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Out of Africa: 12/26/94 and back to the 1980s

By Peter Beinart, 12 January 1995, 07:22:14 EST

Western policy toward Africa began as a private affair. In the nineteenth century, explorers, missionaries and traders directed Europe’s relations with the continent. Government representatives stayed at home. While individuals and private organizations saw a continent of great spiritual, material and cartographic importance, their leaders held to the belief that, politically, Africa was irrelevant.

During the 1870s and 1880s this changed. Indifference gave way to a frenzied scramble for territory. The 1884 Berlin Conference, which divided Africa among the European powers, ushered in a century during which Western governments used the continent as a field on which to play out their rivalries. This continued during the cold war. Today, however, with Western governments disengaging, the nineteenth-century model has returned. Convinced that Africa has no impact on the rest of the globe, First World governments are ceding control to aid agencies and lending institutions. Though this epochal shift has hardly been noticed in the United States and Europe, it is wreaking havoc in Africa.

During the 1880s Africa became a safety valve for conflicts among the great powers. Germany’s emergence as a continental hegemon forced Britain to abandon its traditional independence and join a blocking coalition with France and Russia. Europe was locked into two opposing camps. The great powers could not pursue advantage without risking all-out war. Africa gave them freedom to maneuver. It provided an arena in which they could seek strategic benefit without provoking a major conflict. Governments replaced private organizations as the primary agents of Europe’s relations with the continent.

During the 1960s Africa served a similar function. Europe was again divided into two hostile blocs, and minor conflicts, such as those over the occupation of Berlin, threatened to spark an explosion. As it had in the 1880s, Africa became a safe playground for competition. The principle that Africa was not worth a European war, which Britain and France established in Sudan in 1898, was reaffirmed in the Congo in 1960 by the United States and the Soviet Union.

Today, the global struggle among North America, Europe and Japan is economic. It’s not surprising, then, that the world’s powers see no advantage in a continent whose average return on investment is 2.5 percent (compared with 22.4 percent in South Asia and more than 30 percent in East Asia). In 1991 the amount of external financing through bonds directed to East Asia was $2.4 billion. For South Asia, it was $1.9 billion. For Africa, it was zero. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 1.4 percent of world trade.

Western governments have no significant interests on the continent. To finance new embassies in the former Soviet Union, the State Department cut its Africa operations by 9 percent, and the Agency for International Development has reduced its Africa staff by one-fifth. I have a hard time justifying expenditures in most of the African continent, says Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, the incoming chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Aid. I know they have enormous problems, but I have a hard time finding a national interest. Withdrawal is also occurring in the European Community, which now sends the bulk of its aid to the former Soviet bloc.

Africa policy—with the exception of South Africa—has been abandoned by all of the world’s major governments. The vacuum has been filled by two different types of organizations: the Bretton Woods lending institutions and the international aid agencies.

The United States and Britain created the International Monetary Fund (imf) in 1944 to provide relief for countries with temporary balance-of-payments crises. The fund assumed a major role in African development in the early 1970s, after oil shocks and declining prices for agricultural exports created large trade deficits in many African countries. The imf responded with short-term, relatively high-interest loans. When export prices continued to fall, however, African governments couldn’t pay the money back. The imf has been with them ever since.

The fund’s real power has come with the disengagement of Western governments. During the cold war, African leaders had options. The ussr and the United States distributed foreign aid in return for ideological support. (The West generally pressured the bank and the fund to lend to anti-Communist favorites.) With the Soviet Union gone, there is little reason for Western donors to finance African dictators. Today, the multi-lateral institutions set the agenda, and their criteria are economic rather than political.

First World governments rarely lend to countries that lack imf and World Bank approval. France, which has maintained a uniquely close relationship with its former colonies, was the last holdout. Yet early this year it bowed to imf and World Bank pressure and devalued the French-backed cfa franc by 50 percent. As former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere said in a recent interview, When we reject imf conditions we hear the threatening whisper: ’Without accepting our conditions. . .you will get no other money.’

These conditions have become much more stringent. In the mid 1980s the imf and World Bank began conditioning new loans on the adoption of structural adjustment programs (saps), which seek to foster export-led growth by devaluing currencies, privatizing government-owned parastatals, ending food subsidies and cutting bureaucracies.

The saps possess an economic logic. For years, African governments overvalued their currencies, subsidizing imports and crippling their farmers’ ability to compete internationally. As a result, between 1970 and 1990 the continent’s share of agricultural exports fell from 17 percent to 8 percent. Ghana, which has stuck to the sap reforms, has registered significantly higher growth rates than its neighbors. For twenty years population growth outstripped food production; now that trend has been reversed in sap countries.

The imf and World Bank have gotten the economics right, but the politics dangerously wrong. Structural adjustment destabilizes the governments that embrace it. Laying off state workers and lifting subsidies on food has led to strikes, protests and riots. In countries where this opposition has been integrated into larger movements for democracy, such as Zambia, Benin and Madagascar, dictators have fallen peacefully. Interestingly, despite their populist rhetoric, the newly elected democratic governments in these countries have persevered with the saps.

In countries where popular outrage has not assumed a democratic character—Somalia, Liberia and Sierra Leone—the results have been disastrous. Dictators have fallen violently, but the rebels who have toppled them have not been able to consolidate power. This is largely because the cold war aid that allowed previous dictators to maintain networks of patronage and repression no longer exists. New would-be tyrants can no longer buy the support of the military. Armies have fragmented, often along ethnic lines, and states have collapsed. The anarchy that reigns in Somalia, Liberia and Sierra Leone is far worse than the tyranny that preceded it.

The problem with allowing the imf and World Bank to direct Africa policy is that they destabilize governments without promoting democracy. The conditions for assistance are purely economic. Technocratic and mechanistic by nature, the multilateral lenders boast that their work is apolitical. Not surprisingly, their officials often prefer dealing with authoritarian governments. In the words of a leading World Bank researcher, Deepak Lal, the regimes that best promote saps are courageous, ruthless and perhaps undemocratic. According to Nigerian political scientist Claude Ake, imf officials seem quite indifferent to the political consequences of their good intentions.

The other institutions that have grown dramatically to fill the void left by Western governments’ retreat from Africa are humanitarian aid agencies such as Oxfam, care, the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres. In 1989 there were forty-eight international Non-Governmental Organizations (ngos) registered with the United Nations. Today there are 1,300.

As with the Bretton Woods lenders, the cold war’s end has granted the ngos vast influence over Western policy. This is particularly true during crises, when aid workers and journalists collaborate to bring remote tragedies to the consciences of the industrialized world. In the past, when relief groups publicized famines such as those in Biafra and Ethiopia, Western governments filtered their message through a cold war lens. U.S. interests in supporting the pro-Western Nigerian government in the late 1960s, or opposing Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Marxist government in Ethiopia in 1984, limited the influence of ngo pleas. Today, however, their influence is unrivaled.

Take Somalia. As it collapsed in 1991 and 1992, the West watched fatalistically. Somalia’s geopolitical irrelevance was accepted without debate. Political pressure produced by international aid agencies sparked the American intervention, which was designed mainly to protect Western relief operations. The Somalia scenario was, in many ways, a throwback to the nineteenth century, when missionaries journeyed into the African interior to fight spiritual and material suffering. Finding themselves imperiled and overwhelmed, they rallied domestic public opinion and shamed their governments into intervening militarily to protect their civilizing work.

During the 1880s and 1890s, however, European governments fought wars and established protectorates in order to carry this out. In Somalia, by contrast, the white man’s burden was not worth a handful of casualties. The initial talk of recolonization provoked by the intervention quickly dissipated. The Somalia experience was the first, and almost certainly the last, Western effort at African political reconstruction. France’s recent involvement in Rwanda is a case in point. A few years ago France would have intervened to protect a friendly francophone government. This year it esponded to aid agency pleas with a brief humanitarian action, but stayed aloof from the country’s political crisis.

In the absence of other Western interests in Africa, ngos will continue to play an important role in directing government aid and setting policy. Indeed, usaid now distributes 20 percent of its budget for Africa through ngos. Yet their power compounds the problems caused by the imf and World Bank. Like the multilateral lending institutions, they often hinder democracy and unwittingly contribute to social collapse.

Aid agencies operate with the consent of host governments. They claim to be apolitical, but their need for government approval often leads them to condone, or even participate in, the corrupt networks and repressive strategies of African dictators. This is exactly what happened in Somalia in the 1980s, when ngos complied with the policies that decimated civil society and sowed clan hatred—leading eventually to the civil war that followed Mohamed Siad Barre’s fall in 1991. Only a small Australian agency called Community Aid Abroad spoke out. It left the country in protest against Siad Barre’s human rights record in 1989.

As Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Wall, former co-directors of Africa Watch, observe, The conquest of famine in India and in a handful of African countries such as Botswana was based on democratic accountability. In these countries, famine is a political issue.... This is the opposite of the apolitical `humanitarian’ message of international relief agencies. Harvard economist Amartya Sen takes this argument further, suggesting that a free press is crucial in spreading information about food shortages and in preventing mass starvation. The overwhelming evidence suggests that aid agencies do not prevent famine; democracy does.

The aid agencies and the multilateral lending institutions don’t much like each other. One sees Africa’s salvation in monetarist economics and the other in grass-roots philanthropy. But they share one central, and disastrous, assumption. Both believe that the question of African development is not, at its core, political. In this belief they again mirror the missionary societies of the nineteenth century, which were so intent on bringing economic and social development to Africa that they did not notice the political upheaval they caused in the process.

We may be seeing such upheaval again. The continent’s postcolonial dictators are fast becoming extinct. In their wake, two types of African states have emerged. In a few countries—Malawi, Benin, Madagascar, Mali—dictators have been replaced by fledgling democratic governments. In an equal number—Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone—they have been replaced by chaos. It’s too early to tell what the model will be, though, for Africa’s giants—Nigeria, Kenya, Zaire—have not yet cast their dice. If democrats replace Sani Abacha, Daniel arap Moi and Mobutu Sese Seko, it will be a more hopeful sign for Africa’s future than even the end of apartheid. If not? Imagine Rwanda, but in a country of 100 million people and dozens of major ethnic groups.

The multilateral lenders and aid agencies are contributing to that nightmare scenario by failing to support pressures for peaceful, democratic change. Their work must be directed by governments focused on strengthening Africa’s capacity for democratic government. This means investing in democratic institutions within African civil society and taking steps to ensure that Africa’s remaining dictators fall peacefully. It means, in the words of Ake, tak[ing] democracy as seriously in Africa as everywhere else.

It is no longer enough to send troops to help aid agencies combat humanitarian crises. It is not even enough to send neutral observers to cool tempers before a crisis erupts. The governments of the West must realize that in Africa today, state breakdown and civil collapse are no longer aberrations. They are a logical outgrowth of the political status quo. Africa’s choice is no longer between democracy and dictatorship. It is between democracy and anarchy.