Time to help, not hinder

Too many plans to aid Africa create problems by assuming that the west knows best, says ActionAid's Taaka Awori

Friday March 11, 2005

Africa has been the subject of several ambitious development ideas, ranging from the Lagos plan of 1979 to the New Partnership for Africa's Development, and now Tony Blair's Commission for Africa.
Given that there have been so many good intentions, there has been remarkably little concrete progress. Could there be something wrong with the assumption - implicit in comparisons to the Marshall plan for postwar Europe - that the problem is in Africa and the solution abroad?
From Africa, it appears to be the other way round: many of the continent's problems are imposed on it from abroad, while the most promising solutions are homegrown.
ActionAid Africa's response to the Commission for Africa was to convene an African Commission for Britain - a group of four African men and women. Our alternative report lists certain overdue actions that Britain must take before it can truly be considered to be a friend of Africa.
These include doubling its aid to 0.7% of gross national income, cancelling unpayable debts and contributing its fair share to the global fund to fight Aids. However, more than half the report's ten recommendations contain the words "cut" or "stop".
This may surprise some members of the British public who, their consciences stirred by the tsunami disaster and the Make Poverty History campaign, might feel that the big question is whether we are doing enough for the poor.
Helping the poor is fine - especially if you are a prime minister or a chancellor wooing voters. But what Britain has to do is to stop hurting the poor and stop harming Africa. This is not a matter of charity, but of justice.
Floods caused by extreme weather have cost Kenya $1bn (£0.5bn). Between 2002 and 2003, the UK's carbon emissions, contributing to global warming, rose by 3%. That is something Britain should stop.
More than 2 million urban Ghanaians lack access to clean, piped water. The UK went along with the World Bank in making water privatisation a condition of aid. That is something else it should stop.
In 2003, there was conflict in 14 African countries. Ten of those countries had bought arms from the UK. Britain should stop fuelling wars by selling guns and bullets.
While Nigeria staggers under its colossal foreign debt, British banks are holding $1.3bn looted from Nigeria by the Abacha family. To this day, the UK government has not co-operated with Nigerian efforts to recover this wealth.
Britain and its EU partners are pushing for free trade deals which, on past evidence, will destroy African livelihoods and harm the poor. British sugar is sold to Africa at 40% of production cost. The UK-owned company that manages most of Ghana's palm oil processing has presided over steadily falling farm prices for 20 years.
While these issues remain unresolved, Africans will look quizzically at Tony Blair's commission, Gordon Brown's African travels, and other British attempts to claim the moral high ground.
Few African governments in a position to claim moral superiority either. But Britain's leaders should recognise that once externally-imposed obstacles to economic progress are cleared away, Africa is increasingly ready and able to take responsibility for its own path to development and justice.
Africa is changing - and change has to come from within. To understand this, you have to look at the interaction between government and an increasingly organised and energetic civil society.
Education is one of the best investments a developing country can make. And wherever African governments allow even a modest space for democratic processes, you will find parents' associations, teachers' unions and other pro-education groups uniting in powerful national coalitions. These coalitions campaign for education as a right, but governments are not deaf to the economic arguments.
Gordon Brown has been rightly applauded for committing more than £10m of UK money to the Commonwealth education fund, specifically to support national education coalitions. However, in countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, where those coalitions have won the right to free primary education, governments are still struggling.
It is proving impossible to build the necessary classrooms or re-hire some of the vast pool of unemployed teachers while public spending is capped by IMF policies, while there is insufficient aid, and while debt burdens are all-consuming. In Zambia, for example, debt servicing consumes more of the state budget than is spent on health.
Too many initiatives still start from the assumption that the west knows best. Donors apply conditions to force African governments into following "sound" policies. Trade negotiations lock African countries into a free trade regime that rich countries do not follow themselves.
Britain must start with the principle that the key to supporting Africa must be to help, not hinder. The second principle should be to move beyond talk to immediate action, and the third that Africa must not be a junior partner in its own development.
· Taaka Awori is ActionAid Ghana country director