The Aid Africa Can’t Afford

July 8, 2008 • Commentary
By Edward N. Luttwak and Marian L. Tupy
This article appeared in the Los Angeles Times on July 8, 2008.

If the G-8 really wants to help, it should cut off funds for dysfunctional states.

African development is high on the list of topics for the leaders of the Group of 8 countries meeting in Hokkaido, Japan. The host country has already pledged to double its aid to Africa from the current $6.9 billion over the next five years. President Bush, arriving in Japan on Sunday, made it clear he planned to push other G-8 nations to meet their 2005 promises to increase African aid.

Representatives of rich countries seem united in their belief that Africa would benefit from more international assistance and oblivious to the harm that aid has already inadvertently caused to African populations by propping up Africa’s most dysfunctional states.

Instead of serving their people, most African states function as vehicles for the self‐​enrichment of political elites that have inherited none of the public‐​spiritedness of their colonial predecessors but all of the latter’s contempt for the African masses. The remedy, therefore, might be to let Africa’s failing neocolonial states disintegrate totally — so that organic African political structures can emerge.

One of the key innovations that made the birth of the modern state possible was the emergence of a fundamental distinction between the government and the state. Over time, “states” came to mean the permanent territorial institutions that belong to all citizens, while “governments” denoted groups of people with temporary control of the machinery of the state. That crucial distinction nourished the ethos of public service that makes the embezzlement of public funds and all other abuses of state resources not only illegal but shameful.

The historical process whereby individual loyalties to families and clans lost ground to loyalties to states spanned many centuries in the West. Up to colonialism and after, original family and broader in‐​group loyalties remained largely intact in Africa.

When the colonial powers imposed the machinery of the modern state on Africa, complete with tax collectors, customs officers, police officers and soldiers, they did not instill an ethos of public service in local populations. After all, they meant to govern with their own officials. When Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960, for example, it had only three Africans in the entire civil service and only 30 university graduates.

Is it surprising that when the colonial administrators abruptly left, almost all of their African successors proceeded to use their official positions to benefit themselves, their families and tribes? In fact, many Africans believe that it is immoral not to help family and clan if one can do so.

Corruption in Africa is almost a matter of common sense: As long as everyone else is abusing public office to benefit their clans and families, it remains self‐​defeating not to do so as well. A teacher in, say, Kenya may draw his government salary but seldom visit the classroom. Instead, he’ll hold a second job — driving a taxicab, maybe. In doing so, he may have learned from city government, in which public servants are nominally responsible for the delivery of public services but seldom do anything at all.

Most African states are therefore predators on the people they are supposed to serve and protect. Police officers extort bribes instead of protecting life and property; soldiers rape and rob the people they are supposed to protect from foreign attack; teachers collect salaries but do not teach; customs officers extract bribes instead of collecting duties; and for many African diplomats, foreign tours amount to prolonged shopping vacations.

From a historical perspective, then, the greatest harm inflicted by colonialism was to interrupt the organic evolution of indigenous African governments and states. That harm is being perpetuated by Western governments and nongovernmental organizations that want to help African populations.

On a micro level, Africa is littered with failed projects financed by foreign aid, including a steel plant in Ajaokuta, Nigeria, that does not produce steel and agricultural projects in Mali that decreased rather than increased the production of grain. Millions of Africans have been uprooted, with their livelihoods destroyed, by the pursuit of harebrained agricultural and irrigation schemes dreamed up by ignorant and arrogant, if well‐​meaning, foreigners.

On a macro level, aid has kept predatory African states alive by enriching corrupt political leaders and paying the salaries of their bureaucrats, soldiers and police. Uganda, by no means an outlier when it comes to “budget support,” receives 50% of its annual government revenue from foreign aid. Economist Paul Collier of Oxford University showed that aid pays for up to 40% of African weapons purchases. On a continent where interstate conflicts are mercifully rare, those weapons are often used to crush domestic opposition — as has been happening in Zimbabwe.

Pulling aid away from dysfunctional African states seems like a shocking move. Allowing failing states to collapse, it will be said, could lead to anarchy and turn Africa into a haven for terrorists. In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, many now believe that terrorists are best confronted by security measures, including intelligence gathering and surgical strikes against individual terrorist groups, rather than by social engineering on the scale of entire countries.

Aid is social engineering par excellence. But after 50 years and hundreds of billions of dollars, it should be clear that aid has failed to make the modern state viable in most of Africa. Instead, it has prevented the emergence and growth of authentic African polities rooted in African traditions. Aid should be ended along with most of the well‐​meaning but mostly harmful Western involvement in African affairs.

The well‐​meaning G-8 leaders can find an outlet for good works at home — African countries are too poor to afford their charity.

About the Authors
Edward N. Luttwak