Western donors have only widened the wealth gap by
buttressing the rich and powerful
By Salim Lone
-- In the wake of the awful attacks of September 11
2001, Tony Blair's passionate denunciation of impoverishment
in Africa as "a scar on the conscience of the world"
convinced many that the west would propel the issue of mass
poverty and injustice to the top of the international agenda
in the cause of a more stable world.
This week's news only confirms that it was a misplaced hope.
Not a single country in sub-Saharan Africa has met the
criteria set by the UN's millennium development goals on
poverty alleviation, the centrepiece of the project. Some
observers believe the number of poor, and the intensity of
the poverty, has actually risen in almost all countries.
In truth there was never any real prospect that western
governments, which have gleefully presided over the creation
of new classes of the super-super-rich, would use their
considerable influence to push African leaders to pursue
policies which would shift resources away from the rapacious
national elites towards the poor.
Nor was it likely the west would permit Africa to stray from
the neoliberal orthodoxies prescribed for the continent by
the World Bank and the IMF. These policies have generated
wealth for elites and created economic growth in a few
countries, but have proved over two decades singularly
unable to reduce the human misery afflicting hundreds of
After many false starts, the millennium project, launched
with huge fanfare in 2000, was meant to be the definitive
development compact, a blueprint to substantially reduce the
extreme ravages of poverty by 2015. But now it is
sputtering. People are being lifted out of extreme poverty
at less than 1% a year, which makes even Bono's 2003 warning
that Africa would take 100 years to meet these goals seem
Abutting virtually every African slum are the castles of the
unimaginably rich. There is little incentive for those who
hold the reins of power to redirect investments away from
themselves to the very poor, given the abiding conviction on
the continent that they have an unlimited capacity to
weather their punishing adversities - with the help of
repressive security systems, of course.
But the poor do not always tolerate such inhumanity. There
are mini-revolts brewing in many places. In Kenya, for
instance, the Mungiki sect, which has tens of thousands of
members and is loosely fashioned on the Mau Mau freedom
movement, is pushing for land redistribution and a return to
traditional values. In the last two months this sect, which
raises funds from protection rackets, has killed more than a
dozen policemen and beheaded 20 civilians, hoisting some of
their heads in front of government offices.
G8-approved plans are not going to end poverty. Africa needs
strong, revolutionary leaders popular enough to put pressure
on both their elites and international partners to modify
their policies, not only in the interest of humanity but
also of security and stability. But it is well-nigh
impossible for such leaders to get elected.
In the shadow of 9/11, aid is increasingly becoming an
instrument of anti-terrorism strategy. This means that the
US and Britain in particular are ready to countenance wars
of aggression and other human rights abuses by governments
which are partners in the war on terror - as recently
witnessed when Ethiopia invaded Somalia and installed a
client regime with US and British support, bringing massive
bombing to the capital. Uganda has also committed appalling
rights abuses against its northerners. None of these crimes
elicited a peep from western leaders, who portray themselves
as embarked on a mission to civilise, informed by deeply
held humanistic values.
In the end, only Africa's own leaders and people can address
its rawest suffering. Donors have a minor but vital role to
play, but they must get this role right, and that includes
recognising that what Africa needs most of all is space to
formulate its own policies. To determine what these might
be, the donors need to radically alter their approach and
engage first and foremost with the grassroots. Despite the
rhetoric, Africa's voice is rarely heard. It's the
statements of its leaders that reach donors' ears, not the
anguish and aspirations of its people.
Can Gordon Brown make a difference? After the multiple
promises Blair made and betrayed, no one will want to get
too excited about his successor. He did move immediately to
merge the aid and trade departments, which will bring
much-needed synergy on two crucial issues. He has also made
the extraordinary appointment to the Africa portfolio of
Mark Malloch Brown. The former UN deputy secretary-general
has proved his capacity to turn bold visions into reality,
as when, in 2005, he rescued the battered leadership of his
boss Kofi Annan and then audaciously challenged the US
policy under Bush.
Both these Browns are likely to be more firmly committed to
the rule of law in resolving international disputes, but
they will also have to shed some of their conviction in the
power of the free market - even when it is working well - to
uplift the poor.
Salim Lone is a columnist for the Daily Nation in Kenya.
He is speaking this week at the 50th anniversary of the
Society for International Development at The Hague -
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