The problem with aid to Africa

Talk of the Nation had a show on debt to Africa. It was hosted by Lynn Neary, whom I do not like as hostess (she is too impatient and abrupt), but the topic was well worth it. James Shikwati, director of the Inter-Region Economic Network in Nairobi was the first guest, and he started with an overview of his reasons, as an African, for despising aid to Africa.

[Shikwati]: I'm concerned about the aspect of beggar mentality that aid creates. And then there is also the aspect of aid killing Africa's creativity and entrepreneurship. And also the aspect of aid destroying ownership of the African problem, by transferring it to developed countries.

[Neary]: What are the alternatives

[Shikwati]: The alternative is to get Africans learning how to do business, and to get African governments facilitating an environment that will make it easier for Africans to do business.

The first clause here surprised me. Africa is again a very diverse continent, but speaking for Nigerians at least, I don't think anyone needs to teach business. Nigerians are the second most ruggedly entrepreneurial people I think I know as a class (Lebanese being the most). The biggest problem has been the opposite of what Shikwati says: the public sector treating the public interest too much as an extension of the business interest of those in power.

[Neary]: Do you think African countries need help getting such entrepreneurial ideas off the ground

[Shikwati]: The African leadership should look inward to the causes of the African problem. The first one being artificial barriers that make it so difficult for Africans to trade among themselves. Africa is a market of 800 million people. In that case before someone from outside can come to help us, we can help each other by opening ourselves up.

There was also an American guest, Steven Radelet, but Shikwati really set the tone of the discussion. I have been very happy to hear more intelligent African voices weigh in on these important topics. It's not that such folks are a new phenomenon by any means, but it's only lately that the media seems to be ready to give voice to those Africans who do not speak in terms that Westerners have come to expect. It feels to me that we have a nugget of opportunity for breaking down some of the oh so tiresome stereotypes.

Shikwati expressed the view that short term pain that would come from curtailing aid would be worth the long term benefit. He also pointed out that a lot of the "aid" really comes in the form of loans, which even when directed to such important causes as malaria treatment and primary school education, adds yet more long-term burden to the receiving countries. Radelet did point out that there is a recent trend towards subsidized loans and even outright grants.

The first caller was another Uchenna (of the countless so named). He suggested that if the main problem has been that corrupt regimes steal aid money, why don't organizations provide aid in terms of actual (presumably illiquid) resources for projects rather than cash. Shikwati responded that what is really needed is a "radical shake-up" of the economics that drive Africa, and that such a tinkering measure is really not enough. Radelet did point out some examples of modest success stories from countries receiving aid, but I agree with Shikwati that most African countries need things to happen at a much larger scale, and that even successfully targeted aid will not achieve such scale.

One of the callers asked from the point of view of a business owner asking essentially "if Africa is a mess, why should I invest there?" To me, this just underscored the importance of Shikwati's points. Even though I personally dislike Africa's sloth in shedding dependence on aid, I do not agree with the typical Western economist who says "make it easy for Westerners to make money in Africa and it will be worth all the aid imaginable". They can keep that trickle-down bullshit on their classroom chalkboards. I'm perfectly happy not to have any Western investors in Africa. I don't think we need them. Between ther very large and very successful body of Africans in diaspora and the 800 million still on the continent Shikwati mentions, there is plenty of resource for a completely indigenous African marketplace. The barriers we need to remove in Africa are not barriers for Westerners to invest but rather all the unfortunate barriers to professional achievement even among natives. If lowering these barriers also draws some Westerners, that's all very well—I don't advocate protectionism, which is after all the way in which the West sabotages African development at the same time they offer aid— but Western investment should be understood as a very secondary matter.

Despite my worries about the practicalities of business based on merit in Nigeria right now, I've started to look into how I can use my professional profile and entrepreneurial experience in ways that take advantage of my local knowledge in Nigeria, which is not enormous, by any means (I've been away too long), but is not insignificant. I've come to the point where I can't avoid doing so because my parents are very seriously talking about moving back to Nigeria in their retirement.

There is the thread that for me connects the continental-scale macroeconomics of the Live 8 and G8 hullaballo to the microeconomics of personal entrepreneurial interest. The only thing a liquid dole from the West can do is distract the ruling African class from the important task of engaging their professional class, much of which is dispersed because of the starkness of this very class distinction throughout so much of the continent. Western aid in the large can really do very little more than provide indirect discouragement to my own ambitions in my native country, and that of my peers. What I and my peers have to offer is hard work and professionalism over a steady period of time, but we're stymied because there is so much more more superficial attraction in greased megabucks from Western coffers.


"Quotīdiē" 26 June 2005
"Africa and business on Talk of the Nation"
"Those despicable gas flares"

[Uche Ogbuji]

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The big elephant in the room is African governments. Africa has been totally mismanaged and misruled in the past decade, but nobody wants to talk about that because of political correctness. Africa's begging bowl leaks horribly. As a matter of fact, the African Union itself estimated that every year corruption alone costs Africa $148 billion. If African leaders could cut that in half, they'll find more money than what Tony Blair is trying to raise for them. —George Ayittey on Jim Lehrer's NewsHour

Good stuff as usual from Emeka Okafor recently. In a few recent entries he has been talking about books with a variety of perspectives on African development.

In "Ayittey vs Sachs" he links to a debate between the two authors on PBS. Interesting stuff, but I'm left wondering whether Jeffrey Sachs is deluded, or in someone's pocket. He seems to be very optimistic about the probity of African governments in using Western aid. He wants Western governments to throw more money at Africa's problems.

It's not chauvinism to simply admit that most of Africa's problems can't be solved by throwing money at them. African has amply proved that it can be a bottomless pit of inefficiency and corruption, and I find it a bit patronizing for Sachs to go on as if only the hand of Western largesse will save Africa from itself. My attitude is a lot more along the lines of Ayittey, as I suppose is that of a lot of the professional class.

Sure, our problems of governance originate in actual colonialism and the essentially colonial manipulations of the cold war, but we're not going to do anything about it pointing fingers for the next 50 years. We have plenty of resources, including, most importantly, a huge and largely untapped pool of human resource. Our governments are a bit less arbitrary and kleptocratic than they used to be (though we have a long way to go), and I see a decent hope of Africa's bootstrapping itself successful region by successful region, and largely independently of foreign aid. As Ayittey says it will have to be the private sector leading the way.

Well, I mean, we have to find the origin of the problem. The origin of the problem in many African countries is that you've got state bureaucracies which are too bloated. I mean, if you take Ghana, for example, Ghana has 88 ministers and deputy ministers. Take Uganda; Uganda has 70 -- for a country of 25 million people, Uganda has 70 ministers. Uganda's budget is 40 percent aid-dependent. Ghana's budget is 50 percent aid-dependent.

Even if you cancel the debt, you don't eliminate that aid dependency. This is what I mean by getting to the fundamental root causes of the problem. Government, the state sectors in many African countries need to be slashed so that, you know, you put a greater deal of reliance on the private sector. The private sector is the engine of growth. Africa's economy needs to grow but they're not growing.

Right. Nigeria went from 4 governmental regions to 19 states and then eventually to (I think) 33 states. We've built a ludicrous bantustan of petty bureaucratic divisions. Private enterprise doesn't even know where to begin navigating the unpredictable waters of the numerous layers of government. Local knowledge isn't enough for enterprise in much of Africa. You need multiple levels of local influence.

Ayittey is also right when he talks about basic civil securities as a huge obstacle to development. Nothing underscores the danger of misplaced priorities better than the AU's attitude towards Mugabe's colossal stupidity while they try to turn the topic back towards further handouts from the West.

I'll have to get a copy of Africa Unchained, Ayittey's book. Ditto Preparing Africa for the Twenty-First Century, a book Okafor brought to my attention in a later entry.

[Uche Ogbuji]

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Africa and business on Talk of the Nation

Good show on Talk of the Nation Monday: "Seeking Good News in Africa". First of all, I want to say that ToTN is one of my favorite NPR/PRI shows (I also love The World and Marketplace, and Terry Gross is usually good on Fresh Air). Neil Conan is probably the most patient and likable call-in show host in my limited experience of talk radio.

The blurb for this program segment is:

The next G8 summit in July will focus on poverty in Africa along with war, famine and drought. But some are calling for a broader view of Africa, citing its many qualities that go beyond famine and tragedy. We discuss how to balance the bad news with the good from a continent in need.

It is nice to hear more than just the usual famine/jungle/war/safari image of sub-Saharan Africa in mainstream media (with nude children as the inexplicable universal extras). It was a good discussion, and I highly recommend it. Some of my own reaction...

"Jean" from the Cote d'Ivoire called in to advocate decentralization of power and local allocation of resources, which is precisely what we need, but he also admitted the down-side to this as over-simplified formula. Often encouragement of local policy leads to fractious forces that cause tension and can lead all the way to Civil war. Most African countries are unfortunate agglomerations of numerous rival ethnic groups, and a heavy-handed federalism can be the only way to ensure unity. On the other hand such centralization is a huge obstacle to developmental progress. Whoever can figure out a practical solution to this dilemma (besides the slow, assimilating force of time and demographics, which is what did the trick in old Europe) will have earned the Nobel Prize for peace as well as economics.

"James" from Ft. Lauderdale had an all-too-credible tale of attempting to do business in Nigeria, and being defrauded time and time again, and permanently swearing off any sort of commerce anywhere in the African continent (bit of an overreaction, perhaps, but can you really blame him?). This is the simple reality check. We have a long way to go (especially in Nigeria) in dealing with fraud and lawlessness. Right now there is no substitute for local (and wily) guidance if you want to do business in much of the continent.

The last caller was "Kehinde" (I think: he never himself said his name, so I had to go by Neil Conan's suspect pronunciation), also a Nigerian. He trotted out a line that's all too familiar: why are we, the huge African professional class in diaspora, just sitting here and complaining about the situation back home rather than going back, using our local knowledge to help grow business?

Sounds seductive, but I know I speak for many others when I point out that in 1980, I watched my parents go home on the wings of just such idealism. My Father was becoming an internationally recognized Materials Engineer at the time, and figured his calling was to raise more such high-quality Engineers in Nigerian Universities. Nigeria at that time was actually considered an emerging economic force, and the public order and standard of living back in '80 and '81 was very high. We could have been U.S. citizens, but my parents saw no reason to make such a move. There were no barriers to coming back to the U.S. anyway, and we were committed to a future in Nigeria. As experience grew with numerous political barriers, and as well-connected incompetents took over local and national affairs, my parents realized that there was no way to even make an honest difference without outside the oligarch network. I don't think they ever looked to get rich, but rather to live a decent middle-class existence, while making the sort of meager difference that brings about basic professional satisfaction.

They had more local knowledge than I ever will have (I did spent eight years in school in Nigeria), and I can't imagine that I would be able to accomplish more than they did. By the time my parents gave up (alongside numerous other highly talented professionals), and returned to the U.S. and Europe in the mid-to-late 80s the middle class was collapsing with the economy, and the desirable destination countries were already putting up barriers to immigration of Nigerian nationals, barriers through which we Ogbujis squeaked through (excepting my two brothers, who were born U.S. citizens). My father immediately got a job at NASA, where he could immediately feel that he was making a difference—just not in the way he as a native Nigerian would wish.

I do dearly want to find a way to make a difference back home, and I'm sure I shall in time, but I really resent being scolded glibly: "go back to Africa, you prodigal dispersed".

There was one subtle touch in the program that I just loved. They played a clip from the film Africa: Open for Business (Flash site). Sounds like an encouraging film, by the way:

The world does not see Africa as a business destination, but savvy investors know Africa offers the best return on direct investment in the world—yes, in the world.

In the ToTN clip you hear Adenike Ogunlesi, a fashion entrepreneur discuss her (happy) experience. She starts out with the gorgeous, British-inflected English that many of us had pounded into our head in school (and that I have largely lost to an American accent):

It was the first time that anyone had marketed children's clothes like that...actually using Nigerian children. The response...people actually wanting the "made in Nigeria" garments...

And then, at this point, she subtly switches to a bit of demotic Nigerian accent. Not the pidgin language, just the accent that goes with it. All of us in the hybrid Nigerian/foreign college-educated class adopt this affectation when expressing a quote from a supposed Nigerian man-on-the-street.

"Where is the label. I want the label outside. I want everyone to know I'm wearing 'Rough and Tumble'"

I wonder if non-Nigerians would even detect that she changed accent (I suspect that now that I point it out, they would). If you want to check, it's about 22m 30s into the program.

It's often the little things that make you homesick.

BTW, for a superlative source for information about practical commerce in sub-Saharan Africa, see Emeka Okafor's blog "Timbuktu Chronicles".

[Uche Ogbuji]

via Copia


Il me faut le cacher au plus intime de mes veines
L’Ancêtre à la peau d’orage sillonnée d’éclairs et de foudre
Mon animal gardien, il me faut le cacher
Que je ne rompe le barrage des scandales.
Il est mon sang fidèle qui requiert fidélité
Protégeant mon orgueil nu contre
Moi-même et la superbe des races heureuses…

Léopold-Sedar Senghor—"Le Totem"

When the late, great Senhgor expressed a sentiment, it stayed expressed. Founding president of la République du Sénégal (after an exile for revolutionary activities), and member of the Négritude movement poet, Senghor was one of West Africa's most astounding minds. "Le Totem" (above is the complete poem) is one of very few French poems I've memorized. It expresses a sentiment that I don't know that I feel directly, but that I can well imagine based on knowing so many Africans in the diaspora (and older ones, in particular). Here is my poor student's translation:

I'm forced to hide in my most intimate veins
The ancestor with the hide of storms streaked and burned with lightning
My guardian animal, I must hide it
So that I do not breach the barrier of scandal.
It is my faithful blood that requires faithfulness
Protecting my inborn pride against
My very self and the superb among the happy races

This poem has a lot that is difficult to render faithfully into English, and in some cases, I've preferred a somewhat unidiomatic transliteration to an anglophone translation that would lose too much of the nuance (the last line is the main example).

Another place where I could barely approximate is "sillonnée d’éclairs et de foudre". I've always had a vague feeling of the distinction between these two French words for "lightning". The first being more a display of lightning and the second being more of a thunderclap, such as Zeus would have hurled at impudent mortals. See below for more on this distinction. I always think of Senghor's line as juxtaposing the white flash of "éclairs" with the blackened result of "foudre", using the apt verb "sillioner", which means "plough" as well as "streak".

I have the same attitude towards the Négritude movement as Nigerian Nobel Laureate, great playwright Wole Soyinka. Soyinka said to Senghor: "A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude. It acts."—from Myth, Literature and the African world (which is coming up on my re-reading list). I agree with complaints about Négritude as an overall notion. For my part, being an avid student of Western classics has never made me feel I cannot also soak myself in my own rich West African heritage. Négritude taken too carelessly can lead to a dangerous combination of anomie and chauvanism. But it's very hard to accuse Senghor and Césaire, the patrons of the movement, of themselves falling into such a trap. They and their colleagues through hard work and masterly writing carved into the world's consciousness a testament to the vast intellectual resources of their native land. They didn't just proclaim. They did act. And the value of their legacy is immeasureable.

I have the poem in Selected Poems of Senghor, edited by Abiola Irele (Cambridge University Press, 1977), which, according to my notes, I bought at Nsukka in 1989 (for ₦10.00). Incredibly, I can't find a good in-print source of Senghor's poetry in French. I must just not be searching rightly. If anyone can recommend one for fellow readers (I'm all set with my Irele edition), please leave a comment.

But appropriately enough, since it's Tuesday again, I have a bit more on "éclairs" versus "foudre". The visceral nature of this distinction was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago at la Table Francophone when Karen was explaining to me how a freak spring thunder and hailstorm had ruined her garden. She said something like "et partout des éclairs", gesturing upwards with both open palms. In my response I said something about "foudre", using the word I'm more familiar with for "lightning" ("fouldre" in Villon's (Old French) L'Épitaph, which I worked from in an earlier Quotīdiē. Karen gave me an odd look, and clarified: "éclairs". Since I'm there to improve my French I asked her for a detailed explanation of the difference. She explained that "éclairs" is lightning with the connotation of distant flashes in the sky, and that "foudre" is lightning with the connotation of striking the ground (or someone), with violent accompaniment of thunder, and the whole bit. Basically, the former is nature's display, and the latter is nature's vengeance. Makes sense given that "foudroyer" means to blast or strike (as with lightning), and "foudrayant!" is an exclamation (based on the participle) mixing terror and excitement. I had to stop using "foudrayant!" when my francophone friends would tease me about its quaintness (I suppose my beloved "donnerwetter" sounds just as quaint to a contemporary German).

[Uche Ogbuji]

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