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NGO guilt trip

Richard North offers a different approach to the problems of debt and development in Africa

'Why is it that Africans like me are condemned to farm in ways which would have been recognisable to Jesus Christ?', asked one bemused and angry Tanzanian I spoke to 10 years ago. He's probably asking the same question now. Why indeed?

One reason is that postcolonial Africa has always had the wrong friends. It had left-wing economists educating its first leaders, then it had aid which was poured in by kindly Western governments which couldn't be bothered to check that it was put to good work. Now it has 'compassion' NGOs who peddle rhetoric about development which is wildly unrealistic and probably damaging.

BBC1's Heart of the Matter recently corralled Peter Melchett of Greenpeace and somebody from Christian Aid with Lewis Wolpert, the distinguished scientist. Wolpert argued very moderately that genetically modified crops would almost certainly have a role in the third world. They could, he said, help raise productivity, spare the use of chemical inputs and preserve wilderness by making better use of such land as was farmed.

The two campaigners were incandescent. Now you expect Greenpeace to defend the virginity and sanctity of the natural world, that perfect place which was splendid until man and his technology came along. But it was depressing to hear a man from Christian Aid, who proclaims his concern for the poor of the world, seem so clear that economic and technical progress must somehow go round them.

This is of course of a piece with the widespread belief among green-leaning 'development' lobbies that the Green Revolution somehow caused starvation because it favoured go-ahead farmers over the poorest peasants. Of course progress will mean there are fewer farmers in the third world - fewer and fatter farmers, and more and fatter ex-farmers who have become modern entrepreneurs and workers in modern economies.

At least that's the ardent hope and reasonable expectation after 2000 years of history which tells roughly that tale. The alternative vision, put about by some NGOs, is one of smiling peasants living idyllic rustic lives, with not a decent tractor in sight, and no aspiration to take a holiday or get their hands on a decent Honda motorbike.

This image belies some quite useful work on the ground. It doesn't matter that development charities don't really want their third world 'clients' to become thoroughly modern - any enrichment at all will take people that way, whatever their NGO helpers would prefer. What does matter is that most of the few Europeans interested in Africa need to portray it as a victim, the better to raise funds for their mercy missions. This case is most sharply put by a Norwegian, Helge Rønning of the University of Oslo, who stresses that perverse incentives are at work on charities and NGOs. Their real work is long-term development, and is arguably, but not certainly or always, positive. However, it is occasional disaster which puts the overseas NGOs in the public mind, and in receipt of the public's generosity. This rather explains why it has been hard to get it across that Africa's famines have been caused by war and by inefficiency, much more than by bad weather or anything else.

The compassion industry has wanted and needed, for mixed motives, to steer clear of noting that Africans are at the root of Africa's problems. Africa is actually very resistant to development, for reasons which NGOs do nothing to help. To an alarming degree, Africa is home to two extremes. At one end of its social arrangements there is a stone-age way of life. At the other end there are aid aristocrats. These people, most of them in government, in effect get rich by creaming off aid. What is common to both classes is their striking lack of productivity of any recognisably modern kind. But the NGOs campaign for debt relief as though the aid aristocrats had the smallest interest in helping their fellows who are condemned to live in the stone age.

Africa has received a fair amount of aid of one form or another over the past 50 years, and has failed to turn much of it into the enterprises or the entrepreneurs that could lever the south of the continent off the aid treadmill. It has not even produced much of a middle class of literate, articulate and ambitious people. This is why it would be wrong to listen to the NGOs' apparent compassion. To forgive much African debt without imposing stringent conditions will ensure the benefits will go the way of past similar largesse. The NGOs pander to their African friends, and do them harm, by encouraging a rhetoric which should be allowed to die.

It is now 10 years since the World Bank, pressed by its African advisers, started to discuss Africa's problems of governance, and the arguments have since been retailed by Tony Killick of the Overseas Development Institute. In essence, this line of argument suggests that the typical African state is unwilling and sometimes powerless to help its citizens. It is fatally weak where it needs to be strong, and too strong where it should be weak. It won't aid, and won't get out of the way of, civil and industrial society. It becomes a powerful wealth-generating machine for a very few people, while its many tentacles are coopted for their own use by any other people with access to them.

The poverty of government in Africa is so importantly at the heart of its lousy economic record that it is tempting to leave everything else aside. Adverse terms of trade, protectionism in the West, a decline in the value of commodities, these all produce a story of difficulties for developing countries. But they were all a part of the context against which all developing countries had to grow, and Africa's rulers failed it more than most.

But to hear the NGOs, none of this analysis bears inspection. They are still involved in a postcolonial guilt trip which blames white Western thinking for every harm. Only from Africans do you hear a proper appreciation of what Europe did in Africa, and what its thinking might yet do.

The very good news for Africa is that it is producing a generation of youngsters who know the modern world and are not just hearing or mouthing comforting left-wing ideology about their plight. Young Africans do now get to hear an account of the world which praises entrepreneurship and responsive government. These new Africans do not want to be clients of the state or of international charity.

Richard North was environment correspondent for the Independent, and is author of Life on a Modern Planet: A Manifesto for Progress (Manchester University Press, 1995)

Reproduced from LM issue 119, April 1999

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