Africa Beyond Aid. Interview with Martin Kimani

The debate claiming for less aid toward Africa is not new, but a new interest has emerged in the last years among development scholars and activists. This interview seeks to spell out the terms of such debate from an African perspective, exploring if and which alternatives can be envisaged, and whether a new economic paradigm can be identified. Good governance, accountability and vision are some of the keywords. 

Q: What is your position with regards to the debate within Africans scholars claiming for less aid towards Africa?

MK: Do you mean to ask what debate the recent book by Dambisa Moyo has sparked among African scholars? If the coverage of the book in the West is of any indication, then it would appear that silence over aid has reigned in African scholarly circles until this moment. Nothing could be further from the truth! The debate over aid in Africa is decades old. The most trenchant have been the numerous critiques of African elites dependence on foreign aid especially in the context of the Cold War and of course before that period, the role of Western 'aid' being part and parcel of how colonial regime empowered pliant elites to further colonialism's interests. Seen in this light, the debate for less aid towards Africa, as you put it, is the same old anti-colonial, anti-domination struggle that Africans have been engaged in for a century. From the Cold War and its networks of aid (military and otherwise) to Africa, we can clearly understand how donors can undermine the realization of full citizenship in African countries. After all, governments that depend on funds other than tax receipts have to account for a number of parties, with the citizen being only one of them. This fundamentally creates a sort of contradiction and paradox within a political process. If the two pillars of liberal democratic regimes are the vote and the tax regime, then you can begin to see that governments which receive as much as half their revenue, and sometimes even more, from outside are in effect going to have to answer to another state and thus undermine the extent to which the vote actually matters. Aid though is not only about what happens in Africa or whether projects or development paradigms are successful or not. There is a psychological dimension too: a sort of psychic economy in the world in which feelings and morals are the traded good. For an instant, imagine African misery as sort of asset that exists in a market. This perverse imagining, which is in fact not far distant from the truth of the matter, would hold it that aid is an investment in suffering. The aid industry in some way operates as all other globalized industries do with capital seeking the highest returns and rushing to find the highest growth prospects. After all, isn't the money that is received annually by the aid industry worth more than every other African export outside of Nigerian and Angolan oil and Congolese minerals? It seems to me that the aid industry is not only ineffective in terms of delivering development to Africa, it also places western citizens in a very odd situation. The underlying message they receive is that they live in a sort of heaven and that their money must be used to relieve a hell that is located outside them and external to their life and society. This is not true, of course! It simplifies the picture of actual global misery which exists in substantial portions everywhere and the extent to which Western economies are intertwined with the suffering and disenfranchisement of Africans. Just as importantly, it blinds Western citizens to the great extent to which the logic that produces much of the poverty and disenfranchisement in places like Africa are increasingly their lot as well. In this way, the perverse identification of poverty and wretchedness solely with Africa and Africans, which is one of the outcomes of the aid industry's advertising, helps make similar conditions in Europe invisible.

Q: Whether we talk about trade, climate, aid, or debt, the bulk of requests of the African counterpart is essentially for greater financial support and a major sense of responsibility of donor countries. On the other hand, which are the roles and responsibility that African governments should rather embark on?

MK: There is a recent history of leaders from Africa or other poor parts of the world trying their best to extract money from wealthy states, particularly in the West. Now this, as we all know, is a game. Westerners drive the game as much as the African leaders themselves. There are even those within this process who have a genuine interest in using aid money in a way that is beneficial to people who need help. However, a lot of leaders just want to use the money to consolidate their positions against democratic forces opposing them. For Africans, to move toward weaning themselves off aid, requires a fundamental shift in political cultures: toward genuine democracy and leaders who have the integrity, effectiveness and pride to turn away from what is a long-term poison to independence. For this to happen across the continent though, we desperately need an example of an African country that rejects aid and visibly prospers. This would provide tangible proof that it can be done.

Q: And it shouldn't be done merely as political propaganda. Rather alternative strategies and plan need to be put in place... 

MK: Yes, that's what the discussion should be about. Leaders usually get lost in the discussion in the technical details of government systems, corruption measurement, etc. Yet to renounce aid demands more than technocratic ability. It demands imagining a drastically different approach to development rooted in a determination to deepen and widen democracy and reinforce national independence against foreign patrons.

Q: In your view how likely the Western financial crisis shall contribute to change or to review the development paradigm? Is it more a problem of economic paradigm or a matter of lack of governance?

MK: It is a combination, I think. I have not noticed any particularly deep and sustained questioning, at least from my part of the world, about what this crisis means to us. In countries like the United States, calls for reform - at least those with a real chance for implementation - are tepid. So there will be no change in direction from that side quarter. The model is clear: an ever smaller elite takes the lion's share of profit while the public pays for losses. The longer term consequence will be a similar regime of harsh conditionality in Europe as the one that decimated the small middle classes in Africa during the 1980s and 1990s. On how governance comes into it, I think it is quite clear that at the very heart of the crisis is fraud, corruption and state capture by banking interests.

Q: When the economic and financial crisis exploded, it was presented as a triple/quadruple crisis from finance to climate, food, and care crisis. One year after, is this nexus still valid? Do you agree with this interpretation?

MK: First let me put in a more dramatic way, to make my point. The real crisis here in Africa is the crisis of our imagination, the crisis of our sense of our possibility, the crisis of our sense of our own power to guide ourselves. This is the true crisis. The West is in financial danger: however their rising unemployment rates and indebtedness becomes irrelevant when compared to Congo's wars and mass murder in Darfur. The problems of European youths - jobless and facing lowered government benefits - become pale next to the mendacity and the rapaciousness of Africa's elites who's stripping of the public purse is banked in the very Western banking systems now in crisis. From this perspective, the financial crisis of the United States and Western Europe will receive scant sympathy from this part of the world.

Q: In the aftermath of the crisis, much has been said about the culture of economics and the need to change or revisit it. What is the African culture of economics? Is there an African culture of economics?

MK: We need to figure it out at some point. There is a saying in Kenya: If your mother does not teach you the lesson, then it will be taught to you (harshly) by the world. So either we are going to learn the hard way or the easy way. But before we even deal with the question of whether there is an African culture of economics, we need to inquire if there is such a thing as an African person. And if there is such a thing as an African person, what kind of society this African person wants to live in? These are fundamental questions that must be asked and answered in politically meaningful ways, if we are to move to thinking 'beyond price, beyond economics' in the sense of determining what kinds of societies we actually want to build. For instance it doesn't matter how much money or what efforts it takes, but a Kenyan citizen should not be subjected to extrajudicial violence by the State. If this is an absolute principle, what does it mean if the individual lives in an area with precious resources and is resisting moving out to allow large corporations unfettered access? So far the governing idea in much of Africa has been that economic development trumps human rights. This is very clear in places such as the Niger Delta. To reverse this trend, we must imagine new countries, new futures for ourselves, and new political alignments to bring them about. It is a matter of vision!

by Angela Zarro

This interview has been published in Development, Vol. 53 no. 3, Sustaining local economies, September 2011.

Martin Kimani is deputy director of the Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington DC. Martin is also an Associate Fellow at the Conflict, Security and Development Group of King's College London where he wrote his doctorate on the role of religion and race in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He is a fellow of the Africa Leadership Initiative and the Aspen Global Leadership Network.


Photo: SID