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Aid for Africa

The momentum is building ahead of next month's G8 summit in Scotland where the leaders of the world's richest nations will debate what they can do to help some of the world's poorest. Africa is the priority and the politicians will discuss reducing the debt burden, ending trade regulations which put the continent's economy at a disadvantage, and giving more aid. Mark Doyle, who's reported from Africa for many years, looks at why aid is necessary, and why much of what's been donated in the past has not worked.

All around the edge of Africa -- along the coastline, near the continents' ports -- are monuments to exploitation. On the island of Goree, for example, just off the coast of Senegal, there's the Slave House. This was the last place many Africans saw before being shipped off to a lifetime of slavery in the Americas or, just as often, to death on the high seas.

There are many more places like this dating from the three hundred and fifty years or so of the African slave trade. When people wonder why Africa is so poor, they need look no further for the start of an explanation.

The end of the slavery was followed by a century of colonialism. Some people argue that colonialism brought limited development -- railways and schools and so on -- the system was principally designed to turn Africa into a vast plantation and mining site for the profit of outsiders.

Of course, some Africans gained from this period. Chiefs who sold their enemies to the European or Arab slavers, for example, and coastal people who creamed a little off the colonial trade which flowed through their land. 

But on the whole, for almost half a millennium, the general rule was systematic exploitation.

This must, surely, be the basic reason why Africa is poor. You could add that the climate is punishing, that tropical diseases are rife, and that today's independent African rulers are far from perfect. All true. But these factors, powerful in recent decades, seem marginal when set against to the pattern that was set for centuries. 

The solution, or, at least, the project SOLD as the solution to, has been "aid". Emergency aid, development aid, agricultural aid, economic advice. Billions of dollars worth of it. The problem with this solution is that, patently, it hasn't worked.

On the whole, Africa has got poorer.

The failure hasn't really been the idea of real aid but the misuse of that term. Clearly, if, in the famous phrase, you "teach a man to fish" you're probably helping him.

But most aid hasn't been like that. Most of it has been "top-down" aid, money that's given to African governments (so they in return) do the political bidding of the aid givers. A good proportion of it has been creamed off by the recipient government's officials and another large chunk of it paid back to the so-called "donors" in consultancy fees, salaries-cars--houses-and-servants for aid officials, debt repayments and the purchasing of arms.

During the Cold War, which only ended in the 1990s, most aid to Africa was never REALLY even supposed to help poor people. It was designed to reward client states for supporting or opposing one of the dominant ideologies. This led to inappropriate and sometimes laughable results. There's an apocryphal tale that does the rounds, for example, of the former Soviet Union, in the 1970s, supplying SNOW PLOUGHS to tropical Guinea. To be honest, I don't know if this story is true. But I do know of many cases where so-called food aid has destroyed markets for local farmers by driving down prices.

And yet, to say aid hasn't worked IN THE PAST is not the same thing as saying aid CAN'T work.

Last week, I met some small-scale farmers in southern Zambia. They were skilled farmers, well-organised people who knew what they wanted. What they wanted was water. Their maize was stunted, their citrus fruits were shrivelled and their tobacco leaves were small -- all because of a lack of water.

I spent a whole day with these farmers and they showed me the various wells they had tried to dig on their land. Their lack of water was not for want of backbreaking work in trying to find the stuff. Their wells had either run dry, or not yielded anything at all, because the water table was falling. These were people trapped in poverty; and despite their efforts they didn't have enough resources to pull themselves out of the trap.

On the great scale of things, aid or more precisely the type of aid that's generally been given in the past few decades hasn't worked.

But by the end of the day I spent with those Zambian farmers I was absolutely and totally convinced that a little of the right sort of aid, carefully directed and monitored, would be a lifeline for them.

A few thousand dollars spent on a borehole, a lifeline to the precious water deep underground, would transform those farmers' lives.