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June 21, 2005

What's wrong with Africa?

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North - the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence - continues his series on G8 and Africa: G8 Gleneagles Fiasco: How Bob, Tony and Gordon didn't help Make Poverty History - and why that's good.

What's wrong with Africa?
Canny observers are increasingly insisting that the main problem of Africa is its leadership, compounded by a related issue: it hasn't the conditions for sound society and economic life. This argument is obviously attractive to the right, which understands that it is almost always the culture of society which matters to economic growth. But it is most persuasive in the hands of the soft-left liberal commentators who espouse it. I am thinking of Richard Dowden, erstwhile Africa hand at The Times, the Independent and The Economist, and now director of the Royal African Society. Neither of us would endorse the other's remarks, so it's best to read his first-hand. Also Stephen Pollard, a liberal hijacked by reality, plugs away usefully on the theme.

This diagnosis of what's wrong with Africa helps us see some hope, granted that the canny observers who hold it often also believe that aid to Africa has substantially failed and is only likely to do much good in the future if and where African governments pull on the rope too.

Note: these arguments are offensive to Make Poverty History (MPH), but Bob Geldof's Mob couldn't begin even to discuss them.

How to get Africa's economy to grow
It is possible that the next generation or two will see a new, determined and brave middle class assert itself in African countries. If it does, it is possible that Africa can travel down the conventional Western route toward kind and well-off societies.

It is an open question how much Western aid and pressure can help this process (and whether Africa needs pressure now, aid later). Measured debt forgiveness may be helpful, if it is done well and can survive allegations of "post-colonialism". Aid for physical and commercial infrastructure may help: but this might have to be "big project" stuff (roads, dams, stock exchanges) which campaigners don't like.

In the meantime, it is clear that Mssrs Brown and Blair's "Marshall Plan" for Africa (the main political proposal to come out of Blair's Commission for Africa) is deeply-flawed, not least because of its superficial attractiveness. The US's Marshall Plan for Europe was devoted to rebuilding countries which were hungry for economic growth and had underlying structures, for all that these had been bruised by war. As both Robert Skidelsky and Richard Dowden have argued, Africa does not yet have the economic or institutional elite that's required.

Note: all these developments would offend MPH, but Bob's Mob couldn't even begin to discuss them.

A Welfare State for Africa
It is hotly disputed whether the Welfare State was and is a Good Thing for the post-War western world. But does Africa need a bit of "welfarism", since the continent has features not seen in Europe since the middle ages?

The "dependency culture" which aid might induce is criticised even by aid charities, though they prefer to focus on the debilitating effect of emergency food aid. Indeed, they use the dangers of that dependency to plug the idea that one should give fishing lines (lots of development aid), not fishes if one wants to feed people. The difficulty is, of course, that "development aid" may turn out to be "dependency aid" almost whatever the West desires of it.

Still, compassion urges the idea that Westerners could donate funding for education, health and even welfare services to poor Africans. Even so, questions arise. Should this be government-to-government help? Or government-to-NGO? Or NGO-to-government? Or NGO-to-NGO? The answers to these questions depend on one's reading of whose job it is to be generous, but also on how to ensure good and not harm is done at the receiving end.

It is hardly surprising that the suffering cannot wait for thoroughly-researched answers to these questions which will only be clear after the event and the suffering are all dead - if at all.

Still, we need to disentangle the aid issues we are addressing. It may be, for instance, that governments can help Africa to be more economically efficient, whilst charities can alleviate its AIDS suffering. But it may be the other way round: that Western governments can help African governments develop health services, but that it's NGOs who could be brilliant at helping African entrepreneurs and politicians.

Note: one could argue about these things with MPH, but Bob's Mob can't discuss anything.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

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Take a look at Timbuktu Chronicles ( and Africa Unchained ( for alternative thinking.

Posted by: Emeka Okafor at June 25, 2005 08:41 PM

Whatever form any aid takes, it must not be cash. History shows us that cash to African nations has invariably gone into the personal bank accounts of the rulers or to buy weapons.

Posted by: John Tiernan at August 9, 2005 04:44 PM
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