Better to give than to receive, as a small African state discovers

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A reader from Yorkshire writes to complain that my views have become bleak. He seems to be an academic. "Most of the stuff I read and have to read is so disheartening ... Did you know that to be seen to be optimistic, idealistic and radical at university is embarrassing?"

Fair enough. But Christmas is here, closely followed by a New Year in which Britain has a chance to change powerfully for the better. So here is something about a heartening country, and the reflections of a man who is optimistic, idealistic and radical.

Last week in London, I went to see Iseyas Afewerki, the President of Eritrea. I had met him twice before, first when he was leading Eritrea's desperate liberation war against Mengistu's Ethiopia and later when, in spite of the overwhelming odds in weaponry and manpower against his tiny country, he had won. In 1993, Eritrea became formally an independent nation.

But Eritrea has achieved something even more striking: good news from Africa. The Western stereotype of Africa as the world's basket-case, wallowing in famine, debt and genocidal ethnic wars under corrupt autocrats, has always been false, as Eritrea shows. With only 3.5 million people, this is a stable country full of hope and economic energy.

It is multi-ethnic, with at least eight linguistic groups and a population about equally divided between Islam and Christianity, but its peoples live at peace with one another. It is still a one-party state, run by the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the renamed Eritrean People's Liberation Front which carried the main burden of the war. But free speech and human rights are healthy, and the new constitution suggests a cautious move towards a multi-party system.

It remains a very poor country. The struggle against Ethiopia cost over 100,000 lives, and the land is littered with tank carcasses. Most of the towns were bombed; the port of Massawa was wrecked and the railways torn up. Industry almost ceased to exist. Agriculture has been devastated by war and drought, and some 70 per cent of the population depends on foreign aid for all or part of its food supply.

With problems like that, many countries would have thrown themselves on the charity of the world. But Eritrea is different. "Never kneel down" was the motto of the soldiers in the war for independence, and self-help is the ideology today - proclaimed with a prickly emphasis which dismays some outsiders. Officially, Eritrea is committed to a market economy. In practice, the foreign firms circling around the land's mineral wealth have a hard time gaining a foothold. Corruption is very rare, and the Eritreans themselves, helped by the money, technical skill and energy of the large Eritrean diaspora, have rebuilt their own cities and set about reconstructing the railway with volunteer labour.

Iseyas Afewerki is the same tall, grave young man I remember, a natural commander who seems happiest when arguing about ideas. During the war, he and the EPLF constructed a phenomenal self-managing society which ran an administration, a medical system and a crude industrial economy literally underground - hidden from an enemy with command of the air. He also managed the Front's transition from Marxist-Leninism to accepting a mixed economy and plural democracy. But the wartime creed of self-sufficiency as the condition of independence is still with him.

It's an unusual position in the post-Cold War world. Many now treat the very concept of "independence" as ridiculous. In this view, there are only two choices for a poor country. You can achieve "independence" by trying to shut out the world altogether, like the regimes of Burma or North Korea. Or you must allow the world to walk all over you, its bankers and multinational companies and aid donors treating you like a grateful doormat. Afewerki, however, thinks there is a middle way.

I asked him about foreign aid. Eritrea recently declined a new IMF loan, because its conditions seemed too interfering. The UN agencies which control food aid have been obliged to watch their step, and four UN workers were expelled in 1995 for getting too big for their boots. The NGOs (non-governmental organisations) operate in Eritrea, but not in great numbers and without the privileges they enjoy in many other countries.

"Dependency is what we fear," said Afewerki. "We have to examine our relationship with the aid agencies. To accept that we must live with aid for ever is to accept that we must live with our problems for ever. Dependency, especially for food aid, can be disabling, dehumanising and very restrictive; it does not motivate human beings to be active."

And it was a two-way process. "Those who provide aid also become dependent," said the President, with an ironic smile. "They develop a donor psychosis. They acquire a high-handed approach which soon becomes a way of life. Aid agencies tend to proliferate; you can find 100 or 150 NGOs in a single country, and the worst thing is that they soon claim to be "acting on behalf of the citizens" as if no government existed. There are some enlightened exceptions, of course. But some of the UN agencies can become a liability as well; they behave like substitutes for government, with their luxurious offices and big salaries. In Eritrea, everybody recognises that aid of that kind is a form of counter-attack against the state."

I asked Afewerki what he thought about "conditionality". This is the current Western technique of advancing liberal democracy by refusing assistance to countries without market economies or plural political systems. The President's reaction was to ask why the West assumed that African countries would never adopt pluralism or the market without being pushed. "It's part of a cynical bias, an assumption that everything in Africa is a failure. It's patronising. The budgets of many African countries are made and tailored in European capitals, which means that those capitals have a vested interest in the disabling of African states ... look at Zaire, where any tacky outsider can come and pillage its wealth."

This is shrewd stuff. The "aid community" has become a huge global player in recent years. Even the Christian missions in 19th-century Africa were less pervasive. Individual motives are usually noble, but President Afewerki is dead right about that "donor psychosis". I know local UN agency representatives who live and behave like superpower ambassadors. They expect the president of wherever to receive them at the tinkle of a phone. Their sense of power derives, in the end, from the powerlessness of their host.

What the Eritreans are saying is that poor nations must and can save themselves. Aid, apart from temporary disaster relief, should never do more than service local self-help. In Afewerki's words, it must never grow into "a way of life" for receiver or donor.

Most aid workers, I think, would agree with all this. But they might add that Eritrea is a very special place. Few other territories with such poverty and problems have such a culture of solidarity, such uncannily strict standards of public order and private honesty. Less virtuous societies may need a more interfering, directing sort of help, whatever the moral and political costs.

Eritrea, then, is good news. Too good to stay true? That remains to be seen. For the moment, President Afewerki's little country is a beacon to Africa. Independence there is more than a flag on a pole. It is something which people live.

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