Sunday, July 10, 2005

MH - "For God's Sake, Please Stop the Aid!"

Well, we're back again after another round of internet interruptions. I really hope they've corrected the problem this time. I already feel as if I'm so far behind I'll never catch up, so I'd better just dig in and get going.

First up, Hadleyblogger Peter sends us this provocative interview that the German magazine Der Spiegel conducted with Kenyan economics expert James Shikwati, in which Shikwati utters the sentence used in the title of this post. But how could this be? Anyone listening to the Live 8 concert last weekend knows that Africa's going to collapse without massive international aid. Right?

Shikwati: Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa's problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn't even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit. Which is why they maintain that the world would stop turning without this development aid.

But without massive aid, people will starve to death. Right?

Shikwati: I don't think so. In such a case, the Kenyans, for a change, would be forced to initiate trade relations with Uganda or Tanzania, and buy their food there. This type of trade is vital for Africa. It would force us to improve our own infrastructure, while making national borders -- drawn by the Europeans by the way -- more permeable. It would also force us to establish laws favoring market economy.

Well, let's change the subject. We all know the Catholic Church is to blame for the massive AIDS problem because of their refusal to sanction condom use. Right?

Shikwati: If one were to believe all the horrorifying reports, then all Kenyans should actually be dead by now. But now, tests are being carried out everywhere, and it turns out that the figures were vastly exaggerated. It's not three million Kenyans that are infected. All of the sudden, it's only about one million. Malaria is just as much of a problem, but people rarely talk about that. . . AIDS is big business, maybe Africa's biggest business. There's nothing else that can generate as much aid money as shocking figures on AIDS. AIDS is a political disease here, and we should be very skeptical.

Fortunately, the caring liberals in the West won't let Africa go without. All those clothing drives that churches and other organizations put on show how much we care. Those have to be doing some good. Right?

Shikwati: ... and they flood our markets with that stuff. We can buy these donated clothes cheaply at our so-called Mitumba markets. There are Germans who spend a few dollars to get used Bayern Munich or Werder Bremen jerseys, in other words, clothes that that some German kids sent to Africa for a good cause. After buying these jerseys, they auction them off at Ebay and send them back to Germany -- for three times the price. That's insanity . . . Why do we get these mountains of clothes? No one is freezing here. Instead, our tailors lose their livlihoods. They're in the same position as our farmers. No one in the low-wage world of Africa can be cost-efficient enough to keep pace with donated products. In 1997, 137,000 workers were employed in Nigeria's textile industry. By 2003, the figure had dropped to 57,000. The results are the same in all other areas where overwhelming helpfulness and fragile African markets collide.

And Shikwati has much, much more to say. Talk about revisionism. Now, if this is so obvious to those on the scene in Africa, how come we don't seem to get it over here? Shikwati doesn't offer an opinion in his interview, but I have a couple of ideas.

Part of this is traditional liberal-think. You recall Sir Bob Geldof himself saying, "Something must be done, even if it doesn't work." That's typical liberalism, especially at the legislative level, where their motto is, "Better any bill than no bill at all." (The conservative corollry being, "Better no bill at all than just any bill.")

On the other hand, one can't rule out the possibility of a guilty conscience. Entertainers in particular have long had a problem justifying to themselves the immense wealth they accumulate in return for fairly meager talent. That Protestant work ethic has deep roots, and something in the back of the mind suggests that some payment must be made in return for this undeserved wealth. Thus the need to latch on to some do-good project in order to achieve that justification which they so desperately seek.

I'm not questioning the good motives of Geldof and others involved in these fund- and awareness-raising projects (Geldof in particular has always struck me as very sincere, if naive, in his desire to change the world for the better), but you can't rule this possibility out. Sometimes it's easier to donate your time or money to a problem than to really sit down and try to figure out what's causing the problem and how it can be addressed. If you can sit down and say you were involved in a project that raised $1 billion in aid, you can feel pretty good about your efforts. You don't see the food rotting on the docks, the money being diverted by corrupt government officials, the truly poor continuing to starve and suffer because of incompetent central planning. You can just sit back and feel good and superior about the whole thing. In any event, didn't Christ say something about those involved in charity doing it in secret, so that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing?

I'll admit that last may have been a cheap shot; there are entertainers, such as Jerry Lewis, who have done incredible good over the years by using their celebrity status to raise funds and awareness for good causes, and deserve all kinds of praise. But when you read statements like those of James Shikwati, it forces you to take a good look at what you're doing and why. No matter how much money you throw at a problem, that money itself isn't going to make the problem go away. In no little way, Africa's problems are a result of despotic dictators, failed Socialist theory, the need for Christian evangelization, and misplaced Western sympathy. There's an old saying about the inevitable failure of applying a band-aid to a major problem, and it's particularly ironic considering that the original aid for Africa movement was started by an all-star group called Band Aid.

I remember Pat Buchanan twenty years ago, prior to the original Live Aid, saying that what Africa needed was not a benefit concert, but a continent-wide revolution. Sadly, the problems of twenty years ago still seem to be with us; sadly, the governments responsible for so much of the suffering seem to be with us as well.

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