TCS Daily

The New Colonialism

By Roger Bate - April 18, 2003 12:00 AM

This week Nigeria will elect a new President. Of course, whoever wins the election won't be new exactly, since both are former Nigerian dictators, but at least the elections are likely to be relatively free and fair. That is a lot more than can be said for most African nations, although the situation is much better across the continent than twenty years ago.

With the exception of the despotic Zimbabwe and war-torn Angola, all large countries in Southeast and Southern Africa are democracies, or emerging democracies (Lesotho and Swaziland are tribal kingdoms). A few in Western Africa (Benin, Mali and Senegal and soon Nigeria and Ghana) can also claim the title democratic, but the rest of the continent is a mixture of military dictatorships, collapsed states or pseudo-regimes that pretend to be somewhat democratic.

As the late great Lord Peter Bauer explained, aid has often kept countries poor by maintaining a victim culture and perpetuating a crony-led elite that benefit from aid. Even in the most organised of African nations there have been numerous failed projects, with donor money rarely finding its way to the intended recipients.

Partly because of previous aid project failures, there has been less Government-to-Government aid in the past decade and more aid to non-governmental organisations like Christian AID or Oxfam, and direct aid to local communities. This approach has certainly reduced the amount of corruption and despotism in many African nations, but it has caused a different type of problem - the advice from NGOs is driving neo-colonialism, where advice is followed, no matter how absurd, which is then reinforced by officials in European nations from which the NGOs come.

Anti-technology NGOs

India, China, and even Cuba have welcomed new technologies, especially those that can help agriculture. But Africa has not, and the main reason is that those giving it advice, and much pivotal funding, oppose those technologies. Furthermore its main export markets, by accident of history, don't much like them either.

For example, Zambia exports thousands of tons of food to Europe, in successful years earning tens of millions of dollars. Other Southern countries like Botswana export beef and Zimbabwe exports peas and beans, the Ivory Coast and many other Western African nations export coffee and cocoa. Over half of Africa's food exports go to Europe; it is therefore unsurprising that African nations are worried about European opinions. And as the former colonising powers, European nations have far more influence in Africa than pro-technology America.

Zambian Vice President, Enoch Kavindale explained recently: 'Our decision to reject genetically modified food is out of fear...We have been told that we will lose our European market if we start growing GM foods...Hungry we may be, but GM foods pose a serious threat to our agricultural sector and could grind it to a halt'.

Last month Dr John Kilama, President of the Global Bioscience Development Institute, testified before the US House Committee on Agriculture. Dr Kilama explained the 'precautionary principle of the Biosafety Protocol serves as a convenient tactical device for Europeans - because the principle permits countries to reject foreign GMOs even when there is no scientific proof that they are harmful'.

Yet although African countries are signatories to the Protocol not a single country in Sub-Saharan Africa has enacted any laws for enforcing biosafety regulations. According to Kilama, only Kenya and Egypt have workable drafts of biosafety laws, and Nigeria may have one in a matter of weeks - but that is it for the whole of Africa. And European nations (and especially the European Commission) will require workable laws before they will ever permit GM products to be imported from Africa. And of course most of the NGOs receiving aid 'on behalf of' poor nations oppose the technologies and advise countries not to antagonise European leaders.

Democratic Deficit

There are further problems with giving aid to NGOs and especially local communities. The most important problem is that such a focus leads to neglect of national institutions. It may seem sensible to bypass national institutions if they are corrupt, but as Kilama says 'no matter how corrupt and mismanaged government agencies may be, we must figure out ways to train government officials in the key leadership skills of policymaking and implementation'.

Without dependable national institutions, such as the rule of law, the protection of rights, (especially economic rights over property and contracts), are never going to withstand shocks such as recessions in western export markets. When trouble arrives, fragile institutions break down and mistrust, theft, and inevitable declines in business and investment occur. The lack of rule of law is the main reason that although Ghana and Zambia were wealthier than Korea in the 1960s, today they are 30 times poorer.

The one thing that the United States can do is to open its markets up to African produce. The less reliance Africa has on its former colonial masters in Europe, the better chance Africans have of developing the same free institutions that make America successful. It will also bring the adoption of technologies that Africa needs more badly than any other continent on earth.

With notable exceptions, like the recent civil unrest in the Central African Republic, African nations are moving in the direction of freedom. It is ironic that the NGOs and aid agencies that have done well to reduce recent corruption, ultimately could adversely affect Africa's progress.

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