Saint Bob and Digging Another Hole to Nowhere

Worth A Look, Poverty, Frontier Centre

On Sunday, I tuned in to the CBC’s Cross-Country Checkup, the phone-in radio show for virtuous Canadians. The subject was aid to Africa. Caller after caller exhorted the stingy West, including Canada, to do more. Several of them cited the debt we owe to Africa to make up for the legacy of colonialism. Finally, toward the end of the show, a woman named Hannah came on. Unlike almost all the other callers, she was African. She came from Ethiopia, the country Bob Geldof tried to save in 1985. “Ethiopia is poorer now than ever,” she said. “The money just goes into the pockets of the leaders.”

You remember the starving Ethiopians. You probably tuned in to Live Aid. Maybe you even bought a copy of Do They Know It’s Christmas?

I’m sorry to tell you it didn’t help. The Ethiopians were starving because their leader, a truly nasty Soviet-backed dictator named Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, had launched a war that killed at least 100,000. He stole the food-aid money to buy guns and feed his armies. Despite Live Aid, more than a million people eventually died of famine. Today, Ethiopia — where private property is still outlawed — remains one of the worst-governed places in the world. As Hannah patiently explained to the CBC host, generations of aid workers have come to dig wells for the impoverished people of Ethiopia. But they are holes to nowhere.

Saint Bob’s latest campaign to save Africa is an irresistible appeal to Western pity, sympathy and guilt. It is also more arrogant than those fantasies of any old-time colonial administrator or missionary. It assumes that if only “we” put our minds to it, “we” can “save” “them.” The fact that we have been trying to do this for 60 years, without success, does not deter him. His solution is to do even more of it. If you doubt the wisdom of this, you are unspeakably callous.

“Just give us the f****** money,” says Saint Bob. Well, it’s not as if we haven’t tried. Since 1960, the West has injected $500-billion into Africa, far more than America spent on the Marshall Plan to revive a war-torn Europe after the Second World War. Today, aid to Africa is at a record high (led by the perfidious and callous U.S.), and Africa is poorer than before. Most of the money wound up in the pockets of the kleptocrats, who bought weapons for their armies and stashed the rest in their Swiss bank accounts.

In Nigeria, a country rich in oil, the late General Sani Abacha stole $5-billion in just five years. Last week, Nigeria’s anti-corruption commission reported that, in the past four decades, the country’s rulers had stolen and squandered as much as $500-billion. That’s as much as all the aid money sent to Africa.

In the mineral-rich nation of Zaire, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko amassed $5-billion in foreign debt and managed to steal $4-billion of it for himself. Now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country has become a killing field in which millions of people have died in a civil war. In Sudan’s Darfur region, 180,000 people have died in ethnic cleansing. In northern Uganda, another 100,000 people have died in an endless war between the central government and a rebel faction called the Lord’s Resistance Army.

In Zimbabwe, meanwhile, our old friend Robert Mugabe has launched Operation Drive Out Rubbish, bulldozing the homes of poor city-dwellers and driving them to the countryside. Perhaps a million people have been displaced. Starvation is widespread, and the situation is so bad that people are comparing it to Pol Pot’s Cambodia. But no African leader will condemn Mr. Mugabe. They’d rather keep complaining about the colonial legacy of the West.

If I thought that billions more in Western aid would actually be used to help the needy instead of kill them, I’d be all for it. I’d be the first in line to cheer Saint Bob and badger our government to fork over 0.7 per cent of our GDP. But the proposal to next week’s G8 summit calls for the new aid money to go straight into the budgets of African governments.

That might please Saint Bob and massage the self-esteem of guilty Westerners. But the real cause of poverty in Africa is bad government. Hannah’s right. Until that’s fixed, we’ll just be digging another hole to nowhere.