One of my first African assignments was to help the Maternal and Child Health Unit of the Ministry of Health in Ghana. USAID was keeping consultants at the Novotel in Accra. The Novotel, part of a Paris-based chain, combined the dinginess of well-worn 1970's all-orange-all-the-time decor with the service snottiness befitting its French base and the high prices born of knowing that while it might have been bad, it was the only game in town. I vividly remember buying my first copy of 'The Economist' at the Novotel gift shop and seeing the cover headline "Africa: the Hopeless Continent?"
Professionals who have worked in Africa far longer than my meager eight years have wondered the same things. Why, now 45 years after independence, are all average economic and social indicators for the continent lower than they were on the eve of that independence? Why, on a continent rich in minerals, an immensity of arable fertile land, and abundant rainfall, do most countries have to import food to make ends meet, and depend on foreign assistance to provide even the most basic care such as childhood immunizations? Those of us working in healthcare wonder why diseases that have been cured for 100 years in the US and Europe, such as diarrheal diseases and malaria, still claim millions of lives (and more often children's lives) every year? In 'The Trouble with Africa' the author compare the stories of parallel countries such as Ghana and South Korea, which in 1960 found themselves almost identical social, health, and economic straights. South Korea is now a world technological leader, a huge exporter of manufactured goods, in some ways more advanced than the US, and a supplier of foreign assistance to Africa, while Ghana still depends on Direct Foreign Assistance (DFA) and has gone backwards by most common indicators. We contrast these facts with the honest, hardworking, capable professionals we've worked with in Africa. How can these people be so good, and their countries seem so hopeless?
Robert Calderisi, the author of 'The Trouble With Africa (Why Foreign Aid Isn't Working)' has the experience and background to offer valuable insight on this problem. He is an economist by education and an old Africa hand, having served in World Bank postings in the Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and several other African countries. He has seen first-hand how the policies of FDA donors and the behavior of Africa's leaders has combined to make matters not better but perhaps even worse in many instances. Essentially, Calderisi writes that the roots of Africa's problems boil down to these three: culture, corruption, and correctness.
In a chapter justly titled "Thugs in Power" Calderisi points out how time and time again, African leaders empty the state treasuries to enrich themselves and their cronies at the expense of the most basic services for 99.9% of the population. Perhaps the best example of this comes not from the book, but from another issues of The Economist: in a recent article, the author recounts meeting with village elders in a southern state in Nigeria. The elders told the story of the years they had been waiting for the government to drill a promised well so the village would have a secure supply of safe drinking water. A government official complained of tight budgets that contained no "extra" funding for the well, year after year. During the same month the interview took place, the governor of this same state spent 20 million US dollars on a personal helicopter and another $3.5 million on "gifts for visitors." In a form of government called by many a "klleptocracy" major chunks of the federal budget of these countries disappear to France, Switzerland, and numbered accounts in other European countries.
Next Calderisi examines African village culture and how it has translated to urban and civil behavior on the part of the citizenry. He points out that in the village, the chief is expected to take the best of the harvest, and is expected to reward his relatives and associates with his riches. In addition, the acceptance of bad luck, bad harvests, and disagreeable circumstances has allowed Africa's citizens to survive mentally and emotionally in an environment that has been at best uncertain. So, in conditions in which other citizenry would surely rise up and "throw the bums out" the people of Africa accept their fate with stoicism. This view is put into sharp focus by a Chinese diplomat visitor to Calderisi during his tenure in Ivory Coast: "You know, people think my country is authoritarian, but if we had ministers sporting French-made suits and gold watches, and squalid slums right up against garish mansions, we would have another revolution in 24 hours."
Finally, the Calderisi lays the majority of the fault for the failure of economic assistance
at the feet of foreign donor agencies themselves. In order to not offend Africa's rulers, agencies have again and again failed to call to account corrupt leaders. Indeed, the very word "corruption" is not to be found in the mountains of paper generated by the combined aid agencies for a single African county. Instead, "governance" is used to dance around the subject. In addition, he argues that aid that should be a temporary band-aid for bad-luck circumstances, has instead become a 40-year regular dole. This point is best made in a quote from economist P.T. Bauer: "If the conditions for development other than capital are present, the capital required will either be generated locally or be available commercially from abroad to governments or to businesses. If the required conditions are not present, then aid will be ineffective and wasted." Calderisi points out the fruitlessness of recent efforts at better measuring the effects of foreign assistance. He likens these efforts to "hoping that a better thermometer will halt global warming."
After supplying several compelling examples of this triple-threat of culture, corruption, and correctness, Calderisi offers a solution: tough love that denies aid to all but the most transparently governed countries. He offers a 10-point plan for reforming foreign assistance, thereby reforming governance in Africa and leading to a path for prosperity with honest hopes for success. Among his most revolutionary solutions, he calls for all heads of state of countries receiving assistance to open the bank accounts to public scrutiny, and to hold internationally supervised elections.
In my opinion, Calderisi rightly points out that in many cases foreign assistance, rather than serving to improve the governance of African countries, serves to prop up corrupt governments. By subsidizing basic services that should be paid for by the funds skimmed off to Switzerland by corrupt leaders, assistance protects those same leaders from the wrath of a citizenry by keeping a minimum of services flowing, like just enough food to keep a starving person alive, but not enough to make him truly healthy. Would Calderisi's solutions work? To at least some extent, I think so. Will they ever be tried? Not until and unless there is a major paradigm shift in the way foreign assistance is applied. I recommend 'The Trouble With Africa' to anyone curious about the enigma of African economics.