Kibera, Africa's largest slum, in NairobiVisitors to big
cities in Africa notice that people live in the streets, partly
because of the climate, partly because of the gregarious nature of
the people, partly because of the poverty of their homes, and partly
because outside is where things happen, especially where people earn
their daily bread.

Such is Kibera in
Nairobi, one of Africa’s largest slum settlements, made of shacks,
some of baked mud, others of zinc sheets and cardboard. The informal
sector, “jua kali” (in Swahili means “hot sun”) operates
outdoors: food, clothes and all household items are on inviting
display, and for sale. You can watch men making simple stoves, grills
for your windows, hub caps for your car; you watch, you buy and you
take home. Without the informal sector, the close to one million
inhabitants of Kibera would either be unable to survive, or would
rush down into the city centre, about two or three kilometres away,
and start a riot.

On the outskirts of
Kibera, safely close to a major urban highway, stands the
headquarters of the United Nations agency for human settlements,
whose mission is “to promote socially and environmentally
sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate
shelter for all”. It has an annual budget of millions of dollars to
carry this out. Yet its headquarters is just close enough to catch
the acrid smell of open sewage that permeates the slum. Its
inhabitants live with it every hour of every day.

Foreign aid,
especially to backward, suffering Africa has become one of the
favourite activities of the last 30 years especially. It really
kicked off with the Ethiopian famine in 1984, which was caused by
drought, Marxist politics and mismanagement. Kenya is an NGO haven;
yet local people see these organizations as mixed blessings. The day
before the US elections last year, I was in Kibera, driving behind a
van filled with white NGO staff. A local youth saw them and shouted:
“Obama no win, we kill you!” A case of biting the hand that
feeds, or something different?

Perhaps an intuition
that, despite all the money that is pouring in, somehow life is no
better. Young people are still unemployed and unemployable; there are
no proper roads, no proper sewage, no money for school uniforms and
textbooks; people are still surviving on less than a dollar a day;
the rulers are taking everything; and the only improvements to be
seen are the ones initiated by Kibera residents. So, what are the NGO
bureaucrats doing with their expensive four-wheel drives, generous
salaries and two-year service stints? To say this is the whole
reality would be unfair, but it is the perception of many
impoverished slum-dwellers.

On the same occasion
I met with a youth group that needed ideas, encouragement — and
money to get started. It was the first time I met them. One strong
young man asked me: “Have you come to bring us money?” No, I told
him, so he got up and left. Reliance on foreign aid has left much of
Africa poorer and growth slower, more sunk in debt, more exposed to
the vagaries of the currency markets, and less attractive to overseas
investors. Zambian economist Dambiso Moyo recently claimed in the
Wall Street Journal that “aid (to Africa) is an unmitigated
political, economic and humanitarian disaster.”

Sometimes aid is
needed in Africa, as anywhere else, to deal with the aftermath of
tsunamis, earthquakes and famines. But these are one-off events. Aid
can alleviate immediate suffering, but treating it as the
launching-pad for long-term growth is problematic.

Over the past 60
years, at least US$1 trillion of development-related aid has reached
Africa from the wealthy countries, yet real per-capita income today
is lower than it was 30 years ago, and still more than half of
Africans live on less than a dollar a day. Even after the debt-relief
campaign of the 1990s, African countries still pay close to $20
billion in debt repayments per annum, as if to remind us there is no
such thing as a free lunch! To keep the system going, debt is repaid
at the expense of education, health care and infrastructure.

Moreover, aid is
linked with rampant corruption. Aid for poor Africans supports obese
bureaucracies instead. In 2002, the African Union, an organization of
African nations, estimated that corruption was costing the continent
$150 billion a year, as many international donors were apparently
looking the other way if aid money went into graft. The political and
business elites get richer, while more and more poor people slip down
even further to the level of bare subsistence.

Often with no
strings attached — or when there are strings, they are the wrong
ones, such as an aggressive birth control policy, complete with
equipment and lavishly-paid local staff — it is easy for funds to be
used for anything except real development, such as getting people
started in business.

Examples of graft
abound: Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko is reputed to have stolen at least
$5 billion during his 32-year reign. Zambia’s former president,
Frederick Chiluba is in court to answer for millions of dollars taken
from healthcare, education and infrastructure to his own private
account. Kenya goes from one major scam to the next, with no one
called to account, no one put in prison; rather, the suspects are
shuffled around in ministerial posts.

Young economies need
transparent, accountable governments and an efficient civil service,
that is, civil servants who serve the interests of their people, not
their own interests. Yet doing business in Africa puts off the
average businessman. In Cameroon it takes a potential investor 426
days to perform 15 procedures to get a business license; in Angola,
119 days; in South Korea, only 17. No surprise few investors come to
Africa. Ordinary citizens need employment or self-employment. Endless
flows of aid do not achieve these goals. In fact, a continuous stream
of “free” money – presently 70 percent of public funding comes
from foreign aid — only manages to keep inefficient governments in
power. A government like this is accountable to no one, and merely
needs to pay its army to keep dissatisfied citizens in their place.

Some types of aid
should be prohibited in order to develop local economies. For
example, when a foreign government supplies 100,000 free mosquito
nets, it immediately puts out of work a local mosquito-net maker who
perhaps employs ten people to manufacture 500 nets a week. Each of
these ten employees supports fifteen relatives each. When the nets
tear and are useless, there’s no longer a local manufacturer to go
to – he will have moved to an urban slum or given up on life — and
so more aid will be needed from outside, keeping foreigners employed
and local people deeper in poverty.

Aid and politics are
intertwined. In Africa civil clashes (often called tribal clashes,
ethnicity being the convenient conflictive factor) are invariably
motivated by the thirst for power. The winner will have unlimited
access to the aid package that comes with power. Aid-financed efforts
to force-feed democracy to precarious African economies generally do
not work. Long-term political stability can only be achieved on a
solid economic base. Africa needs fair trading partners, not an
endless cycle of aid, especially from the West, that keeps it
dependent and oppressed.

Martyn Drakard
writes from Kampala, in Uganda.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.