Saturday, June 09, 2007

Bono heckles African speakers who shun his wisdom.

I have little respect for celebrities who become instant experts on some topic when it is clear they know little about the topic. One of the worst around is the absurd Bono. Whether he is sincere in wanting to help Africa I don’t know. I will assume he is. Whether he knows what he is talking about is a different matter. He doesn’t.

This author spent a good part of his adult living in Africa unlike Bono the fly-in, fly-out expert who uses his “fund raising” as an excuse to annoy governments around the world.

The well-known Technology, Entertainment, Design conference recently held its first meeting in Africa and they invited Bono to be there. They also invited numerous people who actually live in Africa. And Bono spent his time heckling them and ridiculing them because they didn’t support his agenda.

Technology Review reports on what the African speakers had a common theme “echoed by every speaker”:
...traditional aid and charity, whether distributed by nation-states or non governmental bodies, have failed. Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan journalist and social worker, now a fellow at Stanford, made the case most strongly. He argued convincingly that 30 years of Western aid to Africa has achieved nothing at all. More, he said that the persistence of African poverty could be explained, in part, by aid. He explained that aid had convinced the brightest Africans to work for corrupt governments rather than as entrepreneurs, and it had "distorted the incentive structure."

"What man or nation," Mwenda asked, "has ever become rich by holding out a begging bowl?"

Far better, he said, is finding Westerners to invest in African entrepreneurs or businesses, which would create wealth. Mwenda, like other speakers, described at length the investment opportunities in Africa. (I half expected the pitch to be directly addressed to Doerr et al.)
In my writing career I have written dozens of articles about life in Africa and two books. And I entirely endorse what these African speakers had to say. Aid has not helped Africans or Africa. It has helped corrupt, authoritarian governments instead.

The aid simply does not get to the people. And many of Africa’s problems are problems of corrupt leadership. Property rights don’t exist for most Africans. They live in fear of the government confiscating their land or business sites with no notice. Hence, they make little investment in these properties.

Money that is poured into Africa is used by governments to enrich themselves. Africa remains the continent with the highest trade barriers of any. There is no justice. Infrastructure, for which aid money is available is not repaired or maintained though the aid money mysteriously gets spent on something.

It is incredible how little aid makes it out to where it is supposed to go. Nothing seems to end up where it is supposed to go. Millions of condoms are donated to Africa for AIDS prevention. Yet over and over at street corners I ran into hawkers trying to sell boxes of the donated condoms. They had hundreds of them which they got in some mysterious manner. I will say the local government did give out a lot of condoms and they thoughtfully stapled instructions right to the condoms, and right through the condoms rendering them useless.

Private charities do better but that is because they build their own projects. But government to government aid is destroying Africa and has been for decades.

Instant expert Bono did not take kindly to Mwenda’s message, one echoed by every African I know. He shouted at the man and yelled: “That’s bullshit.” Nothing like a rock star expert at his rhetorical best.

I got into something of a dispute myself at one point with the local Ambassador from the European Union because an article of mine in a European publication outlined how millions of dollars worth of funding for AIDS education projects were thrown down the toilet by a corrupt government health minister. She wasted almost the entirely AIDS budget on a play that no one saw, which contained erroneous information anyway. She bragged that the press shouldn’t worry as it was EU money she spent. The ambassador insisted it couldn’t be in spite of the local parliamentary record disputing his claim. He insisted I retract my statement. I didn’t. He shut up.

The reality is that there is a strong entrepreneurial attitude among many Africans. The hawkers that fill the streets are willing to work long hours to make a living. But without secure property rights they never go very far. African farmers have the profits from their crops stolen by government marketing boards so they don’t produce more than they can use. And food production plummets.

The educated among the population find the only place to work is government since private industry is so shackled and regulated that it barely exists. What does exist is often illegal and insecure. If you want to make any progress in private industry at all you have to bribe politicians and buy permission to engage in business.

Africa can thrive but not with the governments it now has. And throwing funding at these governments only keeps helps keep them in power. Bono and his type are enablers who allow these dictatorial regimes to thrive and suck out the economic life of their country. Whatever his intentions Bono has been a disaster for Africa and Africa doesn’t need any more disasters.

There are three things the West can do which would help Africa. 1.) End all government to government aid immediately. 2.) Remove all trade barriers that are currently in place (this is especially true for Europe). 3.) End agricultural subsidies to domestic producers (again especially true for Europe).

But the changes that will do the most good are outside the control of the West and entirely internal. Africa itself needs to make serious changes such as: 1.) Establish secure property rights for its people; 2.) remove the substantial trade barriers between African countries; 3.) abolish agricultural marketing boards which rip off farmers; 4.) end their support for dictators like Robert Mugabe, and 5.) remove the burdensome regulations on their local entrepreneurs. Until these problems are resolved throwing money at Africa doesn’t help. It can’t help. Bono's favorite solution is debt relief but debt relief is useless if all it does is wipe the slate clean allowing these corrupt regimes to begin the process all over again. The reality is they won't pay the money back. So the West may as well write the debts off but they have to end all lending to these regimes.

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