The Third World cannot expect Western aid without doing something for themselves

Blame for the effects of the tsunami should be attributed, but to the guilty: the governments in the region
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Over-fed sympathy is a poor counsellor. Much of the coverage of the tsunami has missed the point. There has been a persistent attempt to make the affluent West feel responsible, as if we had somehow moved the tectonic plates. This is nonsense. Blame should be attributed, but to the guilty: the governments in the region. These are not among the worst-off nations on earth. They were all capable of devising early warning systems which would have saved tens of thousands of lives, including almost all the tourist victims. Their failure to do so was their own fault.

Over-fed sympathy is a poor counsellor. Much of the coverage of the tsunami has missed the point. There has been a persistent attempt to make the affluent West feel responsible, as if we had somehow moved the tectonic plates. This is nonsense. Blame should be attributed, but to the guilty: the governments in the region. These are not among the worst-off nations on earth. They were all capable of devising early warning systems which would have saved tens of thousands of lives, including almost all the tourist victims. Their failure to do so was their own fault.

Their refusal to recognise this stems in part from many western liberals' endemically patronising attitude towards the rest of the world. Such persons' brains are so furred with sentimentality that they are incapable of intellectual self-knowledge, which is just as well for them. Were they to examine their implicit conclusions, they would be horrified. Those who believe that non-white governments cannot be held responsible for their actions are treating them as children of a larger growth.

This is especially true of Africa. Over Christmas, any churchman in search of a theme for his sermon was chuntering away about the need for more aid to Africa. We cannot expect rigour from clergymen; we can expect cynicism from politicians. We are told that this is to be the year of Africa. It will certainly be the year of trying to win votes by talking about Africa.

Of course Africa needs help. But anyone who believes that increased foreign aid would solve the continent's problems should examine the history of aid programmes. Tens of billions have been wasted, and that can be explained in one word: corruption.

African corruption had quasi-benign roots, in the ethos of the big man. Those who became rich and powerful were expected to help their families and kin. Failure to do so would have been seen as a grave character failing. That was all right if it merely meant politicians diverting livestock or Land Rovers to their natal villages. It ceased to be acceptable when the political élites realised that even the poorest countries can be exploited to make a handful of families seriously rich.

Corruption explains why sub-Saharan countries have hardly increased their GDP since independence. The theft of natural resources, and aid donations, is compounded by the effect on foreign investment. Even firms which might consider paying bribes often find that the sums demanded render the projects uneconomic. There is also the constant harassing necessity of bribing officials to get anything done, which often then remains undone. No wonder investors seek easier continents.

As long as Africa is in the grip of corruption, aid is little more use than a couple of aspirins to relieve a cancer patient's cold. Indeed, aid payments to a corrupt country are likely to be counter-productive. They will convince the local politicians that, however badly they behave, there will always be another Western minister - Kleenex in one hand, taxpayers' chequebook in the other, camera crew in the background - with more largesse to find its way to Switzerland.

There needs to be a new international convention on bribery, perhaps administered by the World Bank. It would start with an amnesty for Westerners who have paid bribes in the past. In future, however, bribery should lead to corporate fines that would cause anguish to shareholders as well as long prison sentences for guilty businessmen. I am told that a team of good monitors would find it easy to detect bribery.

Any poor country which refused to sign the convention would be cut off from aid. In practice, that would also mean no foreign investment. If any rich country refused to sign, the poorer nations would be warned that they would come under suspicion if contracts were awarded to its firms. If this anti-corruption regime were implemented with sufficient vigour, then who knows? Even the French might observe it.

It would not prevent African politicians stealing directly from their peoples, but there are related methods which could be used to deter that. Africa is full of traders and farmers. Yet even when they are not being robbed of their produce by their rulers, they are often denied access to world markets. Much more should be done by the World Trade Organisation to put that right, including a relentless pressure on the EU. Trade is better than aid. There is a well-known saying: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and he can feed himself for life.'' That needs to be expanded: "Allow him and his friends to create a fishing industry, and you help their country to grow.''

But there is no reason to grant unconditional access to world markets, any more than to aid or foreign investment. Countries with kleptocratic governments ought to be excluded from all three (except for Saudi Arabia; we cannot do without the oil).

There is one respect in which Africa cannot do without aid: Aids. It is true that in many countries, malaria still causes more deaths than Aids, but malaria concentrates its fire on the old, the sick or the very young: the dispensable or the replaceable. Aids hollows out the working population. An effective anti-Aids programme would absorb large amounts of Western cash. That would be money well spent, though only if it were effective.

This would require local co-operation. Whatever their reluctance, Africans would have to learn to address the concept of safe sex. If large numbers continued to behave in a way which makes Kimberly Quinn seem like Mother Teresa , it is unlikely that the most ingenious drug manufacturers would be able to cope.

Africa is not the only continent suffering from the afflictions of promiscuous misbehaviour. In the Caribbean region, four countries - Colombia, Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica - are being wrecked by drug trafficking. In response, the West has three options. The first would be legalisation for adults, with reinforced efforts to eradicate any continuing illicit trade (that is what I favour). The second would be a war on the drug trade at all levels, including prison sentences for cocaine users throughout the West. It is impossible to destroy the supply without also restricting the demand.

The third alternative is to make pious noises and do nothing. That is what will happen. But any politicians who refuse to face the need for radical solutions to the drug problem are acquiescing in the destruction of poor countries and have no right to be taken seriously when they talk about aid.

Which will not stop them trying, and often succeeding. The foreign aid industry is infested by politicians and officials who luxuriate in the exuberance of their moral pretensions, live on a constant diet of flattery and have long since forgotten the difference between feeling good and doing good.

None of that will change in 2005. I have a prediction for the year ahead, and a recommendation. When you hear politicians talk about helping Africa, do not expect Africa to be helped. Just buy Swiss bank shares.

Comments