Locals Must Take the Lead, by William Easterly, February 13, 2006; Page A21 – It was the year that the West tried harder than ever to save Africa – 2005. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last January, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for “a big, big push forward” to end poverty – to be financed by an increase in traditional foreign aid. He put that cause at the top of the agenda of the Group of Eight summit in Scotland in July. The G-8 agreed to double foreign aid to Africa, from $25 billion a year to $50 billion, and to forgive the African aid debt incurred in previous years to fund previous (unsuccessful) “big pushes.” Rock celebrity Bob Geldof assembled well-known bands – virtually none from Africa – for “Live 8″ concerts in nine countries around the world to urge G-8 leaders to “Make Poverty History.”
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The West’s focus on sensational tragedies obscures the achievements of people such as Patrick Awuah and Robert Keter, who are succeeding even against tremendous odds. Economic development in Africa will depend – as it has elsewhere and throughout the history of the modern world – on the success of private-sector entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs and African political reformers. It will not depend on the activities of patronizing, bureaucratic, unaccountable and poorly informed outsiders.
Development everywhere is homegrown. As G-8 ministers and rock stars fussed about a few billion dollars here or there for African governments, the citizens of India and China (where foreign aid is a microscopic share of income) were busy increasing their own incomes by $715 billion in 2005.
This is not to say that all Western aid efforts in Africa are condemned to fail. Aid groups could search for achievable tasks with high potential for poor individuals to help themselves. To do so, they would have to subject themselves to independent evaluation and be accountable to the intended beneficiaries for the results. Such an approach would contrast with the prevailing norm of never holding anyone individually accountable for the results of traditional government-to-government aid programs aimed at feeding the hubristic fantasies of outside transformation of whole societies.
An example of such achievable and accountable programs can be found in western Kenya, where work by nongovernmental aid organizations to get meals and textbooks to schoolchildren raised attendance and test scores, according to careful subsequent evaluation. Perhaps these well-nourished and well-educated children will be tomorrow’s leaders and entrepreneurs. Aid could also be used to support the efforts of promising local social and business entrepreneurs who already have a successful track record, people like Awuah, Keter and Maddy – letting locals take the lead with their superior motivation and inside knowledge.
Dare one hope that in 2006, it will finally be understood that Africa’s true saviors are the people of Africa, and that those who would help them in their task must also be accountable to them?
The writer is a professor of economics (a joint appointment with Africa House) at New York University and author of “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good,” to be published next month. (Read the whole article on the Washingtonpost.com).
See also Africa’s development.