News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

Africa Needs Aid That Works

Rockstar Bono and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill are teaming up to help sub-Saharan nations. Is their tour going to produce concrete results or just great PR?
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

It's "We Are the World" meets "For the Love of Money." But it's not Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson and the Isley Brothers coming together to help lift the birthplace of humanity out of its "darkness" with compassionate capitalism.

It's singer/antipoverty activist Bono of the Irish rock band U2 teaming up with Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill on a sub-Saharan Africa tour in an effort to do what peace and anti-globalization activists have been calling for since way before Sept. 11 -- re-think how we deal with Third World nations, realizing that homeland security is inextricably linked to humanitarianism.

"Sept. 11 has made people realize that you cannot change the minds of those who have evil intentions, but you can deny them recruitment by promoting an environment where people feel they have a stake in the future," Uganda's ambassador to the United States, Edith Ssempala, told The Wall Street Journal. Following that line of thinking, as the Journal reported, "the do-it-yourself Bush administration plans far larger increases in (foreign) aid than the feel-your-pain Clinton administration ever did."

The Bush administration is proposing the "Millennium Challenge Account" -- a $10 billion increase in U.S. aid over fiscal years 2004-2006.

"Poverty doesn't cause terrorism," President Bush said a few weeks ago. "Yet persistent poverty and oppression can lead to hopelessness and despair. And when governments fail to meet the most basic needs of their people, these failed states can become havens for terror."

And suddenly, the Dalai Lama's advice -- "Be selfish. Be kind to others" --sounds less esoteric than it had before.

With MTV following Bono and O'Neill around Africa with their cameras, the tour will undoubtedly score the Bush administration some big PR points, hoping to make believers out of those who question the compassion in No. 43's conservatism.

Some antipoverty activists see it as a cynical ploy to make the Bush administration appear sincere about alleviating poverty, while following policies that further exacerbate the problem, such as the farm bill Bush just signed. That gave American farmers nearly $20 billion a year in subsidies -- an insurmountable economic barrier for poor African nations looking to get access to American markets, which is what free-trade is supposed to be all about.

When Bono appeared on stage with Bush in announcing the Millennium Challenge Account, an activist told Bono adviser Bobby Shriver: "You sold us out for a plate full of lentils," according to Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Phillips.

Sour grapes? Maybe. But, as America's involvement in Somalia teaches, foreign aid is a political tool that often gets hijacked by powerful agricultural interests and manipulated by corrupt foreign politicians. You should check out former USAID worker Michael Maren's book, "The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity," and see why he "learned to view development aid with skepticism."

Maren wrote that his experience doing aid work in Somalia and other African nations "added a whole new dimension to my view of the aid business. My experience there made me see that aid could be worse than incompetent and inadvertently destructive. It could be positively evil."

On the African side, there's plenty of work they'll have to do for themselves. But from this side of the globe, there's at least one important measure Americans could push for to help create the kind of environment in which African governments can "meet the most basic needs of their people" so that "these failed states" won't "become havens for terror," to borrow Bush's words: Debt forgiveness.

African governments are being held liable for the cost of failed development projects pushed on them by creditors, Africa Action Executive Director Salih Booker points out. And today's Africans are expected to repay these huge debts incurred before many of them were even born.

For example, South Africa's white minority regime accumulated more than $18 billion in foreign debt in the 15 years before apartheid collapsed. South Africa's neighbors chalked up more than $26 billion in debt during this same period, largely as a result of Pretoria's regional war, Booker explains.

"Today, victims of apartheid are forced to pay the costs of their own previous repression. Interest payments on these kinds of loans are still sucking resources out of Africa, even though the principal on the debt has already been repaid," Booker says. "The U.S., since it is the dominant shareholder in the IMF and World Bank, has the power to change this."

We need to shine some light on our dark understanding of Africa before we "bring civilization" to the "backward."

In the meantime, rock on, Bono and O'Neill. Just don't expect much applause on this tour. We need some good results first.

Sean Gonsalves is a columnist with the Cape Cod Times. You can email him at sgonsalves@capecodonline.com.