Leading article: Africa still needs our aid - but it's not just about money

Assistance must come with conditions and it has to be temporary

The G8 meeting in L'Aquila has ended, just like the summit at Gleneagles in 2005, with promises for Africa. Yesterday's communiqué pledges $20bn (£13bn) from the world's wealthiest economies for farm investment aid in the world's hungriest continent over the next three years. Such a commitment should not be scorned. But, at the same time, we need to recognise that these headline numbers are meaningless if the funds never materialise.

The fact is that G8 has a serious credibility problem. Its members pledged to double the size of their overseas aid budgets by 2010 in Gleneagles. But those targets are not going to be met. This year's G8 host, Italy, has been particularly brazen in disregarding its commitments.

And a good thing too, some would say. The argument that aid does Africa more harm than good is gathering momentum. Critics argue that aid undermines the lines of democratic accountability in recipient countries. They highlight the sums that are stolen by corrupt politicians. They call for an end to intergovernmental aid support and for African governments to borrow on the international money markets to finance investment instead.

These critics accurately diagnose the distortions and flaws that bedevil many existing aid programmes. But their prescription – for aid transfers to end – is flawed. Aid might have been less effective than it should have been, but it has not been useless. It has paid for healthcare and education programmes which have primed the pump for economic development in countries such as Tanzania, Rwanda and Ghana. If African nations can borrow money on the international capital markets, all well and good, but many are simply not in a position to do so. Aid fills that gap.

The way forward is smarter, more transparent programmes. Barack Obama's push in L'Aquila for farm investment rather than exporting sacks of US corn is an example of the sort of shift necessary to make assistance more effective. But it must also come with more conditions. African governments discovered to be stealing aid persistently should be cut off. Good governance and respect for democratic institutions should be the quid pro quo of Western support. African leaders must be made to understand that the commitments are not open ended, but temporary support. The rich world also needs to discover more ways of getting aid directly to populations and projects, bypassing corrupt bureaucracies. Such reforms will inevitably provoke complaints of neo-colonialism from some quarters. So be it. Western governments must move on from colonial hang-ups. Aid should not be regarded as colonial reparations, but assistance to help potential trading partners, like the Marshall Plan for Europe in the wake of the Second World War.

Yet while aid still has an important function, we need to remember that it is no panacea for Africa's problems. Much else is needed from the West other than money. Rich governments need to scrap their domestic agriculture subsidies which have the effect of driving African farmers out of business. Western firms that bribe African officials need to face serious sanctions. And Western banks need to stop providing a home for the wealth of African kleptocrats.

A huge amount is required from African governments too, if their industrious and talented populations are to achieve their potential. Aid must be strictly a means to an end. And that end is for prosperous African nations to stand proudly on their own two feet.