On the day of the African Child (16 June), This is Africa, using the giant search engine Google, conducted a survey to capture the portrayal of African children on the Internet. The result, as always, was that of malnourished, hungry, poverty-stricken and disease-laden children.
This portrayal of Africa directly correlates with how Western media has covered Africa over the years. Often the picture presented is of despair and hopelessness; one that mostly appeals to pity, sympathy and charity.
The response from the developed nations has been a massive transfer of financial and other forms of aid to African governments. In 2013, Africa received about US$135 billion in loans, foreign and development aid, according to the BBC.
Over the past 60 years, Africa has been the recipient of over $1 trillion in development-related aid, mostly from Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway and Denmark, the most generous nations as of 2014, and of course, the United States of America and the United Kingdom. Although this could have boosted the per capita GDP growth of several nations, the livelihoods of most populations in sub-Saharan African haven’t changed much. The million-dollar question then is: What has all this money done?
“Every natural resource that is keeping every country running is a resource that has been pulled out of Africa. Everyone benefits but Africa. So Africa is doesn’t need to be saved. Africa is the one doing the saving.” Akon.
What has aid done for Africa so far?
Dambisa Moyo, a World Bank economist, former consultant at Goldman Sachs and author of, among other books, Dead Aid, argues that money from rich countries has trapped many African countries in a cycle of corruption, slower economic growth and poverty. “The insidious aid culture has left African countries more debt-laden, more inflation-prone, more vulnerable to the vagaries of the currency markets and more unattractive to higher-quality investment. It’s increased the risk of civil conflict and unrest (the fact that over 60% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is under the age of 24 with few economic prospects is a cause for worry). Aid is an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster.”
The African continent is indeed debt-laden, suffering from massive unemployment figures, poor housing and infrastructure systems, rotten health and education structures, power-hungry dictators, war and conflict, disease, famine and poverty, among other problems. Is aid to blame for this mess? Renowned Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda agrees – to some extent.
Mwenda admits that although despair, civil war, hunger and famine are part of the African reality, they are not the only reality. In fact, they are the smallest reality. “The wrong framing is a product of thinking that Africa is a place of despair. What should we do with it? We should give food to the hungry. We should deliver medicines to those who are ill. We should send peacekeeping troops to serve those who are facing a civil war. And in the process, Africa has been stripped of self-initiative.” “The wrong framing is a product of thinking that Africa is a place of despair. In the process, Africa has been stripped of self-initiative.” Andrew Mwenda
Is all aid destructive?
For decades, Africa has failed to engage the rest of the world in tangible partnerships that promote trade and create markets for its exports. Africa, previously the biggest exporter of coffee and cotton, among other produce, has been overtaken by the Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia and Indonesia.
Under the Cotonou Agreement, formerly known as the Lomé Convention, African countries were given an opportunity by Europe to export goods, duty-free, to the European Union market. Uganda, in particular, had a quota to export 50 000 metric tons of sugar to the European Union market. Not even a kilogram has been exported.
Uganda, like most African countries, now largely imports and consumes more than it produces. Although this trend should have changed, aid, according to Andrew Mwenda, is the wrong instrument to help Africa turn the corner. African countries would benefit if they concentrated on building and strengthening internal institutional policies, through empowering their citizenry and encouraging local investment.
Governments in Africa have been given the opportunity by the international community to avoid building productive arrangements with their own citizens. They accept advice from the IMF and the World Bank on what their citizens need. “In the process, we, the African people, have been sidelined from the policy-making, policy-orientation and policy-implementation process in our own countries,” Mwenda explains.
Does Africa need saving?
Akon certainly doesn’t agree. The Senegalese-American musician, songwriter and producer, who recently set his sights on philanthropy, recently told Al Jazeera that the Western world cannot under any circumstances claim to be saving Africa after several years of conning Africa.
Although Akon has participated in celebrity campaigns aimed at mobilising funds for Africa, he argues that Africans must play a central role in promoting and re-branding their continent.
Akon further notes that although Africa would benefit from partnerships with the developed world, it does not need saving by the international cartel of good intentions. He argues that in fact it has always been Africa that was saving those nations. “Africa to a greater extent has been the anchor to the rest of the world. Every natural resource that is keeping every country running is a resource that has been pulled out of Africa. Everyone benefits but Africa. So Africa doesn’t need to be saved. Africa is the one doing the saving,” the musician said.
The way out for Africa
Crispy Kaheru, coordinator of the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU) told This is Africa that the only way out is for the donor countries to take a backseat and let Africans engineer solutions to their problems. “I am one of those who contend that local challenges can aptly be fixed by local solutions. And local solutions should emerge organically from within the context of the challenge/problem. The context can be historical, political, cultural, social, economic or otherwise,” he said.
Rather than throwing billions of dollars at African problems, economists believe it would be beneficial for donors to assist in creating opportunities for innovative African entrepreneurs and the youth, thereby creating employment and, eventually, wealth.
The best illustration of this is M-Pesa, arguably the largest mobile phone-based money transfer service in Africa, which was born in Nairobi, Kenya. It was designed through a student software development project and launched by Vodafone with funding from Department for International Development (DFID) based in the United Kingdom.
Currently, M-Pesa has spread throughout Africa to as far afield as Afghanistan, South Africa, India, Romania and Albania, allowing users to conveniently deposit, withdraw and transfer money and pay for goods and services. If donors could restrict themselves to financing entrepreneurial and innovative projects designed by Africans to provide local solutions to their problems, it would be more beneficial.
With the world’s youngest population – a largely untapped human resource – and a growing, vibrant informal sector, Africa has the potential to take the big leap. Rather than sink billions of dollars into charity, donors can instead look to invest in developing a skilled force among Africans, thereby empowering them to create wealth and employment which will eventually spur sustainable development.