Kumasi Central Market, one of the largest open-air markets in Africa. 2005
For a link to the video montage, click here.

More and more voices are saying something I’ve been thinking about for some time. Africans need to solve African problems. This is the big drawback to the One Laptop Per Child program, selling cheap laptops for school children in developing countries, and to other technology development programs. No one in the target countries was involved in planning the development. It is a question raised about malaria research, and about a whole host of other issues.

In her film “Africa: Open for BusinessCarol Pineau asks:

Africa, Pineau tells us, has the best return on capital of any market in the world. Why isn’t there widespread investment on the continent. Risk? . . . The perception of risk far outpaces the real risk.

Pineau made her film about African entrepreneurship because she could not sell positive stories of African development to any news media. And it is certainly true that one sees almost nothing positive about Africa in the news media, although the Discovery travel channel has featured several different programs that were quite positive about Ghana. Still, that was travel entertainment, not news. I am constantly impressed by the entrepreneurship I see in Ghana. The usual coverage of Africa in the western news media: war and famine, is poisonous to those watching, as much as it is poisonous to the African people described.

Pineau is concerned about the long-term psychological damage of poor coverage of the continent. She reminds us that colonialism tried to ensure that colonies were never able to compete with their conquerors. She argues that the images of Africa are a form of this colonialism, and they perpetuate uncomfortable trends. “Aid has never, ever developed a nation,” she argues.

One of the problems is that we rarely take African voices seriously – she points to reports of snow on the peaks of Kilimanjaro. British geographic societies wouldn’t believe reports of snow on the mountain’s peak until a British explorer had been there. The same thing happens today, she tells us, in coverage of relief work. The people actually giving food and medical aid are Africans, but the people interviewed on camera are the “white saviors.”

The way development aid has worked so far has been a grave disadvantage to African countries. Kenyan economist James Shikwati says:

Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa’s problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn’t even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit. Which is why they maintain that the world would stop turning without this development aid.

In the interview with Spiegel he speaks about corn sent to Kenya as aid:

A portion of the corn often goes directly into the hands of unsrupulous politicians who then pass it on to their own tribe to boost their next election campaign. Another portion of the shipment ends up on the black market where the corn is dumped at extremely low prices. Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away; no one can compete with the UN’s World Food Program. And because the farmers go under in the face of this pressure, Kenya would have no reserves to draw on if there actually were a famine next year. It’s a simple but fatal cycle.

SPIEGEL: If the World Food Program didn’t do anything, the people would starve.

Shikwati: I don’t think so. In such a case, the Kenyans, for a change, would be forced to initiate trade relations with Uganda or Tanzania, and buy their food there. This type of trade is vital for Africa. It would force us to improve our own infrastructure, while making national borders — drawn by the Europeans by the way — more permeable. It would also force us to establish laws favoring market economy.
. . .

SPIEGEL: In the West, there are many compassionate citizens wanting to help Africa. Each year, they donate money and pack their old clothes into collection bags …
. . .

Shikwati: Why do we get these mountains of clothes? No one is freezing here. Instead, our tailors lose their livelihoods. They’re in the same position as our farmers. No one in the low-wage world of Africa can be cost-efficient enough to keep pace with donated products. In 1997, 137,000 workers were employed in Nigeria’s textile industry. By 2003, the figure had dropped to 57,000. The results are the same in all other areas where overwhelming helpfulness and fragile African markets collide.

I don’t know a great deal about Shikwati. From his words in the interview I have some reservations. He sounds a bit like the people in the US, mostly Republicans, who say you can’t solve a problem by throwing money at it. So they cut social programs which actually do some good, and run the government into debt throwing money at themselves and their cronies. Or perhaps he sounds a bit like a libertarian, which I think was fairly accurately characterized as anarchy for rich people. And I’m not exactly sure I understand or trust his ideas on AIDs. But his overall theme, that Africans need to handle our own affairs is right on target. No one in business, and no entrepreneur, can compete with free goods.

Pineau asks two critical questions:

* What would we do if we really cared about development in Africa?

* What can we learn from Africa if we decided to listen and stop always trying to teach?