive persons in Africa, including more than 20 per cent of the inhabitants of most southern African nations such as Zimbabwe. To put this in perspective, 20 per cent of Britain's population is 12 million people.

If 12 million people in Britain were afflicted with a deadly, incurable disease literally unknown thirty years ago, this would be regarded here as the greatest medical emergency since the Black Death. British governments would certainly win and lose elections based almost solely on their ability to respond to this unprecedented crisis.

In complete contrast, the response of Africa's leaders has ranged from denial - the present President of South Africa does not seem to believe that there is such a disease - to oblivious incompetence in dealing with it.

Calderisi pins the blame for all of this, first and foremost, on the endemic corruption which infests every level of African society, and presents some shocking but typical examples of the kind of casual blackmailing and robbery carried out by low-level officials against the poor of their own country seeking access to routine public services.

Many other factors are highlighted as well, from tribalism to wrong-headed economic decisions. Moreover (p. 143):

Africa has not been a victim of globalization. With only a few exceptions, it has refused to concern itself with foreign markets,... [and its governments have] hobbled and even persecuted small farmers.
The list goes on and on, chapter by chapter.

Two factors which might have been highlighted more fully are the role of the military and population growth. In virtually every failing African state, it is the military which plays a central role, invariably at the cutting edge of corruption, violence, terror, and civil war.

The rate of population increase in sub-Saharan Africa is now apparently the highest in the world, at least where AIDS and other diseases have not done their worst, with African cities like Lagos now among the largest in the world. This means, of course, that in the event that a state achieves continuing, sustained economic growth, this will be eaten up by a population almost certainly expanding at an even faster rate.

Unchecked population growth amidst endemic poverty also means that black Africa will continue to export its talent base to the developed world, while mass illegal migration of the unskilled to Europe is unlikely to be checked without extreme measures.

Calderisi's final chapter is entitled "Ten Ways of Changing Africa", a no-nonsense list, which includes, as its first four recommendations, the advice that the developed world should:

introduce mechanisms for tracing and recovering public funds

require all heads of state, ministers, and senior officials to open their bank accounts to public scrutiny [but try telling that one to the Swiss]

cut direct aid to individual countries in half

[and] focus direct aid on four to five countries that are serious about reducing poverty.

In other words, most of the aid which Western governments, charities, international organisations, etc. give to Africa - billions of pounds a year - is almost certainly wasted as things stand, and too much of it winds up either in Swiss bank accounts or rotting in failed attempts at economic improvement. One can only endorse Calderisi's recommendations with applause.

Even more importantly, however, one must ask oneself why Africa appears utterly unable to pull itself out of poverty, despite its extraordinary natural resource base. This is in contrast to most of the rest of the Third World, even societies like China and India which were once by-words for endemic and perpetual poverty and backwardness, apparently rooted in unbridgeable cultural differences from the affluent West. If these places can develop, why not sub-Saharan Africa?

Will a similar book written fifty years from now have a different theme and conclusion, or will Africa remain the exception?

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and co-author of The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain Since 1066, (Harriman House, 2007).

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Calderisi may indeed make the following points, but part of the problem is annual donor budgets that must be spent regardless. World Bank officials have told me in many countries, that it would be better were we all to stop aid until their leaders started paying attention -- but they could not because the donors are driven internally and externally by systems designed to shovel the money out the door regardless of results. so yes, better were larger tranches of funds awarded competitively, based on need, probable success, governmental zeal, etc. however that would shrink the budgets and the staff of these agencies, who invitably eat their fill before larding out the rest to every country imaginable.

Posted by: s masty at February 22, 2008 11:10 PM
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