Opinion: Why Africa Is Losing its Dignity

By Kurt Gerhardt

Africa needs aid, but not the kind the West is currently providing. Conventional development aid has turned the continent into a dependent recipient of charity. We should halt the handouts and adopt successful micro-lending models instead, helping Africans to help themselves.

Development aid for Africa has never fallen under such radical and massive criticism as in recent years -- and it comes from representatives of both the "North" and of Africa itself. Nevertheless, this hasn't kept Germany's Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) from concluding, in one of its brochures: "Africa is not the continent of catastrophes, crises and wars. Africa shows evidence of the dynamics of reform and stabile growth and, with its ideas and potential, is taking its development into its own hands."

A road construction site near Nairobi: Infrastructure projects are among those favored in development aid. But without proper maintenance, the roads deteriorate quickly.
REUTERS

A road construction site near Nairobi: Infrastructure projects are among those favored in development aid. But without proper maintenance, the roads deteriorate quickly.

The assessment of development of Sub-Saharan Africa is highly ideological. Large parts of the development community take for granted the adage that: "We are exploiting poor Africans, and we deny them all trade opportunities. We must forgive all of their debt, because the loans were forced upon them. A significant increase in financial development aid is needed, because more money means more development."

This is music to the ears of African kleptocrats. It exonerates them and allows them to continue to engage in their standard, irresponsible behavior. The utopians in the lands of the North are the de facto fan clubs of those African leaders who systematically abuse their power and stand in the way of homegrown African development efforts.

The same effect is produced by the many who insist that Africa's prospects for development are being destroyed by unfair international trade relationships. Criticism of these relationships is undoubtedly justified. But why is trade flourishing, under identical conditions, in many developing countries outside Africa? The fact that this obvious truth is eclipsed by the constant talk of catastrophe is an indicator of the quality of discourse over Third World development.

The most successful trading partners among the poorer nations export industrial goods, not agricultural products. China initially brought technically uncomplicated devices onto the world market, but with time its products became increasingly sophisticated. Why doesn't this work in Africa? Has anyone ever seen an iron, a bicycle or a hair clip with "Made in Togo" or "Made in Uganda" printed on it? For generations, the international community has promoted technical and entrepreneurial competency among Africans. Where have its efforts paid off?

The Outstreched Hand Is the Continent's Symbol

After half a century of development aid for Africa, the entire world of donor nations remains covered with a network consisting of all sorts of public and private aid agencies. Governments, communities, church-affiliated relief organizations, corporate groups, trade unions, a vast number of charitable groups, schools and sponsorship organizations -- all are helping Africa or, more precisely, are trying to help. And Africa, for its part, is a willing recipient of their largesse, even when it violates the continent's dignity. Indeed, the outstretched hand has literally become a symbol of Africa. People here and there are so accustomed to this state of affairs that its absurdity seems normal to them.

But the cycle of giving and receiving solidifies Africa's dependency and impedes development. It ignores the banal insight that development can only be what people and societies achieve themselves. What we do is of little interest, while what they -- the Africans -- do is key. Nothing can replace their internal dynamics, not even the most well-intentioned assistance from abroad.

The dynamics of Africa's development are in bad shape. Of course, there are good and shining examples for anything, but they are not typical of the continent. Anyone seeking to witness dynamic development should look to the lively bustle of activity in rising East Asian countries, where international development aid plays only a small role.

But anyone traveling through Africa will encounter a completely different picture: a great deal of lethargy and not enough of the urge to succeed. Economic development, in particular, suffers from a lack of thoroughness, planning and reliability, and from the fact that African family clans typically demand a share of the economic success of their more successful members, instead of allowing them to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Another impediment to development, and to rational thinking and activity, is a belief in spirits that is still deeply entrenched at all social levels. Socio-cultural explanations of such behavior are interesting, but they do not promote development.

Despite these obstacles, the only true measure of the quality of our development aid is the extent to which it manages to generate and strengthen internal African dynamics. Too little attention is paid to this simple and fundamental insight in the practice of development aid. Instead, the performance of donor nations is judged on the basis of the so-called ODA, or Official Development Assistance, quota, which is the share of a country's gross national product devoted to development assistance. But this is nothing but self-delusion, because the ODA quota has little to do with development. In fact, it has more to do with the opposite of development.

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