Bill Gates or Matt Ridley: Whose ideas are right for Africa?

Ideas have consequences and ideas are precursors to actions. The idea-packed, sizzling debate on Africa between Bill Gates, co-chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Matt Ridley the author of new book, “The Rational Optimist,” should be reviewed by any serious African politician, bureaucrat, or any person who has interest in Africa. On the pages of America’s Wall Street Journal both men duke it out on how to contribute and accelerate Africa’s progress in 21st century. It was interesting to see that there are individuals that really care about the welfare and wellbeing of Africa, while few African leaders are busy abusing and looting the continent. Africa has made an enormous progress from being called the ‘Dark continent’ to an emerging democratic and enterprising landscape but her needs are numerous. A giant leap is what Africa needs to make a heightened quantifiable dent on poverty and to greatly ameliorate quality of life. The 21st century has been called the African century and she must take the bull by its horn to actualize it.

Africa has a bright economic outlook; free enterprise and democracy are taking hold in the continent. “Economic growth in Africa was expected to rise to 5% this year and could reach 7% in 2011, according to African Development Bank (AfDB) president Donald Kaberuka. Thus, as the global financial crisis abated and demand for commodities began to increase, Kaberuka said that Africa’s economy was expected to grow between 4,5% and 5% this year, with the expansion likely to accelerate to 6,5% or 7% in 2011. South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya were highlighted as the three countries expected to help spur Africa’s recovery on the back of improved global demand.” Nigeria, the second largest economy in Africa has the annual growth rate of 7.3% and expected to grow up to 10% in 2011.

On the pages of America’s foremost newspaper on capitalism – The Wall Street Journal, Bill Gates and Matt Ridley showed genuine interest on how to improve Africa’s problems by either utilizing aid or unbridled capitalism. African problems at the dawn of 21st century stretch across the continent. The myriad problems stem from economic inadequacy of the second largest continent; ranging from AIDS to perennial poverty. Africa has great potential; Africa is natural resources-rich, the soil is fertile and the weather for the moment is terrific, the emergence of global warming notwithstanding. But in spite of African natural and fledging human capital, together with the recent affirmative economic indices the continent has not realized her potential. In fact, Africa still has a long way before she will get to the promise land. Therefore this debate by these gentlemen is significant to Africa.

The essential thesis of Matt Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist,” on Africa is that “Aid doesn’t work, hasn’t worked and won’t work,” and Africa needs trade and free enterprise. While Bill Gates essentially maintains that for the moment Africa needs aid. Both men are essentially right – Africa needs both trade and aid.

Bill Gates commented in his piece that, “In discussing Africa, Mr. Ridley relies on critics who say, essentially, “Aid doesn’t work, hasn’t worked and won’t work.” He cites studies, for instance, that show a lack of short-term economic benefit from aid, but he ignores the fact that health improvements, driven by aid, have been a major factor in slowing population growth, which has proven, in turn, to be critical to long-term economic growth. I may be biased toward aid because I spend my money on it and meet with lots of people who are alive because of it, but even if that were not the case, I would not be persuaded by such incomplete analysis.”

The most important point to be made crystal clear is that aid does work when it is judiciously administered and free of governmental red tape. But the way aid is administered is quite troubling, because so many strings are attached to the western aid given to African countries. By giving the aid directly from government to government opens door to corruption and manipulation of the African governments. Western governments can learn a lot from Bill and Melinda foundation that gives targeted aid to institution that really needs it, thereby curtailing corruption and bureaucratic red tape.

But at same time aid has its limitation on moving Africa forward. Africa needs aid, trade and debt remission to move forward and to salvage poor-development stricken continent. Of the $44 billion of official development aid given to Africa in 2008, majority of aid went to the donors through compulsory trade, servicing of foreign debt and bureaucratic shenanigans.

Bill Gates has been a great helping hand to the continent and his presence has been felt. With Bill and Melinda foundation, millions of dollars has been given to institutions in Africa to improve health mostly in AIDS and malaria patients. As for Mitt Ridley his contribution to the African debate cannot be easily write-off or devalued for with his pen he has summoned serious philanthropists including Bill Gates to weigh-in on the best ways to help the suffering masses of Africa.

But in reality both of these gentlemen have good ideas and Africa cannot take one direction and forgo another. The continent problem is circumventing therefore its solution should be comprehensive. Africa needs trade, aid and big ideas. All these are consistent and are not mutually exclusive; they can all co-exist for greater good of Africa.

The one thing lacking in the debate is African participation. There are no African policymakers and bureaucrats participating on the pages of the Wall Street Journal. No matter how compassionate and passionate debates on Africa become, immediate stakeholders who are inhabitants must be involved. In the problems of their continent, Africans must take the lead. No amount of help from the outside will do the job Africans must do for themselves. That does not imply that Africa should be abandoned to do the job alone. Indeed, African friends including philanthropist Bill Gates should be acknowledged by Matt Ridley for his invaluable aid to Africa.

When Matt Ridley writes, “I am arguing that we should worry about real problems, including Africa’s plight, but that we should do so in the knowledge that we have solved many such problems before and can do so again.” Ridley is quite carried away by thinking “we” are the people to save Africa. Ridley must understand that every continent has its own problems and Africa has men and women who can solve her problems. The only thing Africa needs is a logical helping hand to correct present and past injustices. And Bill Gates is a true friend of Africa who understood that a healthy Africa is a precursor to a wealthy Africa.

The most important question is “What does Africa really need?” To answer the question, we must move beyond the limited scope of the discussion and expand the dialogue into the future of Africa. Africans have intelligent men and women of goodwill that can work with Bill Gates and with Western governments to permanently improve African lots. Africa must take the lead by displaying intrinsic initiatives in order to move forward.Beyond aid and debt remission, what does Africa really needs?

Empowerment to Foster Freedom and Liberty:

Africans must live in the system of government that encourages freedom and justice. The respect for fundamental human rights must be instituted and adhered to; an environment that provides self-help, self-improvement and self-innovation must be encouraged. Only freedom can make these things possible and make free enterprise a reality, so that free people can create wealth and advance human dignity.

The West must encourage and support governance that accommodates checks and balances in Africa. This will in turn provide accountability and respect for the populace. What Africa needs mostly include elimination of dictators and socialist regimes, establishment of virile/free political platform and economy, rule of

law and respect for individual rights. All these things do border on fundamental issues which foreign aid alone cannot redress. Until these issues are properly put right, the story of the optimum utilization of these billions of dollars from foreign aid will always remain a mirage.

Anti-corruption legislation:

The responsibility of fighting corruption is too complex and gigantic to be left for one party. Both Africa and West must partake in the fight against corruption. The West must enact banking laws that will fish out bankers that accept laundered money and tainted wealth from corrupt African leaders and bureaucrats. Ill-gotten wealth must be returned to Africa without much ado, while the culprits must be exposed and prosecuted.

The West must work together with African governments on the war against corruption and bribery. Corporations and Transnational companies operating in Africa must not induce politicians and bureaucrats by bribes in their quest for contracts.

“African Union estimates that the continent loses as much as $148 billion a year to corruption. This money is rarely invested in Africa but finds its way into the international banking system and often into western banks. The proceeds of corrupt practices in Africa, (which the African experts group recommended in 2002 should be classified as a ‘crime against humanity’ because of its impact on ordinary people), are often laundered and made respectable by some of the most well known banks in the City of London or the discreet personal bankers of Geneva and Zurich.”

Elimination of wars and Promotion of Peace and conflict resolutions:

The West can work with African union in finding solutions to the cessation of conflicts and wars. Wars (especially internal strife) are ubiquitous in the continent. Some African governments and warmongers commit their resources to executing endless wars. The West must frown upon the sell of arms to these parties by checkmating their native’s arms industries.

Fair and Balance Trade:

The West must encourage fair and equitable trade with Africa. The giving of aid must not be the only means to defeat poverty and alleviate quality of life in Africa. The promotion of trade can be possible when concessions are made to infant industries in Africa. The West can improve technological developments by investing in areas of science and technology that can sharpen the technical-know-how in the continent. The West must stand for fair trade at the World trade organization by conscientiously removing agricultural subsidies given to their own agricultural sectors that adversely affect the traffic of commodities from Africa. Only trade can be the panacea to poverty in Africa, this by and large booster a higher GDP and a decent standard of living.

Africa must embark on the area of trade specialization where she has the greatest comparative advantage. It seems that agriculture is the best possible for Africa. The Western World must take the initiative of reducing trade tariffs and removal of agricultural subsidies. By this, developing nations and poor countries especially in Africa can participate and compete favourably with the West. In practice, free trade must be made to work for every nation. World trade Organization must implement trade policies that are doable, workable and all-inclusive. Foreign aid is good and dandy, though on the contrary, history has always proven that aid has slightly or insignificantly improvement on recipient nations nor ameliorate the well-beings of the fabric of the needy class at the long run. Foreign aid can be given via reduction in prices of medicine, pharmaceutical equipment and of essential commodities needed for survival in the less technological nations. We cannot downplay the role of foreign aid when fully utilized, when it goes to the required projects that ought to impact the needy positively. But Africa core need is beyond these immediate measures.

Africa needs and appreciates aid given to her but Africans most realize one thing, her destiny and future is in her hands.

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