Defend Truth


Rage against the aid machine

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

Bono turned 50 last week, and excuse the sneer on my face, but I’m not about to celebrate the man’s life or achievements. I don’t like him very much. For quite a simple reason – he has become the embodiment of what is wrong with Western aid to Africa.

Ghana was the first African country to win its independence from colonial powers in 1957. Other sub-Saharan countries quickly followed suit. Back then, there was not much infrastructure to speak of in sub-Saharan Africa. Industries were very few and far between, and the people were largely unskilled. Over the next 60 years, more than $1 trillion flowed into the region in the form of aid. Yet Africa is poorer today than it was back in the 1960s.

A lot of things went wrong, but the recurring issue is despots using the aid as their personal bank accounts rather than what it was intended for in the first place. Astonishingly, rather than those actions being punished, more money was thrown at the problem. Leaders were literally rewarded for squandering aid. It’s beyond ludicrous. If you borrow money from the bank, and then choose to spend it unwisely in unprofitable thrift, you might get away with it. Once. As Adam Smith once put it, “The man who borrows in order to spend will soon be ruined, and he who lends to him will generally have occasion to repent of his folly.” Of course, he had never heard of Western aid to Africa. Instead of repenting, the lender repeats his folly again and again. And again.

Over the last 10 years, more aid has flowed into Africa than ever before. Who’s to say history won’t repeat itself? There isn’t a single Western leader with the bollocks to make African countries that abuse aid pay. I’m not referring to interest on loan, or repayment of debt. Instead of Bono’s cancellation of debt, how about cancellation of aid?

Aid to Africa fails because it disowns Africa of her problems. That is what Bono and his troupe of stifling do-gooders don’t get. There is absolutely no incentive for African leaders to fix their countries, because not their biggest source of no-strings-attached income will dry up. We need to own our problems as a continent. Solutions for our ills need to come from us in Africa. I find it quite reprehensible that the West think they know what’s best for Africa. It’s the underlying philosophy of aid to Africa, in my view. Think about it, how can it be right that the face of the global effort to end poverty in Africa is an Irishman wearing an ostentatious cowboy hat and gittish sunglasses?

Bono represents Western aid at its worst – a handy PR exercise, a photo opportunity with emaciated children in Sudan to boost album sales, an easy way out for Western politicians to soothe their consciences without losing votes. Bonoesque aid is destructive because it’s blind. It doesn’t differentiate between countries, because it relies on the stereotypical image of Africa as a seething mass of war, decay and flies. Success stories like Botswana, Ghana and South Africa are conveniently forgotten when the offering plate is passed around at G8 meetings. It just throws money at problems. It’s like McDonalds: It may taste good, but too much of it kills.

Africa’s problems are not only to be blamed on aid. A lack of resources such as skills, capital, infrastructure and private property all play a role (to gain a deeper understanding of the problems plaguing Africa, as well as the destruction wrought by aid on the continent, I recommend Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid). But none of these are as cynically and calculatingly designed to keep Africa in a constant state of beggary like aid is.

What lifts countries from a state of poverty to one of sustained economic growth is investment. Investment thrives in an atmosphere of predictability and transparency. Investors must have the confidence to invest their money in a country – it boils down to the assurance that they can go to someone for recourse should debts not be honoured. Corruption and the lack of transparent governance destroy that assurance. Worst of all, aid removes the need for governments to set these structures up in the first place.

Africa does not need hand outs.


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