Snapping fingers at African aid

Suzanne Fields
Posted: Jul 18, 2005 12:00 AM

The great entertainers (and some not so great) were at it again, preening in their financial success and trying to make others feel guilty for theirs. "Greed is a weapon of mass destruction," rapped Faithless to a Live 8 concert in Berlin. Rocked back Sting, warning the financial ministers of the Group of 8: "Every vow you break, every step you take, every single day, every word you say, every game you play . . . we'll be watching you."
Will Smith, the host at Philadelphia's Live 8 concert, told his audience to snap their fingers at three-second intervals to mark the death of a malnourished, diseased child in Africa who, he confidently said, dies every three seconds. Snap. Snap. Snap.

 The stars have been praised (most eloquently by themselves) for focusing attention on poverty in Africa, but their glitter and flash don't quite rise to the level of effective policy. While they were rappin' and rockin', James Shikwati, a distinguished Kenyan economist, was singing another song: "For God's sake, please just stop the aid."

 In an interview in der Spiegel, the German magazine, Mr. Shikwati describes what he sees as the disastrous result of aid to Africa. Not only do African leaders exploit it for their own purposes, stuffing their pocketbooks and adding to their power, but aid weakens local markets, destroys incentives and fosters corruption and complacency. He scoffs at the motives of the United Nations World Food Program, "which is a massive agency of apparatchiks who are in the absurd situation of . . . being dedicated to the fight against hunger while . . . being faced with unemployment were hunger actually eliminated."

 What the Kenyans have to learn, he says of his own country, is how to help themselves by encouraging sustainable markets. He cites the distribution of corn and clothes as examples of "do-goodism" gone wrong, hurting those it sets out to help in an endless circle of vicious venality. Corn arrives from highly subsidized European and American farmers. African politicians take portions of it to distribute to their constituents. What isn't given away is dumped on the black market, and sold at such bargain prices that an African farmer can't compete, so he puts down his hoe. When the next famine arrives, begging begins again.

 African children receive generous packages of clothes. Good? Not necessarily. Local merchants lose their livelihoods because no one in the low-wage world of Africa can compete with the donated products that find their way to the black market. In 1997, 137,000 workers were employed in Nigeria's textile industry; six years later, the figure had fallen to 57,000. The results, Mr. Shikwati says, are similar in other areas "where overwhelming helpfulness and fragile African markets collide."

 Increasing numbers of Africans decry the damages of paternalism, but you didn't hear those voices at the Live 8 concerts. Rage and protest were not directed at corrupt local leaders, either. Nelson Mandela's heroism directed at whites who oppressed blacks is needed now directed at black politicians who oppress the black masses.

 The developed world rightly directs its generosity to crises of health and hunger, but aid must be part of a larger package to educate and encourage private incentive and enterprise. It's not enough to teach an African how to fish, but we must show the African how to sell the fish in a market where competition is fair. He has to learn how to keep government officials from cutting in on his business. Aid without reform is a dead-end concept, literally.

 Nor can aid be understood in isolation. Many of the performers at Live 8 support environmental protections, but bans on DDT have killed millions more of Africans of malaria and other insect-borne diseases than hunger ever has.

 Bill Gates, who has established a foundation to find innovative ways to fight disease in poor countries, says his money will be monitored carefully for its effectiveness and will be withdrawn from inefficient programs. We should follow his business example. "Success depends on knowing what works," he told the Live 8 audience in London.

 Jean-Bedel Bokassa, once the leader of the Central African Republic, got it right: "We ask the French for money. We get it, and then we waste it." James Shikwati sums up the problem today. "Africa is like a child that immediately cries for its baby sitter when something goes wrong. Africa should stand on its own two feet." This is not the feel-good message easy for feel-good masses to applaud, but snapping fingers only adds to mindless noise.