A woman waits at a medical center in Kuyera, Ethiopia. Credit: AFP/Getty Images
It’s an all too common sight on roads and streets wherever one might go. The disheveled beggar whose appearance and outstretched hand tug at our heartstrings and wallets. So we try to quieten our hearts and dip in our pockets for some small change.
This is the same thing that happens to the continent of Africa particularly when viewed from the West. Even before the days of Bob Geldof and Live Aid in the ‘80s, millions and billions of dollars and pounds have been donated as aid to African countries by Western governments, UN agencies and charities. All these happening while aid organisations continue to guilt the West into giving by shoving more images of starving children into their faces.
Now if only the sheer quantity of aid that has poured into the continent has been seen to have had any measurable impact on the quality of life for Africans that wouldn't be so bad. But with poverty and preventable diseases still rampant across the Motherland, perhaps it is time to question the strategy of throwing money at the problem of Africa.
When aid is donated to Africa, it usually well intentioned but most of it ends up funding the nefarious activities of dictators and democratic despots. This is part of the reason why despite decades of aid being donated and lent to Africa, the continent remains underdeveloped and backward.
Most of the aid that went Ethiopia’s way during the terrible reign of Marxist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam in the ‘80s was used to forcibly resettle large segments of the Ethiopian population. Like one Ethiopian official then claimed “It is our duty to move the peasants if they are too stupid to move by themselves.”. So donor funds, donated to ease the perennial famine in Ethiopia was instead used to procure trucks for the resettlement scheme and the rest was deliberately kept away from the worst hit areas because it advanced Mengistu’s regime to do so.
Mengistu was not alone in this. Mobutu Sese Seko diverted aid to his Swiss bank account to the tune of $10 billion. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has been accused by the EU of looting aid to fund his extravagant shopping trips to Harrod’s in the UK. While in Congo, donated food supplied was sold and the money used to buy an arms factory in Italy.
When African aid isn't being siphoned away and misappropriated, these funds are being mismanaged and frittered away. Since the independence days of the ‘60s, countless tons of food as aid has been pumped into the continent along with thousands of consultants and agricultural experts but still famine and food shortage is routine in the land. A few years ago, a World Bank report admitted that 75 percent of their African agricultural projects had failed. Again the World Bank was alone in this failure.
An agricultural operation codenamed Operation Mils Mopti in Mali was meant to increase grain production but the government imposed official prices on the grain which forced farmers to sell their produce at below market prices, leading to grain production falling by 80 percent. In Tanzania, $10 million was spent to build a cashew-processing plant but the plant had a capacity three times greater than the country’s entire cashew production, and the costs were so high that it was cheaper to process the cashews in India instead.
Meanwhile in South Africa, over $2 million was donated by the European Union to stage an AIDS awareness play, Sarafina II. The play consumed 20 percent of South Africa’s entire AIDS budget and and contained inaccurate information as well as doing little to educate the public about AIDS. One particular showing in Soweto was attended by less than 100 people.
Stories such as these abound all across the continent and make for more depressing reading. But what is to be done about it? Should the West keep its money to itself and leave Africa to its own devices while Africans are mired in backwardness and underdevelopment?
First, African must seek to find homegrown solutions to its myriad problems because the reason why most foreign-conceived solutions is that they are just that. Foreign. Until there are solutions which take into account each nation’s peculiarities and customs, solving a country’s problems will always remain an uphill and near impossible task. It goes without saying that this can only be achieved by making the best use of Africa’s bounteous human and natural resources.
Second, instead of the West filling the coffers of African governments, perhaps it should consider putting such funds into private organisations and African charities. These private organisations have the unique opportunity of being closer to the populace than the government and therefor being able to help them more. Also they are usually free from the control of corrupt governments and leaders.