Africa needs responsibility, not rock stars

Richard Tren | 09 Jun 2005
Business Day (South Africa)

PRESIDENT George Bush's recent rejection of British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown's aid plan for Africa has landed the US once again in the dog box of world opinion in the run-up to the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in Scotland next month. However, for the good of the poor in Africa, Bush is right to reject Brown's plan to increase aid transfers to Africa and to forgive the estimated $15bn of annual debt repayment.

Brown's plan is simply a variant on the old theme that all Africa needs to solve its problems is more money, especially from the former colonial powers that made a packet off the continent before leaving it in desolation.

While the G-8 will spend its time discussing the legacy of colonialism and rich countries' obligations to Africa, a far more fruitful debate would be on what real, concrete steps African governments are taking to improve their policies and institutions that keep most of the continent locked in poverty.

Developed countries should forgive debt created by previous rulers that mismanaged their countries and accumulated fabulous wealth. However, a 100% forgiveness of debt sends the wrong message to the current stock of administrators: filch some aid money and waste the rest; in 10 years or so an ageing rock star will come to your aid and demand you be let off the hook. Furthermore, Africa desperately needs private investment and private capital. It is hard to fathom how debt forgiveness will improve the continent's credit rating in the financial capitals of the world.

Moreover, aid transfers and debt forgiveness do little to change the basic institutional failures of the past 30 years that have made Africa poorer and sicker while the rest of the world has become richer and healthier.

The danger in sending more aid to Africa is that the very governments that frustrate economic growth with myriad laws and regulations that entrench the power of political elites will handle that money. Giving them more money simply entrenches their power and ensures that they are still further removed from the populations that, theoretically, voted them into power.

In some ways, the leaders of some African countries recognise that they are ultimately responsible for improving their lot. President Thabo Mbeki has created the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), which is supposed to promote better governance in Africa in return for aid and investment from the west.

Mbeki's idea is that Africa can and should be standing on its own feet, developing its own credible, democratic institutions and creating an environment in which its people can prosper.

Yet even Mbeki finds it hard to let go of the politics of the past. In his weekly Letter from the President, Mbeki criticised Brown for reportedly saying, while on a recent trip to east Africa, that "the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over". Mbeki took issue with this, highlighting the many human rights abuses that occurred under British colonial rule.

Mbeki's criticism of Brown may resonate well with other African leaders, particularly those that lived through colonial rule. But how an apology for UK government policies 50 years ago helps Africa today is anybody's guess. If African countries wish to become more prosperous, they need to stop perpetuating their victim status. A far more brutish, violent and totalitarian country colonised much of eastern Europe far more recently, yet these countries did not wait for apologies before improving their lot.

Instead of living in the past, eastern European governments embraced the present and prepared for the future, putting in place the key institutions of a free society, such as the rule of law, and supporting the free market.

In return, they have seen increased investment, high growth rates and rising prosperity. If they had adopted a policy of sulking about the horrors done to them by the Soviet Union, they would probably be just as poor and pathetic as they were when the Berlin Wall came down.

Africa does not need apologies, rock concerts, and aid plans. It needs the current leaders of its countries to recognise the importance of economic freedom and the rule of law. When these institutions are attacked, African leaders must defend them.

Yet the way in which nearly every African leader has supported Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's destructive policies indicates that Africa's leaders continue to live in the past, and in so doing consign their people to a future of decades of suffering.

Tren is a director of the health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria.

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