Wednesday, August 20, 2014
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Savable Africa

The G-8 Summit in Scotland in early July will bring together the political leaders of the richest countries to consider the plight of the poorest countries. So far, President George W. Bush has resisted Prime Minister Tony Blair’s call for a doubling of aid to Africa by 2010. This is a tragic mistake, one that results from a misunderstanding of the challenges facing Africa and of America’s responsibilities.

American policy is based overwhelmingly on the idea that Africa can lift itself out of extreme poverty through its own efforts, that aid is largely misused because of corruption, and that the United States already gives generous amounts. This is wrong on all counts: Africa is trapped in poverty, many countries are well poised to use aid effectively, and America’s contribution is tiny relative to Africa’s needs, America’s promises, and America’s wealth.

Africa suffers simultaneously from three challenges that trap it in poverty. First, Africa does not grow enough food. Unlike Asia, Africa did not have a Green Revolution in food production. In 1965, India averaged 854 kilograms of grain per hectare in use, while Sub-Saharan Africa averaged almost the same, 773 kilograms per hectare. But, by 2000, India was producing 2,293 kilograms per hectare, while Africa was producing only 1,118.

Second, Africa suffers from disease unlike any other part of the world. Africa’s AIDS pandemic is well known; its malaria pandemic, which will claim three million lives and a billion illnesses this year, is not. India controlled malaria after the 1960’s, while Africa did not, one reason being that Africa’s malaria-bearing mosquitoes are particularly adept at transmitting the disease.

Third, Africa is economically isolated, owing to very poor infrastructure, large over-land distances, and many landlocked countries. These geographical barriers keep much of Africa, especially rural Africa, out of the mainstream of international trade. Without the benefits of trade, much of rural Africa struggles at subsistence levels.

Bush might think that America is doing a lot to help overcome these problems, but the truth is that US aid is minimal. Blair’s Africa Commission, as well as the UN Millennium Project, found that Africa needs about $50 billion per year in aid by 2010. America’s fair share of the total is about $15 billion per year. Yet official US aid to Africa is only $3 billion per year, and much of that covers salaries for American consultants rather than investments in Africa’s needs.

This tragically small sum amounts to just three cents for every $100 of US gross national product, which is less than two days of US military spending.

Not only is US aid a tiny fraction of what it should be, but American explanations for the lack of aid are wrong. Bush and others imply that Africa wastes the aid through corruption. But impoverished and slow-growing African countries like Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Benin, and Malawi are ranked as having less corruption than fast-growing Asian countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Indeed, America’s own Millennium Challenge Account has already recognized such African countries for their strong governance. Good governance surely will help in Africa and elsewhere, but corruption should not be used as an excuse not to help Africa.

On hunger, the key is to help Africa achieve its own Green Revolution. Rich countries should help African farmers use improved seed varieties, more fertilizer, and better water management, such as small-scale irrigation. The techniques are known, but Africa’s farmers are too poor to get started. With increased help to African farmers to grow more food (as opposed to shipping food aid from the US), it would be possible to double or even triple crop yields.

On disease, malaria could be controlled by 2008 using proven, low-cost methods. But, again, Africa cannot afford them. The first goal should be to distribute long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets to all of Africa’s rural poor within four years. The best estimates show that Africa needs about 300 million bed nets, and that the cost per net (including shipping) is around $10, for a sum of $3 billion. This cost would be spread over several years. In addition, Africa needs help with anti-malaria medicines, diagnostic equipment, and training of community health workers.

On economic isolation, Africa needs help with the basics – roads and ports – but there is also an opportunity to “leapfrog” technology. Cell phones and Internet connectivity could reach all of Africa at low cost, ending the economic isolation of hundreds of millions of people. Some reasonable estimates put the cost at around $1 billion for an Africa-wide fiber-optic network that could bring Internet connectivity and telephone service across the continent’s villages and cities.

Africa is ready to break out of poverty if the US and other rich countries help. Europe appears poised to do more, while the US appears to be the main obstacle. The G-8 Summit provides an opportunity for the US, which will spend $500 billion on its military this year, to make a lasting – and certainly more cost-effective – contribution to global security by saving millions of lives in Africa and helping its people escape extreme poverty.

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