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Charitable superpowers get it wrong

first_imgJeffery Sachs, who spoke at the  Oxford Union on Sunday, is the intellectual guru of the ‘Drop the Debt’ campaign and the world’s most famous development economist. He began his career as a hard-line free marketeer. As an advisor to Boris Yeltsin’s government in the early nineties he was responsible for the introduction of the disastrous “shock-therapy” of instant deregulation and privatisation which sent the Russian economy into freefall. A market Bolshevik no longer, Sachs has since turned his attention to Africa and the elimination of global extreme poverty within twenty years through a combination of debt relief, increased aid, and trade reform. For Sachs, democracy is not a part of this equation. He states bluntly in his new book, The End of Poverty, that “the links from democracy to economic performance are relatively weak” and that “the charge of authoritarian rule as a basic obstacle to good governance in Africa is pass”. Sachs’ fondness for railing against the neo-liberal “Washington Consensus” and the Bush administration might thus be explained by an enthusiasm for an earlier Republican ideologue, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger, who would be brought to the Hague on charges of war crimes if the US ever signed up to the International Criminal Court, did not care about democracy either. For Kissinger, monstrous dictators like Pinochet, Mobutu, Amin, and Papa Doc Duvalier may have been “bastards” but it didn’t matter because they were “our bastards”. Sachs, and his bleeding heart fellow travellers Blair, Bono and Bob Geldof, have their own set of “bastards”: rulers like Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and Paul Kagame of Rwanda. None of these have been fairly elected and all are pumped full of praise and aid by Britain and the US. Until recently, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda would have been on this list. His attempts to rid Uganda of condoms no doubt still ingratiate him with the Americans. But now that he has decided to turn twenty years of dictatorial rule into a life presidency, he has been mildly rebuked. At the launch of the Commission for Africa report in Addis Ababa in March, Geldof declared, “Get a grip Museveni – your time is up, go away”. He has since apologised. Sitting alongside Geldof was fellow Commission member, Zenawi, who was returned to office in May courtesy of a rigged election. His security forces mowed down dozens who had the temerity to protest. These men are just the West’s presentable allies. In blatant contradiction with its avowed wish to see democracy flourish the world over, Washington embraces the vile dictator, Obiang Mbasago, of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. Jacques Chirac, who wants to slap a fiver on every plane ticket to fund poverty reduction, described the brutal Gnassingbe Eyadema, deceased President of Togo, as a “personal friend” when he died in February after 38 years in charge. This may have been related to Eyadema’s generous funding of French political parties and the benevolence shown to individual French politicians who happened to be passing through his palace. Eyadema could afford this because he had amassed a fortune believed to be in the region of $3 billion; that is thrice Togo’s annual GNP.The example illustrates why Sachs’ view that dictatorship is no bar to economic development is false. The reason Africa is so poor is that kleptocratic dictators and elites, often with Western connivance, have looted their own countries. They are also inclined to be incompetent. The simple virtue of democracy is that it allows people to get rid of bad governments peacefully. The number of functioning democracies in Africa can be counted on two hands. Among them are Africa’s most prosperous and stable states: South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Senegal, Ghana, Benin and the Cape Verde islands. Sachs regards China as an example of how a ruthless dictatorship can prosper. However, he admits in The End of Poverty that poverty has increased in rural areas there because of the abandonment of the public health system. A democratic government would never have been able to disregard public welfare so heartlessly.        The triumvirate of Sachs, Bono, and Geldof is immensely powerful. Able to influence both governments and public opinion, they are right to attempt to combine high-level lobbying with mass politics. It is thus dismaying that such potential for real change has been squandered on fringe issues in the war on poverty. The only reason debt is a problem is that the money was stolen and dissipated. The torrent of criticism directed against them for endorsing the status quo of Western power is similarly misguided. It is the very Western status quo of democracy and human rights which is lacking in Africa. More than any amount of charity, this is how to make poverty history. ARCHIVE: 1st week MT 2005last_img read more