James Shikwati - "For God's sake, please just stop"
Eu Referendum reminded us of this surprising interview with Kenyan James Shikwati, a radically intelligent guy whose ideas left the Der Spiegel interviewer speechless and made me think more deeply about Africa than I have in a while. I've italicized some of Shikwati's remarks because they are so reminiscent of a certain British thinker.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Shikwati, the G8 summit at Gleneagles is about to beef up the development aid for Africa. . .
Shikwati:. . .for God's sake, please just stop.
SPIEGEL: Stop? The industrialized nations of the West want to eliminate hunger and poverty.
Shikwati: Such intentions have been damaging our continent for the past 40 years. If the industrial nations really want to help the Africans, they should finally terminate this awful aid. The countries that have collected the most development aid are also the ones that are in the worst shape. Despite the billions that have poured in to Africa, the continent remains poor.
SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation for this paradox?
Shikwati: Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. . . .
SPIEGEL: Even in a country like Kenya, people are starving to death each year. Someone has got to help them.
Shikwati: But it has to be the Kenyans themselves who help these people. When there's a drought in a region of Kenya, our corrupt politicians reflexively cry out for more help. This call then reaches the United Nations World Food Program . . . They then forward that request to their headquarters, and before long, several thousands tons of corn are shipped to Africa. . .
SPIEGEL: . . .corn that predominantly comes from highly-subsidized European and American farmers. . .
Shikwati: . . .and at some point, this corn ends up in the harbor of Mombasa. A portion of the corn often goes directly into the hands of unsrupulous politicians who then pass it on to their own tribe to boost their next election campaign. Another portion of the shipment ends up on the black market where the corn is dumped at extremely low prices. Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away; no one can compete with the UN's World Food Program. And because the farmers go under in the face of this pressure, Kenya would have no reserves to draw on if there actually were a famine next year. It's a simple but fatal cycle.
SPIEGEL: If the World Food Program didn't do anything, the people would starve.
Shikwati: I don't think so. In such a case, the Kenyans, for a change, would be forced to initiate trade relations with Uganda or Tanzania, and buy their food there. This type of trade is vital for Africa. It would force us to improve our own infrastructure, while making national borders – drawn by the Europeans by the way – more permeable. It would also force us to establish laws favoring market economy.
SPIEGEL: Would Africa actually be able to solve these problems on its own?Shikwati: Of course. Hunger should not be a problem in most of the countries south of the Sahara. In addition, there are vast natural resources: oil, gold, diamonds. Africa is always only portrayed as a continent of suffering, but most figures are vastly exaggerated. . .
SPIEGEL: In the West, there are many compassionate citizens wanting to help Africa. Each year, they donate money and pack their old clothes into collection bags. . .
Shikwati: . . .Why do we get these mountains of clothes? No one is freezing here. Instead, our tailors lose their livelihoods. They're in the same position as our farmers. No one in the low-wage world of Africa can be cost-efficient enough to keep pace with donated products. In 1997, 137,000 workers were employed in Nigeria's textile industry. By 2003, the figure had dropped to 57,000. The results are the same in all other areas where overwhelming helpfulness and fragile African markets collide.
SPIEGEL: Following World War II, Germany only managed to get back on its feet because the Americans poured money into the country through the Marshall Plan. Wouldn't that qualify as successful development aid?
Shikwati: In Germany's case, only the destroyed infrastructure had to be repaired. Despite the economic crisis of the Weimar Republic, Germany was a highly-industrialized country before the war. The damages created by the tsunami in Thailand can also be fixed with a little money and some reconstruction aid. Africa, however, must take the first steps into modernity on its own. There must be a change in mentality. We have to stop perceiving ourselves as beggars. These days, Africans only perceive themselves as victims. On the other hand, no one can really picture an African as a businessman. . .
The desperate SPIEGEL reporter just doesn't get it, and finally cries, "What are the Germans supposed to do?"
Shikwati is trying to make clear that African problems are caused not by insufficient resources and not by insufficient hand-outs, but by aid that distorts and destroys markets, by corruption, by a victim mentality, and by the West's inability to understand the good that free markets generate. It's as if Europeans had never heard of Adam Smith and basic economic principles.
There's much more in the interview, which was conducted by Thilo Thielke, and translated from the German by Patrick Kessler.