AMINATTA FORNA, famous author whose father was killed by the government of Sierra Leone, writes for the Evening Standard:
SPOON-FEEDING IS NOT WHAT AFRICA NEEDS.
BY AMINATTA FORNA
10 January 2005
The Evening Standard
(c) 2005 Associated Newspapers. All rights reserved
At night in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the hum of the generator has replaced the sound of crickets at nightfall. In the house I was staying in last week there was power only once a week for a few short hours. On more than one morning there was no water; outside in the street people queued at the standpipe.
I grew up in Sierra Leone in the 1970s and my writing has charted the country's slow demise over my own lifetime. After the war there was great hope; that hope is now dissipating. Back to visit family and write a new book, the situation was even worse than on my previous two visits last year.
At a British High Commission dinner I asked why there was no power and no water. Various explanations were offered: the collapsed infrastructure; the building boom; the population explosion; the falling water table. But what of the millions of pounds of aid Sierra Leone has received since the end of the conflict in 2000, I asked? Nobody knew.
Sierra Leone is Britain's poster boy for the success of armed intervention followed by a massive aid campaign to rebuild a nation shattered by 10 years of conflict. The Department for International Development alone has contributed over £100 million. And yet still, nearly five years on, the lights don't work and the taps run dry.
I desperately want to see Sierra Leone recover. Since the war I've been drawn back increasingly frequently, like many of my generation, in the hope that we can be part of the rebuilding. But as Gordon Brown sets out for Africa this week with an unprecedented blueprint for increased aid, debt relief and trade reforms, he should remember that many such grandiose plans over the years have floundered.
Brown is right to emphasise debt relief. The IMF and World Bank have so far proved resistant. Brown's idea is to circumvent their agreement by persuading the wealthiest nations to pay the debts. It is a brilliant plan, but requires rich countries to commit and fulfil their pledges. He has not yet told us how he will make sure this happens.
Aid is even more problematic. Brown has promised £55 million, but it is hard to be sure the money reaches the right people or is used properly. It isn't just the fear that the money ends up lining the pockets of corrupt officials, but also the fleets of expensive air-conditioned NGO vehicles jamming the Freetown traffic which beg that question.
But the real problem with Brown's promises is more fundamental. He proposes a Marshall Plan for the developing world. Yet the original Marshall Plan rebuilt a Europe that had a few years earlier been industrially advanced. In Africa, the task is building, not rebuilding. And the hard question is not the money to pay for it, but who makes it happen?
Aid encourages dependency, and visitors to Freetown are often shocked by the culture of dependency they find. It pervades from the bottom to the top, from the minister looking for the next grant, to people on the street seeking handouts. Meanwhile the streets of the capital are so potholed as to be impassable. The wealthy buy 4x4s. Everyone waits for the roads to be fixed, supposedly part of the rebuilding programme.
When economies become dependent on foreign aid, the bond of accountability between voter and politician is broken. People come to rely on NGOs and charities to meet their daily needs, defusing the anger that might otherwise effect political change.
Changing that culture is a slow process. A friend of mine in Sierra Leone recently had to implement PAYE for the first time, explaining to each miffed employee the money was being paid to the government in tax.
'But what do I get in return?' demanded one man. I read this as a positive sign.
There are many who would believe Africa is incapable of governing herself. I disagree.
Contrast the roads of Freetown to my family village, far from the capital. Last month I was greeted along the way by men from three neighbouring villages busy mending the roads after the annual rains. Organising the job is the responsibility of each headman. Contributing the labour is a community obligation. The local people keep their side of the bargain, the headman does his job. If he doesn't, he risks being voted out.
I see ordinary Africans governing their lives every day, using systems that are a long-standing part of their heritage. Together we built a school in my village two years ago. Every beam, every pillar, every desk was built by hand out of materials from the forest. Now every child of school age in the village is receiving an education.
But in order to govern herself, Africa must have the economic tools to do so. In Sierra Leone's case the keys are debt relief and trade. The country pays nearly $30 million in debt service a year. Wiping out those debts would return nearly a quarter of the nation's annual income to its own coffers.
And to grow, Africa needs to export. My grandfather once grew coffee in our village; now coffee is uneconomic to produce. My family once farmed rice commercially; now farmers cannot compete even locally with imports of cheap rice from, among others, the USA. Within my lifetime the entire village has gradually been returned to subsistence farming.
Dropping unfair subsidies on western exports, and tariffs on imports from developing countries into the EU and US, could generate $40 billion in income from agricultural exports for developing countries. But to achieve that, Brown will have to do battle with powerful interests.
His proposals are sketchy on how they are to be persuaded, given they have little to gain and plenty to lose.
Gordon Brown has proposed to 'bend the moral arc of the universe' towards justice. That may be too much for one man. Because the West's obligation isn't to do everything for Africa: spoon-feeding endless aid is not the solution.
Instead, the West should simply do what is fair -- lift the burden of debt, drawing a line under the past, and level the trade playing field for the future. Only then will Africans be able to hold their own leaders to account.