Leading Article: Africa takes second place

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The Independent Online
AFRICA hangs heavily on the conscience of the developed world. Its areas of drought, war and famine are as familiar as the next street to television viewers, but its needs are so vast and its problems so intractable that no response seems adequate. Guilt is overtaken by despair. Oxfam is now making another of its regular attempts to revive interest, with a report called Africa Make or Break. Its director has called for a new 'Marshall Plan' for Africa and criticised the International Monetary Fund for 'sucking Africa dry' by imposing excessively severe conditions.

The analogy of the Marshall Plan is ill chosen. That was a programme of American assistance to Europe after the Second World War. It was directed to an area of vital strategic interest as the Cold War was starting and was put to good use by societies with well-developed skills, traditions, institutions and infrastructure. Africa has little strategic importance and has not been good at using aid. African governments have wasted huge quantities of aid, diverting it into private pockets, squandering it on useless projects or spending it on weaponry and war. Aid has often contributed to corruption and distorted markets. Even now, many African governments are fighting each other rather than looking to the needs of their peoples.

The Cold War was partly responsible for the waste of aid, because it encouraged donors to buy political loyalty rather than economic efficiency. But there was also a failure among Western donors to question the dominance of large, inefficient state industries run by bloated bureaucracies. A reaction set in before the end of the Cold War, when the World Bank and other lenders started to demand structural change as a condition of aid. More recently, with political loyalty in less demand, efforts have intensified to make 'good governance' a condition of receiving aid. Political and economic reform is as necessary in Africa as in the former Soviet bloc if assistance is to be effective.

But conditionality of that sort makes heavy demands on recipients. They must change not only government policies but a whole range of habits, priorities and cultural assumptions, often at the expense of their urban ruling classes. Oxfam does not appear to be questioning the basic principle of such conditionality, but rather the severity of IMF conditions and the burden of debt that now weighs heavily on many African countries. Naturally, it also feels that the quantity is inadequate.

The evidence suggests that relaxing conditionality is seldom helpful. It merely delays adjustment. Most of the countries that have taken the advice of the World Bank and IMF have, in fact, reversed their decline. Failures are not the result of outside pressure but of war, drought, world-wide recession or reluctance to meet conditions. There is, of course, a strong case for writing off debts when a government is on the right path, but that is already accepted and acted on by many donors, including the British government. That, too, costs money.

As for quantity, no figure would be adequate, but governments have to balance priorities as best they can. Africa is rich in resources and trading potential. Conscience and a long-term interest in healthy world trade demand that it be treated with generosity. But weighed in the balance against the strategic importance of the former Soviet bloc, it is bound to be lighter. That is one of its many tragedies.