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Africans to Bono: 'For God's sake please stop!'

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

It's time to let Africa imagine its own future.

farmerArusha, TanzaniaAfrica is a continent of despair and desperation. Here, eight year-olds toting AK-47s massacre whole villages and eccentric dictators feast on the organs of the opposition, believing it'll boost their mojo. Tsetse flies nibble on the eyelids of starving children who sport distended bellies like it's their birthright, not to mention the fact that by the time you finish reading this article, another six Africans will die from malaria, five from AIDS, and seventeen from poverty and hunger. Also, the wildlife is beautiful and the people like to dance and sing.

That's Africa, and it's in desperate need of our help. Luckily, a few enlightened megastars from America and Europe have come to save it.

Curiously, not all the natives are grateful.

Last month, world leaders and Bono met in Heiligendamm, Germany for the G8 summit to renew their commitment to increase aid to Africa. Vanity Fair's special Africa issue, edited by the man himself, hit newsstands with 20 celebrity covers, a gaggle of celebrity writers, and a conspicuous shortage of Africans.

Many of Africa's best and brightest become bureaucrats or NGO workers when they should be scientists or entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile in Arusha, Tanzania, at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference, a group of the continent's intellectual elite issued a very different plea: stop flooding Africa with aid. Since 1984, an assortment of Silicon Valley billionaires, child prodigies, ex-presidents, artistic geniuses, mad scientists, and movie stars have descended on Monterrey, California for TED, for an annual event The Economist called "Davos for optimists." Three weeks ago, TED held its first-ever conference in Africa, bringing together trademark optimism with an even more humbling sort of A-list.

Eleni Gabre-Madhin, a World Bank economist, returned to her native Ethiopia to start a commodities exchange to prevent future famines. Daniel Annerose invented software in Senegal that allows farmers to track market prices via SMS text messaging. Alieu Conteh built the first cellular network in the Congo, Florence Seriki, Nigeria's first computer manufacturing company.

Then there's William Kamkwamba, the undisputed showstopper, a teenager from rural Malawi who, at age fourteen, built a windmill from plastic scrap and an old bicycle frame that generates enough electricity to light his family's house.

These speakers were selected to support a thesis, painfully obvious but somehow radical in this age: Africa won't be "saved" by aid, but by the ingenuity and determination of its own people.

Andrew Mwenda, an outspoken Ugandan journalist who was jailed last year for criticizing President Museveni, lambasted the Western world's "international cocktail of good intentions" for robbing Africa of its future. After all, what country has ever gotten rich from aid? What Africa needs is investment.

Near the front of the darkened auditorium a white man with orange sunglasses stood to object. It was Bono! The audience (myself included), exuberant in the presence of celebrity, craned their necks to catch a glimpse. Aid saved Ireland from the potato famine, Bono declared.

George Ayittey, author of Africa Unchained, a wildly popular book which argues Africa's problems should be solved by Africans, was bumped from his scheduled spot so that Bono could play a prerecorded greeting from German chancellor Angela Merkel on the importance of honoring aid commitments to Africa. "Try telling Chancellor Merkel that the Marshall Plan was a load of crap." Bono then took the stage to defend what has become his life's avocation: opening the pockets of rich governments to give to the kleptocratic governments of Africa. What Africa needs is its own Marshall Plan.

Comparing post-war Germany or Ireland during the Great Famine to Africa is a bit like comparing post-war Japan to Iraq. Aid might be able to restore normalcy in a country devastated by war or disaster, but can it really push a whole continent of largely pre-industrial societies into the next phase of history?

Africa has never loomed as large in the popular imagination of the West as it does today, thanks to the Jeffrey Sachs-Bono ambition to Make Poverty History, and of course to Angelina Jolie and Madonna's commitment to adopting African babies.

Their message of hope is one that seems to deny Africans a role as agents of their own transformation. We can save Darfur. We can save Africans from disease. We can even save Africans from themselves. Africa can be saved if we just try hard enough.

It is true that from the villages of Darfur to the slums of Soweto, thousands of people on this continent die unnecessary deaths each day, but Africa is home to 900 million. Tragedy is a small part of a much larger and more complex story.

Of the 47 countries that make up sub-Saharan Africa, only five-Sudan, Chad, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia-are home to active conflicts. Last year, Africa saw its highest growth in GDP in two decades. Sixteen African countries have favorable sovereign credit ratings. Botswana's is higher than Japan, yet it still struggles to attract investment.

For the thousands of foreign-educated lawyers, businessmen, and architects from the Diaspora who are leaving cushy corporate jobs to return home with their skills and their dynamism to open businesses, it's about creating wealth, not reducing poverty. Africa is not a victim in need of saving: it's a land of opportunity.

Kenyan economist James Shikwati, who in advance of the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles famously asked rich nations, "for God's sake, please just stop" giving Africa aid, thinks even misery is an opportunity.

The Chinese see Africans the way many would like to see themselves.

We can fight malaria by distributing free mosquito nets, which may cost $10-$60 each by the time you get them down often impassable dirt roads. Or, as Shikwati suggests, we can train locals how to operate a business spraying homes with an insecticide that will keep them mosquito-free for six months at about $2 a family.

We can spend billions importing medication, or you can invest in local farms that grow the Artemisinin, a Chinese herb with potent anti-malarial properties, and the factories that process it.

We can continue the endless cycle of need and dependency, or you can create jobs, develop indigenous capacity, and build a sustainable future.

Aid not only crowds out local entrepreneurship, it makes governments lazy and deprives countries of the incentive to build effective institutions. Public revenue derived from taxes makes governments directly responsible to their citizens. Free money builds white elephants and bloated bureaucracies, it being far easier to create new government jobs than implement policies to fight unemployment, especially when someone else is footing the bill.

The perverse result is that many of Africa's best and brightest become bureaucrats or NGO workers when they should be scientists or entrepreneurs. Which is why some are wondering: why not just take the aid money and invest in local business?

"If you make Africans rich, they'll be less poor," said Idriss Mohammed, a financier who wants to raise a private equity fund for Sub-Saharan Africa. "Forget making poverty history. I want to make Africans rich."

Audacious, blasphemous, foolhardy—possibly—but that philosophy is precisely how China has been able to lift millions out of poverty in only a few decades and become a magnet for foreign investment.

Still, it would be plain stupid to say aid doesn't matter for Africa.

When aid builds infrastructureroads, railways, power plants, electric gridsit makes it cheaper for farmers to bring their crops to market, medicine to get where it is needed without spoiling, labor to flow where the jobs are. Ninety percent of roads in Angola are unpaved, 70 percent of those in Nigeria. It might not be as sexy or photogenic as holding up the child with the swollen belly in front of a television camera, but that is the real crime.

This is why China's seduction of Africa has been so complete. While Americans are pestering their leaders to Save Darfuran unlikely prospect absent full-scale military interventionthe Chinese are busy building roads and hydroelectric power dams. China believes Africa is a huge economic opportunity and deals with Africa like a business partner. The Chinese see Africans the way many would like to see themselves.

After his impassioned defense of aid, an African man in the audience asked Bono, "Where do you place the African person as a thinker, a creator of wealth?"

Celebrities make easy targets. Many at TED attacked Bono (ironically the catalyst for holding a conference in Africa in the first place) less for what he has done and more for what he represents. He has done more for raising Africa's profile and our awareness about debt relief, unequal trade, malaria and HIV/AIDS than perhaps any human being in history. He represents a game we have all played for nearly fifty years whose only winners have been corrupt governments and the international development industry.

Visibly wounded by the question, confused how anyone could misinterpret his good intentions, Bono, like the proverbial white man with black friends, set out to prove how down he is with the black man.

Africans are the "most regal people on earth" and music is their DNA, he told the room of mostly doctors, engineers, and businessmen. He then began singing a traditional Irish dirge to show us how Celtic music has Coptic roots, and so is fundamentally African. I wasn't the only one giggling in the back row.

Bono, in his awkward defense of his "Africa credo," also represents our fundamental failure to listen.

We let a well-intentioned Irish rock star, a Jewish-American economist, and their Hollywood cohort become the voice and face of Africa.

Aid can alleviate immediate misery and that is why we love it. Charity is a profoundly human response to all those images that pull on our heartstrings. But all evidence points to the maddening conclusion that, in the long run, aid not only has no positive effect on economic growth, it may even undermine it.

The only way Africa will develop and create wealth is if it can attract foreign capital and trade its goods on the world market like every other economically successful country does.

But investors are jittery. And considering what we think we know about Africa, who would blame them?

We make Africa glamorous, plastering billboards with sultry images of Gwenyth Paltrow proclaiming "I am an African." We throw billions of dollars at Africa and hope for its salvation. We buy Vanity Fair and read about "Madonna's Malawi" and "Jeffrey Sachs's $200 Billon Dream."

Branding Africa as barbaric and hopeless or glamorous and chic may sell magazines and get us to open our purse strings once in awhile. But neither myth is true or useful.

Here's a radical idea: if we really want to help, why not ask Africans, not their governments, how they perceive the challenges before them, the dreams they have for the future, and the resources they think they need to realize them?

Instead, we let a well-intentioned Irish rock star, a Jewish-American economist, and their Hollywood cohort become the voice and face of Africa.

And in the process, the story of the other Africa, the Africa that is dynamic, creative, and wants to work as a partner and the leader of its own future, is being drowned out by the clarion cry of the anti-poverty glitteratiand our own appetites for gripping, salacious headlines of war, poverty, and grief.

Jennifer Brea is a Beijing-based freelance writer who blogs at Africabeat. She is currently researching a book on China's involvement in Africa and Africa's impact on China.

Image credit: Photo by Flickr user advencap

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