Africa needs to find its way in marketplace

July 08, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Who could find anything negative to say about a movement that brings together stars as diverse as President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Brad Pitt and Madonna?

Madonna, Coldplay, Elton John, Mariah Carey and other superstars performed at Bob Geldof's globally televised Live 8 concert over the weekend to urge the world's wealthiest nations meeting this week at the Group of Eight (G-8) summit, hosted by Mr. Blair in Gleneagles, Scotland, to double their financial aid to Africa.

Most African leaders are willing to embrace Mr. Blair's aid proposals, at least in public, but not without some reservations. Well-intentioned as it is, the current push for the wealthy nations to "Make Poverty History," as one campaign calls itself, strikes many African ears as echoing the condescending missionaries and explorers who came from Europe in past centuries to "save" Africans from themselves.

Yet much of Africa has desperate needs. More than 40 percent of Africans live on less than $1 a day; AIDS kills more than 2 million Africans a year. Many others are killed by malaria or wars (there have been 186 coups and 26 major conflicts since imperial pullouts a half-century ago).

Some African governments, such as Mozambique and Ghana, are making impressive economic and political progress, while Zimbabwe and other kleptocracies behave like the proverbial brother-in-law on the couch: You keep waiting for him to get a job, straighten up and get his act together, but he never does.

Mr. Blair and other anti-poverty campaigners are pushing for doubling of aid to Africa, to $25 billion by 2010, a plea that is backed by major reports from the U.N. Millennium Project and Mr. Blair's Commission for Africa.

Mr. Bush has rejected Mr. Blair's target, but offered to double America's Africa aid to $8.6 billion by 2010, which is more than any previous administration has committed.

But more important than the aid earmarked to meet Africa's short-term needs is the approach the developed world should take in helping Africa grow in the long term.

For example, in April when I visited Dakar, Senegal, the bustling West African port city, I found a rising generation of educated and enterprising Africans in suits and polished wingtips who wanted trade, not aid, especially if they could get it under fair international rules and cleaner African governments.

And this new generation is not alone in looking at how market capitalism, entrepreneurship and education reforms have improved the fortunes of countries such as China since the late 1970s, India since the early 1980s and Vietnam since the late 1980s.

"All of these were home-grown policy reforms, which allowed countries to get richer by making money, not by receiving it," said an editorial in Britain's The Economist magazine.

China, India and Vietnam now trade with the United States, providing cheaper goods and services and, it must be said, ominously competing with American workers for U.S. jobs that can be outsourced.

Such is the magic of the marketplace. It has its winners, its losers, and those who can't seem to get into the game. That last category, unfortunately, is where too much of Africa continues to languish.

Thus, a new debate is emerging and it's not about whether to provide foreign aid to fight global poverty but what kind of aid is best.

In many ways, the squabble resembles America's welfare-reform debate; some critics say conventional foreign economic aid actually hurts those it is intended to help.

In the long-term, the best partnership between developed and underdeveloped nations will benefit best by following an old fish proverb: Give someone a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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