Expert: Africa Needs More than Foreign Aid

Leaders of wealthy nations will discuss debt relief and aid to Africa at the G8 summit. But George Ayittey, a professor of economics at American University, says that Africa's salvation doesn't lie in asking for more aid. He says that African leaders have mismanaged their resources and should be held accountable for corruption.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Debt relief and aid to Africa are among the most important issues under consideration at that G8 Summit. Still, some question whether aid promised to African nations will find its way to the people who need it most. George Ayittey is from Ghana, now a professor of economics at American University in Washington, DC. Keep in mind, he says, that African countries have already squandered billions of dollars of aid.

Professor GEORGE AYITTEY (American University): Well, we all know that in the past, giving aid to African government simply didn't help. I mean, much of the aid disappeared into the pockets of corrupt African governments, but it is something that's not politically correct to talk about that because a lot of people don't want to criticize black African leaders for fear of being labeled as racist, but you just can't, you know, give aid to Africa using the old approach.

MONTAGNE: Now just to put it in perspective, what would you call the old approach? Where would the aid have gone?

Prof. AYITTEY: Let me give you an example. Back in 1999, Uganda, for example, received debt relief equivalent to something like $790 million, and when Uganda got that debt relief, the first thing that President Museveni did was to buy himself a new presidential jet. Africa's begging bowl leaks horribly. The old Africa seeks to put more money into this leaky bucket. A new approach will seek to plug the leaks.

MONTAGNE: Plugging leaks would suggest fighting corruption...

Prof. AYITTEY: Yes.

MONTAGNE: ...which is quite a tall order.

Prof. AYITTEY: Yes. But in the past, you know, the Western donors sort of cast a blind eye to this massive corruption with--you know, this was during the Cold War. The West was more interested in looking for Cold War allies. One example being Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, for example, where every dollar that went into Zaire Mobutu skimmed 20 cents off the top just for his own personal use. There was very little accountability, and a lot of people are saying that, `No, we need a new approach.'

MONTAGNE: You've talked and written about helping Africa prosper through its indigenous structures and traditions. How do you mean that? What exactly do you mean?

Prof. AYITTEY: Africa's salvation doesn't lie in begging and begging for more aid, and as an African, I find it very, very humiliating. We're talking about a continent which is tremendously rich in mineral resources. You name the mineral--gold, diamonds, titanium--you find all that in Africa and our leaders have mismanaged the resources. Look, the salvation of Africa lies in Africa going back to its roots and building upon its own indigenous institutions. There were markets in Africa. There was free trade in Africa. If you go to our villages, you'll find participatory democracy there. The problem that happened after independence was that our leaders rejected the market system as a Western institution and tried to destroy it and they also rejected democracy. This is why the continent started its road to ruination.

MONTAGNE: Interesting and good goals--where to begin, though, with that?

Prof. AYITTEY: Well, if you take a look at any African economy, there is the modern sector. Then there is the rural and the traditional sector and stuck in between them is the informal sector. You cannot develop Africa by ignoring the traditional and the informal sectors because that's where the vast majority of the African people live, but these two sectors are precisely those two sectors which the elites ignored or neglected. This is why I'm stressing African civil society and African community based organizations.

MONTAGNE: If the G8 leaders emerge from their meeting and made two or three particular announcements, what would you like to hear?

Prof. AYITTEY: Well, what I'd like them to say is, `Sure, we want to help Africa,' but they say they must distinguish between African governments or leaders and the African people so that they themselves will instigate reform from within. The solutions to Africa's problems lie in Africa, not in Live Aid concerts.

MONTAGNE: George Ayittey is a professor of economics at American University and president of The Free Africa Foundation speaking with us from Edinburgh.

Thanks very much.

Prof. AYITTEY: Thank you very much, Renee, for having me.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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