During the Cold War, Africa was a chessboard where the United States and the Soviet Union competed directly or through their proxies (South Africa and Cuba). Now, the continent is benignly forgotten, added rit- ualistically to the list of the world’s trouble spots (only to be glossed over for more burning topics like Iran and North Korea) or made the victim of all-embracing reports which, like strips of flypaper, attract subjects as diverse as interna- tional trade negotiations, micro-credit, the number of aid personnel stationed in developing countries and female genital mutilation. Unfortunately, the recent report of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Senate of Canada (Overcoming 40 Years of Failure: A New Road Map for Sub- Saharan Africa, February 2007) fell into the last category. There are better ideas for the future of Africa.

There have been remarkable successes in a small number of countries like Botswana and Mauritius that have pursued appropriate policies right from the start, and in the efforts of others ”” like Ghana, Mali, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda ”” to correct earlier missteps and achieve steady polit- ical and economic progress over the last 20 years. That there have been failures in Africa is certain enough, but what is equally beyond doubt is there have been serious misconcep- tions and shortfalls in the West’s efforts to help the continent. And how can anyone propose a ”œroad map,” when almost everyone agrees that past directions have been faulty and it is Africans themselves who should be doing the driving?

Let’s consider three down-to-earth stories from Africa. Just over a decade ago, a senior aid official visited a number of rural clinics north of Abidjan, the capital of CoÌ‚te d’Ivoire. Most of them were filthy, dilapidated and bare ”” lacking even syringes, bandages and medicines. The person- nel were listless and demoralized, as almost anyone in their circumstances would be. In one clinic, a mother had been torn during birth, and the desperate midwife had been forced to mend her with electrical copper wire. By the end of the morning, the aid official was disheartened. But, before returning to town, he visited another clinic where the nurse met him at the door, well dressed, organized and plainly happy to have a visitor. The place was equipped and in good order. She had medicines, alcohol and bandages. Her furniture was still usable. Her notebooks for patient fol- low-up were impeccable. And she was in the process of replacing wooden doors and windows that had been eaten away by termites.

What made the difference? Short of alternatives and unwilling to wait for the government, the nurse had con- vinced the women of the village to contribute to the run- ning of the clinic. She had no water, so she had contacted an Italian charity to repair the well. She had the conviction, energy, imagi- nation and charm to compensate for the lack of normal structures. Thinking that perhaps she had just arrived and that her enthusiasm was understand- able, the aid official asked how long she had been there. Eleven years, he was told. In graduate schools and development research institutes, that nurse would be called a ”œsocial entre- preneur.” Most of the rest of us would call her a hero.

Now, let’s move to another country ”” Cameroon ”” with which Canada has had close relations, in part because we share the same two official languages. Its govern- ment once refused a radio licence to the Catholic archbish- op of Douala, Cardinal Christian Tumi, because he was regarded as part of the political opposi- tion, apparently because of his strong commitment to promot- ing human rights. ”œI was born a Cameroonian,” the cardinal once said, ”œand became a Christian and priest. Why can’t I have views about what is hap- pening in my country?”

Finally, a glimpse at Chad. In the south of the country, farmers do not fertilize their major food crop (cassava) if they live within 100 metres of a road, because if it grows too tall, military personnel driving by will stop to steal it. So farmers deprive themselves of extra food, or a small surplus that they could sell, so as not to lose every- thing they have planted.

These three stories come from The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn’t Working, which was chosen by The Economist magazine as one of the best books of 2006 and was written by a Canadian who worked on Africa for 30 years, mostly at the World Bank. These vignettes remind us that individuals, not governments, create progress and ”” even worse ”” that, in many cases, governments actually stand in the way of economic and political development. We need to keep that in mind as we consider ways in which Canada can help Africa better.

Like many reports on Africa, the report of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs tried to be comprehen- sive but almost inevitably paid a price. It lacked focus and conveyed no sense of urgency or priority. Many of its 44 recommendations were feeble, wishful or contradictory. It did not reflect recent developments in Africa or cur- rent debates about foreign aid. The very first recommendation ”” that Canada should develop a coherent and comprehensive policy on Africa ”” essentially sidestepped the issue, rather than spelling out that new direction concisely and convincingly.

The report hinted at the importance of ”œgenerating economic and employ- ment opportunities for African people,” but did not suggest how to get there. It contained a large number of ideas but made no trade-offs, implying that budg- etary and practical considerations were unimportant. It also called for some actions best left to the private sector. For example, how can the Canadian govern- ment foster better links between Canadian and African business groups? How can we improve Africa’s image?

In other cases, the report’s sugges- tions seem to have been made in a vac- uum. Suggesting that aid should pro- mote economic growth rather than social welfare is hardly new. Even when emphasis on health and education took the extreme form of the ”œbasic needs” approach to development, promoted throughout the United Nations system in the 1970s, no one saw social spend- ing as an end in itself. The World Bank moved into education lending in the 1960s, not for sentimental reasons, but as a means of improving the productiv- ity of the poor. Trying to establish a clear boundary in 2007 between ”œeconomic” and ”œsocial” investment in Africa is archaic and quixotic. In fact, they are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. In apparent acknowledge- ment of this fact, the report went on to stress the importance of improving basic health but, rather bizarrely, left out specific recommendations on education. Equally disturbing was the report’s call for a global plan on HIV/AIDS without recognizing that Canada is already support- ing the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria very generously ($225 million in 2007-08).

It was not even plain why Canada needs more embassies in Africa, as the report itself suggested that trade with Africa is already growing significantly. In 2005, Canadian merchandise exports to sub- Saharan Africa increased almost 14 percent from the previous year (to $1.3 billion), while trade in services to Africa was 50 percent higher than to China ($458 million in 2003). The report backed the use of DDT sprays and mosquito nets in the fight against malaria, which is not new as the World Health Organization had already done so months ago. The Senate committee urged Canada’s Export Development Corporation to be more ”œproactive and risk tolerant” in Africa, implying that public funds should be managed less prudently than African private investors manage their own money. It championed a reinforced UN effort in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, four months after multiparty elections had been held and a week after a 60- person cabinet had been appointed. But the report did not recommend a Canadian stance on the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan.

The recommendation that the Canadian International Develop- ment Agency (CIDA) be abolished, or replaced with a new Africa Office, was especially unfortunate. Complaining about CIDA’s results in Africa is like blaming Canada’s health departments for not reducing death rates among chronic smokers. There are certain things that outsiders can accomplish, and others that they must chip away at over time. This recommendation was extreme and is out of touch with larg- er realities. CIDA has had its problems, but it is well regarded by other devel- opment agencies and no donor agency is very popular in Africa. Past political interference has in fact complicated CIDA’s own efforts at streamlining its operations. It is just too easy to suggest major organizational changes, when we know that achieving Canadian objectives in Africa will be difficult even with the most nimble agency in the world spearheading the effort.

The Senate is not the first to pro- pose radical organizational changes as a means of solving deep-seated human problems. Two years ago, in his Massey Lectures (The Race against Time, Anansi Press, 2005), Stephen Lewis proposed establishing a new UN agency devoted to gender equality, despite his repeated references throughout the lectures to the UN’s ”œsmoke and mirrors,” ”œcon- genital timidity,” ”œrhetorical flim- flam” and ”œworld of reports, analyses, figures, tables, diagrams, and at least a thousand PowerPoint presentations.”

Organizations can do only so much. Supposedly drawing on other countries’ experience, the Senate report suggests that 80 percent of CIDA’s personnel should be decen- tralized to the field. It says nothing about past experiments of this kind and why they have failed, or the stu- pendous cost of maintaining a large field presence, or the need for a strong head office even in the case of highly decentralized organizations like that of the United Kingdom’s for- eign aid ministry. New organizational arrangements, in and of themselves, rarely solve problems. It is quite pos- sible that CIDA’s current offices in Africa would be more effective with- out larger budgets, but just clearer and expanded responsibilities and tighter criteria on whom and how Canada can help would make a sig- nificant difference. It makes little sense to argue for a narrowing of Canada’s focus in Africa ”” as the Senate report does ”” and then pro- mote a dispersion of Canadian per- sonnel across the continent. Such an approach also obscures the problem that Africa ”” like the world ”” is try- ing to solve.

Africa’s major problem ”” account- ing at least in part for many others, like ethnic tension, civil wars and even declining immunization rates and school enrolments ”” is that the conti- nent has lost half its share of world mar- kets since independence in the 1960s. The annual income Africa has given up is three times the foreign aid the conti- nent receives. So, instead of building things up, that aid has only served to keep some things from falling even fur- ther apart. No one ”” neither African governments nor their foreign partners ”” came out smelling like a rose.

But let’s be clear about what hap- pened. Africa did not lose ground because of unfair international trade policies; in fact, it was other developing countries in Asia and Latin America that filled the gap. Did they have a special formula? Not really, unless helping rather than persecuting small farmers can be considered a magic potion. Nor was it because extreme poverty is inevitable in a tropical cli- mate. While Africa was going backwards, Indonesia ”” an East Asian country of 200 mil- lion people, a third of the size of Sub- Saharan Africa ”” was reducing poverty from 60 to 20 percent of its popula- tion.

Compounding this economic implosion was the wholesale exodus of public and private funds from Africa ”” the equivalent of a Marshall Plan in reverse, which has been operating since independence. This is not the ”œnegative net transfers” some non- governmental organizations have complained about, whereby some African countries pay more in official debt service each year than they receive in new money. This can be explained by a number of factors, some of which are quite positive ”” like a fall in new aid commitments because countries no longer need con- cessional money, or because govern- ments prefer to fund new projects by borrowing money in the international capital markets.

Sometimes, too, such net outflows of money are a product of bad pol- icy or behaviour in developing coun- tries, which led to a reduction or cut- off in new aid. Surely, no one would argue for increasing aid to bad gov- ernments just to keep their heads above water.

The outflows that have hurt Africa the most are private savings seeking safe refuge abroad and the wholesale theft of public assets by generations of African heads of state, politicians and civil servants. The World Bank has esti- mated that embezzled funds worldwide could amount to $1 trillion per year. President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria has said that at least $140 billion has been lost to public thievery in his coun- try’s history.

Corruption is human and the only thing that controls it is institutional checks and balances like public audi- tors, a free press and an effective legal system. But another powerful measure ”” as yet undeveloped ”” would be to close off the international banking sys- tem to the illicit holdings of govern- ment officials and to freeze and repatriate stolen money already there.

What is required in Africa is an expansion of personal liberties and opportunities more than anything else. After that ”” trade, investment and secu- rity are more crucial than aid. In this regard, the report is absolutely correct in not backing higher aid volumes for Africa. Eighteen months after the G8 leaders at Gleneagles, Scotland, agreed to double aid to Africa by 2010, a greater sense of realism and prudence is setting in. In fact, this year’s G8 host, Germany, is rightly stressing the importance of promoting Africa’s private sector.

Human rights ”” including prop- erty rights, security of contracts and the rule of law ”” are more fruitful than foreign aid. Here is where the Senate report should have focused its fire. Canada can encourage good poli- cy and an opening of Africa’s political culture in the following ways:

  • Focusing Canadian aid. The Senate report was right to recommend that Canada concentrate its aid on countries that are ”œaggressively” promoting better governance, pri- vate investment and growth. But it should have been much more specific about the minimum stan- dards expected of countries receiv- ing Canadian aid: for example, steady progress in improving the business climate (as measured by the World Bank’s annual index on this subject). In our view, no country should get help that refused to have properly supervised elections, or resisted tough inspections into how it was using funds for key programs like pri- mary education and fighting HIV/AIDS, or still had laws on the books which make it a crime to criticize the head of state, or had failed to ratify the African Union’s own Anti-Corruption Conven- tion. In the absence of specific cri- teria, it is likely that Canadian policy will change in rhetoric only, rather than substance.

  • Curbing corruption. We should also be tougher about the wholesale theft of public resources by public officials in Africa. Ending the com- plicity of Western banks in such abuses will not be simple. But, politically and practically, it should take precedence over fine- tuning our foreign aid or improv- ing our trade policies. Reforms on that front would be a shot in the arm to thousands of people across Africa who are campaigning for more open and honest govern- ment, and are rightly confused when they see us preaching against corruption but at the same time erecting barriers against the recovery of stolen money. In the 19th century, the British navy intercepted suspected slaving ves- sels on the high seas once the abominable trade in human beings was established. We face a comparable challenge now ”” denying free passage to government officials who are leaching their countries of scarce resources and making their fellow citizens captives of human greed and caprice. This is the kind of cause that Canada should be champi- oning, at home but also in inter- national forums.

  • Another moral parallel would be the international convention on the use of land mines. As a matter of urgency, the Canadian Parlia- ment should initiate hearings on the appropriate objectives, scope and timetable for an international convention in this area.

  • IMF and World Bank. Finally, it is important that the international institutions responsible for pro- moting better governance in the world be models of understand- able behaviour themselves. The bank is rightly criticized for trying to do too much and for being insensitive to country circum- stances in some cases. But all responsible observers recognize that it is the most effective vehicle we have for transmitting global lessons of public policy and effi- cient public investment to devel- oping countries. Sometimes, flexibility is appropriate, but in many other cases ”” as in ensuring continued improvement in the management of public resources ”” the bank and its shareholders must be absolutely firm in setting and applying clear standards. But it is surely archaic that the presi- dent of the World Bank should always be an American and the managing director of the International Monetary Fund always a European. Fixing this irregularity would go a long way to strength- ening developing countries confi- dence in the two institutions. (The term of the current incumbent of the IMF ends in June 2010.) Recently, the United Nations Development Programme selected its new head ”” once a preserve of the US government, too ”” through a process of open interna- tional competition. Such a reform should be made a condition of Canada’s support for the current replenishment of the Internation- al Development Association, the part of the World Bank Group that helps the poorest countries.

This apparently more modest program is just as ambitious as the one set out in the Senate report. It is also more strategic as it would apply Canadian efforts to the pressure points that matter the most. And it will be more understandable to Africans, who have seen many reports and initiatives. Many Africans still look to Canada for leadership and common sense in international forums. We owe it to them to focus our efforts where they will be most productive and to remember those small farmers who are more con- cerned about soldiers driving by than about anything CIDA or the World Bank may do.

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