Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Aid to Africa

Watching the BBC recently I caught the anti-poverty rally in London. The still courtly though frail Nelson Mandela outlining Africa's problems, and a rather more bombastic Bob Geldof sounding off about the West's so-called failures to fix them. Was it just a replay at the world level of our own Child Poverty Action group, wanting more money to "solve poverty", no questions asked? Or is there more to the African argument? Not that I could make out from speeches that called for "fair trade" (whatever that is), "debt cancellation" and "direct aid", no strings attached. Is it possible that the world might soon become generous to Africa? Answer: not in a hurry.

In the 1960s following rapid decolonisation in many parts of the world the newly independent states in Africa and Asia sought assistance for their fledgling economies, some in loans and gifts from the ex-colonial powers, some through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that have always asked hard questions. No left-wing political manifesto was complete without a specific clause on foreign aid. In 1969 to the joy of idealists like me, our Labour Party promised 1% of New Zealand's GDP for foreign aid. Even then there was concern about the distribution of aid and whether it would find its way to those in real need. Labour talked of establishing a co-ordinating body to disburse the money. The same in 1972 when Labour won office. A big increase in aid took place between 1972-5, including some to Africa.

By then, however, the skies were darkening. Poor countries found themselves pawns in the Cold War, and the Chinese, who were trying to curry favour in Africa, embarked on several ill-thought-out road and rail schemes that required unaffordable maintenance. Meanwhile, Africa's post-colonial democracies were collapsing, some because of starry-eyed schemes like Julius Nyerere's reforms in Tanzania that turned much of the best land into Soviet-style collectives. Old tribal rivalries grew in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Congo and the crumbling Rhodesia. Wars and civil wars became commonplace. Corruption skyrocketed. By the 1980s it was axiomatic that aid wouldn't reach its target. Besides, the economic difficulties after the oil shocks of the 1970s meant that the West's attention turned inwards. It was an uphill task to persuade those suffering from recession to give money away.

Worse, creeping political correctness meant that we weren't allowed to question whether such practices as spiralling African birth-rates were countering the benefits obtainable from direct aid. In recent decades the population of Kenya, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Botswana grew by more than 4% per annum. Their economic growth rates were less than half this. Kenya had a population of 14 million in 1977. Last year it hit 32 million. Not surprisingly, Africa's average income is now substantially lower than 30 years ago. Foreign aid slowed dramatically as people realised that the Africans themselves appeared determined to lose the battle for their own futures. In my darkest moments I think of AIDS as nature's ghastly punishment for Africans' refusal to undertake rudimentary family planning. Corrupt predators like Idi Amin (Uganda), and Sani Abacha (Nigeria) turned against the West, blaming others for disasters that originated at home. Zimbabwe was a breadbasket when I first visited in 1983 and still was when I returned in 1990. Robert Mugabe has single-handedly turned it into a basket case. Lenders and aid agencies put away their cheque books. It seems almost impossible to get past corrupt governments and self-defeating practices to help people, notwithstanding exhortations from the Club of Rome, Bob Geldof, and the saintly Nelson Mandela.

Last year there was a ray of hope with the launch of the New Partnership for African Development. Ambitious projects were identified such as regional electricity grids, and factories making anti-AIDS drugs. Philanthropists stepped up contributions to vaccination programmes. But the most depressing failure has been South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, leader of Africa's most powerful country. His refusal to sanction a stern regime of peer review over his colleagues, and his weakness towards Mugabe, exposes him to donor ridicule. The NZ$6 billion aid package and talk of 100% debt relief by Britain's Gordon Brown to coincide with his country's assumption of the EU presidency didn't win universal acclaim. Until African governments own up to their problems, and take steps to correct them, it won't be easy to resurrect foreign aid. This is one reason why Africa's cry for help stands in such stark contrast to that of post-tsunami Asia.