Opinion Why Africa Is Losing its Dignity

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.
Von Kurt Gerhardt

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.

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.

The Results of our Aid Are Often Less Than Zero

When "we" build roads, irrigation canals, wells and schools in poor countries, it improves our ODA quota, but it is not necessarily good for development. If these achievements could have been made through local efforts, that is, without our help but rather through labor intensive efforts modelled on the Chinese example -- and shouldn't African governments be capable of this, after decades of training for their engineers and other specialists at our universities? -- we have not promoted but in fact prevented development, by violating the principle of subsidiarity.

When such violations happen, the return on our aid isn't zero, it is in fact negative, because it has actually caused harm. The same applies to the many thousands of failed development projects that must not only be written off, but also leave a legacy of damage.

Anyone who applies this standard to development aid of the last few decades and to the realities of life in Africa should not be surprised to find that, according to the " Bonn Appeal* ," our development policies have failed.

We must expect Africans to be able to generate the economic progress that they actually want themselves.

Salvation Will Not Come from Washington or Brussels

Calling for foreign donors and aid workers whenever a problem arises will not bring progress to Africa. Its salvation will not come from Washington, Brussels or Berlin. It will either come from their own heads and hands, or not at all.

We have contributed our fair share to this lack of ambition to promote development from within. The farce over road construction that has been going on for decades is one example. Once roads are built, after being paid for with development funds, they are usually poorly maintained and eventually deteriorate. At some point, the foreign partner government can no longer stand the sight of such poor conditions, so they build another road and call the effort "rehabilitation," until the road, once again, deteriorates for lack of maintenance and yet another compassionate round of rehabilitation begins.

As a matter of principle, we should only finance new African infrastructure with development aid when our partners there have demonstrated that facilities built in the past are kept up. Rehabilitation simply promotes underdevelopment.

Sub-Saharan Africa hardly even manages to take advantage of its wealth of mineral resources to promote the wellbeing of its citizens. On the contrary: They have proven to be a curse for the majority of Africans. The enormous profits are used to pay for wars and fill the bank accounts of the upper class. According to Transparency International, the president of oil-producing country Gabon, Omar Bongo, and members of his family own 39 pieces of real estate in the best of locations in Paris and on the Côte d'Azur.

Even though the relationship between money and development is dubious at best, the donor world is obsessed with numbers games. The most well known of these pastimes revolves around the question of when the ODA quota reaches the goal of 0.7 percent of GDP, which the donor nations established 40 years ago and yet have never taken seriously, with the exception of a few smaller countries. Because this number was calculated on the basis of the situation at the time, there can be no plausible relationship between it and today's demand for development aid. Its only purpose is to increase spending.

Africa Must Assume More Responsibility

When it comes to development assistance, priorities have been turned upside-down. The important issue is not when certain financing goals are achieved, but which tasks are to be fulfilled. Only after this has been determined can we calculate how much money we need to reach our goals. For this reason, it is incorrect to say, from the outset, that more money is needed for development aid. Equally misguided was the decision, reached at the 2005 G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, to double development aid for Africa. No matter how many of the world's Bonos and Geldofs call for "more money," this approach remains hazardous to Africa's development.

The massive international aid machine, made up of countless agencies and organizations, is too far removed from reality. It rotates on its own axis and circles the African continent like some spaceship filled with industrious and committed experts who are constantly dreaming up strategies, holding conferences, forging consensuses, publishing studies, formulating agendas, running the numbers on their macroeconomic models and generating tons of paper. The question of who actually reads these documents is better left unasked. This spaceship functions so perfectly that it could easily exist without Africa.

If we want Africa to embark on a more effective course of development, it must assume more responsibility. This is the core message of the "Bonn Appeal." We are no longer clueless as we face the problems of development. China pointed the way out of poverty by developing economically on its own strength, not by extending its hand for outside assistance. That would only be acceptable in times of acute need, when humanitarian aid is appropriate.

Why should we assume that Africa could not successfully pursue its own path in much the same way? This doesn't mean that we would simply step aside, but a clear division of labor is needed. The best thing we can do for Africa is to improve educational opportunities for young people. But it is up to them to make something of it, to turn education into material progress.

And wherever material and financial assistance is needed, in addition to the provision of skills, we must observe one principle: No handouts! Whenever money is given, the problems begin. As a matter of principle, development aid should only be distributed in the form of loans. This presupposes that all people willing to work for progress have access to loans, and to achieve this, the successful micro-lending model must be expanded, including the use of development aid, so that it reaches all of the poor.

If Africa pursues this path self-confidently and energetically, it will not only attain prosperity but will also regain its dignity.

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