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Shaping African Prosperity

Why will the G8’s aid go to waste unless Africa helps secure its own future?

July 18, 2005

Why will the G8's aid go to waste unless Africa helps secure its own future?

The G8 conference failed miserably to take action on the two key issues that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had placed on the agenda: climate change and aid for Africa. More accurately, it failed miserably on climate change. It failed without an adjective on aid for Africa.

There is some indication that a net increase in aid is likely, beyond the reshuffling that always accompanies such announcements. When impresarios of rock concerts join the leaders of major European powers to promote an idealistic goal, it is unlikely that they will be ignored.

Yet, those calling for measures to save Africa through debt relief and new aid share with the Bush Administration a peculiar messianic faith that the rich and powerful can shape the world.

The Bush Administration once professed that it could create a democratic Middle East according to its specifications. Most observers now agree that his belief was mistaken. A combination of forces, most of them originating in the Middle East, will determine what happens in that sad region — regardless of what the U.S. military or G8 governments announce.

Still, with little sense of irony, activists throughout the rich countries are calling on the G8 to eliminate African poverty — as if that outcome, too, could be willed and paid for in Washington or dictated from Gleneagles.

What, in fact, makes poor countries poor? Just a few years ago, the answer was “globalization.” Now, we are being offered a new answer: too little aid and too little trade. The obvious contradictions between these two panaceas notwithstanding, they share a fundamental blindspot.

Whether the devil does his work through interaction with the “first world” or lack of it, both of these explanations for continuing African misery focus on initiatives that must be undertaken in the rich countries. The salvation of the poor, so this argument goes, is in the hands of the rich.

The notion that poverty in Africa is created, or eliminated, in the North flies in the face of historical evidence.

As the colonial era was drawing to a close in the 1950s — and the field of development economics was taking shape — Asia was by far the poorest region in the world. Bengal suffered massive famines in 1943-44 and again in 1974. China suffered the greatest famine in history between 1958 and 1961.

Some economists speculated that India and Bangladesh would never escape poverty and that resources spent in the effort to develop South Asia would be like costly medicine provided to a dying patient.

Africa was the promising region, with a relatively small population and a wealth of mineral resources. Bangladesh was the basket case.

In the 1960s, when Korea and Taiwan began their rapid development, they were not much richer than Ghana or Senegal, while India and China were far poorer. Since then, Asia has enjoyed rapid economic ascent, while most of Africa has stagnated.

The reasons for successful development in Asia and stagnation and decline in Africa are hotly debated. But everyone who looks closely at the history of the last 50 years agrees on one thing: It was not access to foreign aid or special access to Northern markets that gave Asia its advantage over Africa.

The external conditions facing these two great regions were similar. The North looked out for its own interests in its dealings with Thailand as much as with Kenya. Thailand had no advantage in access to aid or to Northern markets.

Asian success was not made in Washington — nor in G8 summits. It was made in Asia. Likewise, we have to recognize that African success ultimately will be made in Africa.

More aid can be a great help in supporting research and medication for AIDS and tropical illnesses, as well as in building and maintaining infrastructure.

Changes in rich countries’ agricultural subsidies and protection policies can expand the market for cotton, sugar, horticultural products and other African exports. These are valuable policies the rich countries should urgently undertake.

But the burden of stimulating economic development, the burden of allowing economic development to happen without draining it away through corruption and authoritarian regulation, does not lie in Europe or the United States.

The leaders of the G8 cannot bring democracy to the Middle East, nor can they bring prosperity to Africa. They should do what they can — but that is quite limited.

Indignation is an honest and legitimate reaction to continuing poverty and tyranny, but it should not be confused with the power to eliminate them.