On the 12th of July, 2009, I took part in a radio discussion programme here in London about the $20 billion pledged by World leaders for “food security and agricultural development” in poor countries. And I must say that the exchanges amongst the panel and the telephone calls from listeners’ right across the United Kingdom were very engaging.
Throughout the programme, I spoke for the men and women on the streets, in Lagos, Freetown, Johannesburg and Nairobi. My position was and it remains so today is that the solutions to wretchedness of the average African lies in investing heavily and directly in the activities of the people and to increase trade development aid to poor countries and to drastically reduce the amount of money spent on aid agencies.
How much of the promised $20 billion was new or how it would be managed remains unknown. Senior G8 officials said a substantial amount of the $3.5 billion promised by President Obama was new allocation. The British were however forced to reveal that their pledge of $1.8 billion had been reallocated to food and agriculture from other aid lines.
Even the African leaders who were at the G8 summit were in the dark about the substance of the money pledged or who will be managing it.
Several callers wanted to know what I meant by trade development aid, when I was at the same time calling for the reduction of money spent on aid agencies?
Simply! Help Africans to trade with Africa. In West Africa alone, the population is well over 250 million yet, trading amongst Members States is almost zero. The Ivory Coast government will tell you that its major trading partner is France whilst the Nigerians will tell you; theirs is either the United Kingdom or perhaps, Germany.
One caller, whom the panel suspected was a senior African civil servant visiting London, was very harsh with me. Indeed, this caller told me that I was talking “wishy washy”, and that I do not “understand the dynamics of how government is run”. Well, I put my hands up; I have never worked in a government department. The closest I have come to work for a government is as the Business Editor for the defunct Sierra Leone Daily Mail. And even that job, I was “blackmailed” into taking the position by the late “Chief” Kawigoko Roy Stevens of blessed memory.
“Wishy washy”. Well, you should expect that from most African politicians or civil servants. They have converted political dissent or any form of criticism of their actions into an act of criminality and un-patriotism.
But it is not “wishy washy”, when Ghana cannot trade profitably with Gabon or Mali, and Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and the Gambia are still trying to find a way of trading with each other, after 30 years of independence. Indeed, it is no longer a secret that transporting a single cargo of copper from the Democratic Republic of Congo to South Africa presently takes two to three weeks, if you are lucky. In Europe, a similar journey would take two days.
Please don’t tell me, that it is the fault of the colonial masters. Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and even Vietnam were all at one time colonies like African countries. So please no excuses.
In the week that followed I received a number of telephone calls and emails from aid organisations, five African Embassies and even journalists, all of them wanting to justify the role of the aid industry and their contribution in fighting to end poverty in Africa and other developing countries.
But Africa’s political leadership has failed the people since independence. And the aid industry’s argument, which has been washed backward and forward over the years, needs a new thinking; even when they argue that there have been some successes, it is a fact that too much money is still wasted.
How can they justify that a million people, mainly children, die from malaria in Africa each year, even though the World Health Organisation has been working on eradication of the mosquito-borne disease for more than half a century. On the other side, since Mr Bill Gates and his wife declared war on malaria a few years ago, that goal is now looking achievable.
The policy of the G8 in helping to improve the lives of the men and women on the streets in Monrovia or in Kampala is in deep trouble. The excitement in Africa about the $20 billion world leaders pledged to commit over three years for “food security initiative” to develop agriculture in poor countries is premature; development is a finely woven net of endless small changes. It is delivered by equipping millions of individuals at countless different levels. And it needs to happen without too much dogma, as is the case around the table when the Great powers seat down to talk: or when aid agencies come to Africa.
There can be little doubt. African societies will only change when we have governments that are competent, honest and defending not promoting the abuse of civil liberties and human rights. And it is now an established fact that poor, inadequate infrastructure is the most critical disincentive to development in any country.
High transport costs are one of the major factors behind Africa’s shrinking share of global trade, which fell from 6% in 1960 to about 1% in 2005. The financial crisis is making the situation worse. If Africa is to turn itself around and compete successfully in the global market, it urgently needs to strengthen its transport network. But at a meeting in Geneva recently, one Nigerian banker told me that the credit crisis in the West has created a bottle neck on long term infrastructural project.
Research has also revealed that there is an urgent need to look at the narrow tax base and weak tax administration in many African countries.
The man and woman on the streets, the office messenger or clerk, and the junior manager at the bank and the taxi driver on the road must all be educated about the benefits of paying their taxes. The self-employed contractor and the company director needs to be fully engaged and encouraged by the State to pay his or her taxation; and all of these people must, one way or the other, experience the benefits of paying their taxes.
Another issue that needs to be brought to the table in the fight against poverty and for the development of a middle class society is how to change the operational conduct of banking industry in Africa. Government must first encourage local banks to develop the confidence and investment mechanism; and to move away from the high interest rates regimes you will find in banks across the continent and for the banks to develop sober but friendly lending criteria to meet the untapped small and medium size businesses that can also create wealth.
Rewind to the Accra, Ghana, Saturday 11th July, 2009; Stop! President Obama speaking; “No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves or the police can be bought off by drug traffickers”. (Does it ring a bell?)
“No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20% off the top. That is not democracy. That is tyranny even if you sprinkle an election in it”, he chided. Africa does not need strongmen, it needs strong institutions,” he concluded.
But we have been saying this for many years now; it’s just that good governance is too bitter a pill for them to swallow. Prove me wrong. Winston Ojukutu-Macaulay Jnr