April 17, 2011

Africa - Reducing Dependence On And Vulnerability To The Will And Whim Of Others

UPDATE:  The Aid Debate, A Presentation by George Ayittey, 2011 Oslo Freedom Forum, May 11, 2011 (move to 11:40 minute/second)

In the 1990s, while posted at one of the US Embassies in East Africa, Washington asked for our Embassy's mission goals and objectives.  At the Ambassador's open invitation I attended a lunch-hour "brown bag" discussion to informally discuss what our priorities for the coming year might be.  Upon entering the conference room there was an easel with newsprint displaying a list of priorities, in the following order:  Democracy, Good Governance (aka fighting government corruption), Civil Society, Economic Development, and Security.  It was a time in US foreign policy when democracy, governance and civil society issues dominated what the US wanted African countries to focus on.

As the discussion began I heard impressively articulated comments from around the table, particularly from seasoned mostly economics- and political science-educated foreign service offices (FSOs) calling for "leveraging" the host government to do this and that.  Each contributor placed emphasis on Washington's top mantras of the time - particularly, democracy, good governance.  Mind you, it was a time when many Africans who aspired to leadership were trying to figure out how to position themselves favorably in the eyes of the West as "democratic," yet ultimately rigging elections and taking their turn "eating" from international aid in all its forms - thus proving no better, and in some cases much worse, than those they had unseated.

Being an acting agency head yet not having the cuff links, quiche recipes and credentials of those seated next to me, I respectfully offered the following:

"Madame/Mister Ambassador, you may well have put those topics on the newsprint in random order (though I knew they were Main State's preferred order), I respectfully submit that we take a different approach to our "friends" and "partners" in the host country and its government.  Rather than view it as a wrestling match where we, the US, engages the host government in the standard referee's position then "leverages" them about the ring looking for opportunities to out-point, pin, or outright submit them, let's adopt a medical model.  Let's consider our friends and partners as having certain ailments - they are not well in certain ways and might, might, benefit from our help - and ask ouselves what the people, not necessarily the wealthy elite currently in power, want and need to prosper.

"For example, I think the vast majority of people in this country would take your list of priorities and reverse its order as follows, from most important to least:  Security, Economic Development, Civil Society, Good Governance, Democracy.  [At the time the annual per capita income of the country was $250.]  Most persons in the country would prefer that the greatest effort be placed first on addressing crime and police corruption at local levels, and increasing job opportunities.  They take this view because if a worker cannot safely find his way to and from the factory or field, and cannot find sufficient work to feed, or earn income to support, him/herself and his/her family, then it doesn't really matter if the central government in the capital is democratic.  When there is little security and few life-sustaining jobs, democracy becomes a luxury.

"Securing the country and developing the economy, particularly the private sector, are their highest priorities for most of the people in this country.  They really don't care what goes on in the capital, having been lied to and misled so many times in the past.  They want a safe, secure country that provides sustainable economic opportunities.  That a government which provides such be democratic is important to them, but it is not their first priority.  So, the question becomes, how do we, the US Government and the American people we represent, help professionalize the police force and help secure the country, and stimulate the growth of manufacturing and the economy broadly, without adding more money to the troughs of central government?"

There was silence in the room and more than a few condescending smiles from the senior, sear-sucker-suited FSO intelligentsia.  They must have been thinking, "surely this fellow has succumbed to that fatal disease among some US officials posted overseas - "clientitus".  That is to say, he is being naive, has 'gone native' and gone over to the other side - his mind and emotions have been compromised by the conditions he observes in the host country.  He is no longer thinking and working for what is best for the 'interests of the US'."  The Ambassador was more gracious and conceded that much of what I had said had merit.  Others in the room had no comment.  The discussion continued into specifics under each of the topics.

The meeting adjourned after about an hour and as we filed out of the conference room.  A few of the younger foreign service officers, many of them I had come to know well and respect, came to me and quietly said, much to my surprise:  "you were right on target with your remarks."  To which I half-smilingly, knowingly responded, "well, why didn't you speak up in support in the meeting!?"  In response, they replied, "Ah, Jim, do remember that as FSO's career is a marathon, not a sprint.  There are really only so many ways you can have and keep having your "lunch" when the bosses in Foggy Bottom are setting the table...."

Well, the years have passed and East Africa is facing a serious economic challenge that has potentially damaging consequences for each country and the region - insecurity, weak economies, oil dependency where they cannot withstand rises in imported fuel prices.  The people have little choice but demand some form of relief, any form of relief, from their leaders.

Regrettably, in the article below, it is reported that a Kenyan think tank expert has called for tax modifications and subsidies to quell the growing problem:  "The way out is reviewing taxation regimes in regard to basic commodities like food and fuel to make them more affordable as well as to introduce subsidies."  This seems to me to be just as inappropriate as toeing the line of the US self-serving priorities as discussed above.  It addresses symptoms, not causes, the African elites' needs, not the people's.  It is not an approach that seeks to create in-country security conditions conducive to international manufacturing and other business ventures and regional and local private sector ventures.

One could argue against me and say, "Well, if you don't first have democratic governance you cannot have or maintain security and economic development."  I say, show me a country in history that in its infancy (yes, African nations remain in their infancy, most being about 50 years old compared to the nations of Europe, Asia and North America) placed its highest priorities and expended most of its resources on democracy and governance in order to become prosperous.  I can think of none.  No, the US is not one.  What made our country successful in its early period was strong security (our army and police) which made the young nation independent and secure, and an unfettered private sector.  Once the country become secure and relatively more prosperous, it then allowed the populace the luxury of focusing on its democratic ideals and institutions.

I am not advocating "social Darwinism," US Republican Party laissez faire economic policies, or police states for Africa.  Rather a re-ordering of priorities that bring about the greatest good, especially regarding economic opportunity, for the greatest number of Africans.  Africans are as capable as anyone else of achieving and sustaining democratic governance.  But like all other nations in history, it will probably only be achieved after each African nation has first established national, local, and personal security, and sustainable national economic independence, unilaterally, or in which is probably best for Africa's smaller countries, through sub-regional integration.

East Africa:  Spillover of Uganda "Fuel Protests" Expected Around EA
Uganda:  Food and Fuel Protests Also Targeting Museveni's Legitimacy
Uganda:  Why Besigye's Protest Resonates with the People of Uganda

Here are other perspectives in line with my arguments presented above:

Dead Aid:  Why Aid is Not Working and There's a Better Way For Africa (2009) and How the West Was Lost:  Fifty Years of Economic Folly -- And the Stark Choices Ahead (2011) by Dambisa Moyo

U.S. Aid Is Holding Back Africa by Diana Furchtgott-Roth, Real Clear Markets, April 21, 2011

The White Man's Burden:  Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good by William Easterly (2006)

The Challenge for Africa by Wangari Maathai (2009)

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