I recently encountered a truly eye-opening interview in the German magazine Der Spiegel, which calls into question many of the humanitarian efforts the West has directed at Africa, from the work of Christian missionary groups to governmental organizations like USAID to the high profile fundraising efforts of events like Live8. According to Kenyan economist James Shikwati – the subject of the interview – most of these well intentioned programs do more harm than good and will never solve the problems of poverty, AIDS and war which plague Africa.
Shikwati is a graduate of the University of Nairobi who taught high school in Kenya for a number of years, until the administration of his school tried to have him fired and evicted from his apartment for teaching economic theory contrary to the quasi-socialist policies of the government. Shikwati left his job and decided to pursue a career as an activist for governmental reform in Africa, making contact with international free-trade organizations, and starting two think-tank like organizations, the African Resource Bank which seeks to promote trade and economic development throughout Africa and the Inter-Region Economic Network whose goals are similar, but focused more on Kenya. Shikwati’s goals with these organizations is to assist the reforming of corrupt governments, promote the development of economic opportunity for all Africans and establish a firm basis of individual liberty through property rights and the rule of law.
Shikwati’s take on the problems in Africa is pretty straightforward, makes a great deal of sense and seems to be borne out by plenty of evidence. Basically he believes that the flood of aid into Africa does very little to help the actual people and functions instead to promote and perpetuate oppressive governments, encourage violent opportunism and discourage self-sufficiency. He basically believes that rather than helping Africa, massive foreign AID is the source of most of the continent’s ongoing problems. Direct monetary payments end up funding corrupt regimes. Food ends up in the hands of profiteers who sell it below the price of locally grown food, thereby rendering agriculture unprofitable. Economic development aid ends up being misdirected and applied to the wrong sorts of projects or worthless make-work jobs which discourage real economic development. Even donated clothes are a problem, making clothing available so cheaply that Africa’s once-robust textile and clothing manufacturing industries are collapsing. And finallly, the AIDS crisis is basically a political tool, greatly exaggerated by African governments so that they can keep western money flowing into the pockets of corrupt leaders.
Shikwati is attending the G8 Summit in Scotland, trying to spread his message that what Africa needs is not more economic and social aid, but help reforming corrupt and repressive governments and establishing free trade, the rule of law and basic rights throughout the continent. Ultimately his message is that Africans can solve most of their own problems if given the opportunity, but that massive and indiscriminate international aid is more of a hindrance to self-determination than anything else. It helps perpetuate repressive regimes and discourages individual initiative and economic reform. More on Shikwati’s ideas can be found in his statement to the G8 Summit in Australia in 2002.
Shikwati’s message is not one which NGOs and do-gooder government agencies are going to want to take seriously, because they depend for their existence on the same flow of money which Shikwati believes feeds oppression in Africa. However the issues Shikwati raises are hard to ignore and the evidence he provides to support his theories is very convincing. He seems to have hit on essential truths about Africa which may be controversial and have certainly been overlooked, but deserve serious consideration.
I urge everyone to read the Der Spiegel article and look at some of his other writings on the IREN website. He’s really on to something and we can’t afford to ignore him. Our well intentioned efforts may really be doing a great deal more harm than good.