Africa needs freer markets and fewer tyrants

by Franklin Cudjoe

Wall Street Journal, December 14, 2005; Page A20

Famine in Niger is no surprise — desert wastes, locusts and decades of Marxist rule keep it second-to-last on the world poverty list. Famine in the fertile climes of southern and eastern Africa, however, seems more shocking. But there’s a common thread: centralized state rule — incompetent at best — marked by corruption and sustained by aid. These are the shackles that keep Africans poor: It would be nice if EU and U.S. trade barriers were removed at trade talks in Hong Kong this week, but exports are a distant notion to the 75% of Africans who live off the land.

Niger is little-blessed by nature, but it has also spent its postcolonial era trying various forms of failed government, with Marxism reigning longest. A quarter of the population — 2.5 million people — faces starvation.

Yet more temperate southern and eastern African countries are on the edge of famine, too, with 10 million affected in southern Africa alone. Again, we find the same economic profile: Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho all lack economic freedom and property rights; all have economies mismanaged by the state; all depend on aid.

All these countries have a history of utopian schemes that failed to produce everlasting manna. State farms, marketing boards, land redistribution, price controls and huge regional tariffs left few incentives or opportunities for subsistence farmers to expand. Despite torrents of aid, these cruel social experiments could not turn sands verdant or prevent the granaries of southern and eastern Africa from rotting.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi believes that allowing Ethiopians to own their land would make them sell out to multinationals. He seems to have overlooked a basic market principle: It demands a willing seller and a willing buyer at an agreed price. If that price is worth selling for, the farmer might have some money to reinvest elsewhere; if that price is worth buying for, the purchaser must have plans to make the land profitable. If there is no sale, owners might have an incentive to invest in their own land and future, having, at last, the collateral of the land on which to get a loan.

After decades of socialism, Ethiopia’s agricultural sector — the mainstay of the economy — is less productive per capita than 20 years ago when Band Aid tried to defeat famine. Although 60% of the country is arable, only 10% has been cultivated. Ethiopia is entirely dependent on donations; but instead of grasping reality, Mr. Zenawi, a member of Tony Blair’s "Commission for Africa," is forcing resettlement on 2.2 million people.

In Zimbabwe, the murderous kleptocrats of Robert Mugabe’s regime deny that land seizure has pushed their rich and fertile country into famine: Some three million people face starvation today.

Meanwhile, Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, the U.N.’s Chief Advisor on the Millennium Development Goals, believes Africa needs more cash for an African "Green Revolution" — a pale imitation of the very different Asian agricultural revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. The equivalent of "some 40 euros per villager" (roughly $50) in aid, Prof. Sachs says, holds the key. His Green Revolution would spend that money to improve agricultural infrastructure, soil nutrients, water quality and seeds ability to survive harsh climates and insects, and better agricultural infrastructure. These, however, are precisely the benefits that come from property rights, which also inspire the motivation to invest in, improve and preserve the land — motivation that does not come from aid, central control and state serfdom.

Prof. Sachs is right about tougher seeds but not about more aid. By his own calculation, "out of every dollar of aid given to Africa, an estimated 16% went to consultants from donor countries, 26% went into emergency aid and relief operations, and 14% went into debt servicing." He could not account for how much of the remaining 44% got siphoned off by corrupt officials, nor could he explain why $400 billion dollars of aid over the last 30 years has left the average African poorer.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame told Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda in April, "There are projects here worth $5 million and when I looked at their expenses, I found that $1 million was going into buying these cars, each one of them at $70,000. Another $1 million goes to buy office furniture, $1 million more for meetings and entertainment, and yet another $1 million as salaries for technical experts, leaving only $1 million for the actual expenditure on a poverty-reducing activity. Is this the way to fight poverty?"

The only way to give food security to 200 million sub-Saharan Africans is to give them the tools, not to rely on yet more aid and government mismanagement. World food production has increased with population by 90% in the last 50 years; the real price of food has declined by 75%. Yet Africa has none of the factors that made this possible: greater agricultural productivity, internal economic freedom and international trade.

The one thing that could give us drought-resistant and highly productive seeds is biotechnology. Experience shows that genetically modified (GM) crops could increase yields by 25% and cost less than Green Revolution techniques. But GM produce faces bans from rich countries, especially the EU, using unscientific "biosafety" protocols under the guise of environmental protection. This kind of hysteria made Zambia, Angola and Zimbabwe reject famine aid because U.S. or South African maize could not be certified GM-free. Africans therefore have to hope that the U.S., Canada and Argentina win their case against the EU barriers to GM crops: The World Trade Organization is due to rule early in 2006.

African leaders must be pushed to reduce economic intervention, free financial markets, remove bureaucratic obstacles to setting up businesses, establish property rights and enforce contract law. These are the forces that release entrepreneurial energy. But the ruling cliques will do none of these unless forced to do so as a condition of aid.

The Sachs aid model has financed tyranny and corruption for 40 years, leaving Africans destitute. The world trade meeting in Hong Kong will hear cries for "Trade Justice" for Africa, representing more protectionism and more state-run, aid-fueled schemes. What we really need is economic freedom and the rule of law at home: We are perfectly capable of improving our own lot if only allowed to do so.

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