Too Much of a Good Thing Choking on Aid Money in Africa
Part 3: Part III: Giving Money to the Wrong Countries
Much of Africa depends on Western aid for survival. Here, a leprosy victim clutches at a Jesuit aid worker in Sudan.
On May 13, 2004 the then president of Namibia, Sam Nujoma, attended the opening celebrations, along with the Zambian president Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, so that they could be praised for having built the wonderful road. Banners were put up with the words "thank you, Sam Nujoma, thank you, Levy Mwanawasa." The German ambassador came anyway. Shortly before the inauguration a small metal sign, noting German involvement in the project, was put up on the bridge crossing the Sambesi, which marks the border between the two countries.
It remains a mystery as to why the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development places such an emphasis on certain countries. Why does Namibia get so much more than others?
The former colony has a special relationship to Germany. In 1904 and 1905 the Kaiser's troops put down a Herero revolt; in the process they killed as many as 65,000 people, among them many women and children. Certainly one motive for German aid development is to make up for this brutality. Except the figures don't always stack up.
Giving money to the relatively well-off
Namibia is one of the wealthiest countries on the continent -- it has a relatively well developed infrastructure, has a growth rate of 3.7 percent and a per capita income which is ten times higher than that of Chad or Ethiopia.
Since Namibia's independence 15 years ago, Germany has donated more than 400 million. Sudan, on the other hand, which is much poorer and has 16 times as many inhabitants, receives 100 million less. Nevertheless, in 2003 Berlin increased Namibia's already enormous development aid by 50 percent.
All this, when Namibia's leader, Sam Nujoma, believes that his people actually don't need any help. The Africans are every bit as good as the Europeans, he said to Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, "and to hell with those who think differently."
That hasn't stopped Nujoma from begging the government in Berlin for money for the planned land reform. Minister Wieczorek-Zeul didn't disappoint him. Now German tax revenue is helping to finance the legally controversial ousting of German farmers from their land.
According to the British sociologist and best-selling author Graham Hancock, in his book "Lords of Poverty," it is the fault of bureaucratic monstrosities like the UN that so many people in the third world are "overworked and underfed." He doesn't pull any punches when he sums the situation up: "Development aid is bad through and through, and it is impossible to reform it."
The Live8 concerts on Saturday were meant to put pressure on world leaders to increase aid to Africa. But is that the answer?
The Washington Center for Global Development has calculated that $3,521 of development aid would have to be invested per person, in order to increase the per capita yearly income of the target group by $3.65.
Yet anyone who tries asking the question about how cost-effective development aid actually is, is quickly labeled a misanthropic cynic. Thiel rails against the fact that these institutions follow their own second-rate way of thinking, which justifies awarding public funds to rainmakers: If they manage to "make rain", then this proves that giving aid was the right thing to do. If they don't, then this shows that more aid is urgently needed.
Media overstates the aid case
Many media organizations play along too. The German news channel n-tv allows entire programs to be "co-financed" by charitable institutions. The best example being its cooperation with the Christian charity World Vision, with which it produced 24 television documentaries. The programs, which focused on war and catastrophe, showed World Vision to its best advantage. Ethiopia, Africa's top social case, stood at the center of World Vision's campaign. Sevety million people are kept alive by "an economy of the heart," as Horst Siebert, at the time head of the Global Economic Institute of Kiel, put it -- but without any hope of ever being freed from the slow drip of aid from donor countries.
Every Autumn the UN publishes seasonal figures on the areas of hunger in Ethiopia. At the beginning of 2000, 8 million people were thought to be short of food. The notoriously sober Swiss daily Neue Zuercher Zeitung thought these figures were exaggerated -- and was right. The paper researched how the panic had arisen: There were camps only in Gode, a town hit by drought. But that was where most of the media coverage was focused. The circus really got going once the news channels CNN and BBC had discovered the camps.
Hence the completely unrepresentative picture of Ethiopia as a country sinking once more into starvation. It was certainly a saddening situation. But it wasn't a catastrophe.
Whenever the media starts calling in the major aid organizations the result is often grotesque and sometimes even harmful. Certainly the white sacks of corn with emergency rations do save human life.
But very often too many are delivered. The surplus corn is then sold at dumping prices on local markets -- which is a massive blow to local businesses. As soon as the emergency situation has eased off, the region's small landowners hoard their crops. And local farmers stop planting millet, as corn is easy to come by.
The Sudanese civil war came to an end earlier this year. But violence continues in the western part of the country.
Shortly after that, the UN's global nutrition program called a "starvation alarm." Millions of people would die, it said, if help wasn't given straight away. But the threatened catastrophe never happened. Aid workers had "dramatized the situation," as the organization Care International was forced to later admit.
Exaggerating the dangers
Guy Scott, the former agricultural minister for Zambia, understands why such announcements happen. "Go to a village and ask people if they are hungry. Of course they will always say, yes, they are hungry."
Zambia, at least, was spared a major food crisis. As was neighboring Malawi, although the country did experience serious problems when foreign-financed food reserves, which had been set aside for times of need, were illegally sold to Kenya.
The reports of imminent catastrophe in Zimbabwe were also exaggerated. The British government, most of the major media outlets and the large aid organizations had declared famine to be unavoidable. And in fact the aid lobby actually needed these reports to support the theory that Robert Mugabe was driving his country into the ground with the dispossession of white farmers.
Now, once again, large amounts of money are supposed to transform Africa. The leaders of the Western nations, when they meet in Gleneagles, will be all too willing to bow down to pressure from Geldof's fans if this proves them to be merciful heroes. Russia, the permanent outsider among the big eight, has already announced that it will cancel the debt it is owed.
Bill Gates and Bono have both done what they can to raise awareness for the sufferings of Africa.
Until now American realism and European generosity have not been enough to save the continent. Would an African sense of responsibility now manage to change things?
To help this to happen, the world's largest donator, the Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, has defined a strict set of rules. Anyone who applies for help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fight Aids or TB, must prove that he can work as efficiently as a private company. Every project must regularly submit sets of accounts. If the project doesn't work, then the money will be stopped.
- Part 1: Choking on Aid Money in Africa
- Part 2: Part II: Vast Corruption Means Disappearing Aid Money
- Part 3: Part III: Giving Money to the Wrong Countries