Thursday, July 07, 2005

Helping by Not Helping

From Wizbang, a fascinating interview in Der Spiegel with Kenyan economics expert James Shikwati titled "For God's Sake, Please Stop the Aid!" offers some counterintuitive advice (often the best kind, in my experience) on how to improve African poverty:

SPIEGEL: Mr. Shikwati, the G8 summit at Gleneagles is about to beef up the development aid for Africa...

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 ...

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.

Read the whole thing, it's one of the best things I've read this year. My wife and I watched an HBO movie called "The Girl in the Café" last night, and it began as a love story between two painfully shy UK residents, which for some reason seemed kind of interesting. Then it turned preachy: the man turned out to be a British government minister about to attend the G8 conference, the woman a recently released prisoner from Scotland (I'm guessing from her accent). He brings her to the conference where she regurgitates African infant mortality statistics he's related to her to the British PM at a state dinner (during his pre-dinner toast, no less) and attempts to guilt those present into "greatness," by which she means they should solve African poverty and hunger right then and there instead of indulging in "business as usual."

She's ejected, he's forced to resign, but in the end their brief and vaguely creepy love (he's old enough to be her grandfather) is the lone casualty because lo and behold, her words hit the mark and first the man's boss and then the PM resolve to not let future generations say they let such barbarity continue on their watches. Which is all very nice to say, but rather more difficult to do. And had I been a real government minister at the G8 and been harangued by some dilettante who understood neither the difficulty of the task nor the fact that I had devoted my adult life to working on that very thing in a way that actually got results, I probably would have slapped the silly bitch.

It seems cruel, but Mr. Shikwati keenly understands the basic principles of African poverty, and who's being part of the problem, and who's not. All the good intentions and donations in the world won't make your neighbor raise his kids right, much less make an entire country or continent take care of its childrean. Didn't Live Aid and the Boxing Day Tsunami teach us anything about the effectiveness of throwing money at complex problems?

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