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The Tragedy of Africa By: Thomas Sowell
Townhall.com | Thursday, July 14, 2005


Part I

The official declarations coming out of the G8 meetings in Scotland, as well as the raucous demonstrations surrounding those meetings, talk about saving Africa. But, looking back over the decades and generations, Africa has been "saved" so many times that you have to wonder why it still needs saving.

Desperate and tragic conditions afflict millions in Africa today and any humane person would like to help. But the repeated failures of previous help ought to make us at least question the particular manner in which Africa can be helped.

"Forgiveness" of foreign debts is always high on the agenda of those on the political left.

At any given moment, this would of course free up money that African governments could spend to help relieve their people's distress -- assuming that this is what they would spend it for. But why would anyone think that promoting irresponsible government borrowing by periodically "forgiving" their debts is going to help African countries in the long run?

As for the people of Africa, they have to survive in the short run in order to get to the long run. So emergency aid for emergency conditions makes far more sense than long-run "foreign aid" programs with an almost unbroken track record of failure, not only in Africa but around the world.

Years ago, a courageous economist in India pointed out that, however helpful it was to receive food from abroad during India's famines, the long-run policy of continually giving wheat to India was just reducing the ability of Indian farmers to grow wheat and sell it for a price that would cover their costs.

Eventually the policy of continually dumping wheat into India was stopped and today India produces so much wheat that it has been able to send some to Africa to deal with African famines.

Promoting dependency and irresponsible borrowing is not the way to help the poor internationally any more than these are ways of helping the poor at home. Such policies benefit the bureaucracies that administer foreign aid and enable vain people to see themselves as saviors, even when they are doing more harm than good.

Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the most tragic geographic handicaps of any region of the world. Navigable waterways, which have been crucial to the development of nations and of cultures, are severely limited in most of Africa. Poor soil and inadequate and undependable rainfall patterns shrink the possibilities still further.

Ideologues love to think of African poverty as caused by "exploitation" on the part of Western countries. But, with a few notable exceptions, Africa has had little to be exploited. Even at the height of European imperialism, there was far less foreign trade or foreign investment in the whole vast continent of Africa than in a little country like Belgium or Switzerland.

In more recent times, so-called "foreign aid" has left many monuments of futility in Africa, from rusting machinery and the ruins of many projects to cows sent from Europe that keeled over in the African heat.

With all its handicaps, Africa used to feed itself and even export agricultural produce to Europe. In some of the more geographically favored parts of sub-Saharan Africa, iron was smelted thousands of years ago.

During the first two decades after African nations gained their independence in the 1960s, one sub-Saharan nation that stood out with its economic prosperity and political stability amid economic disasters and social catastrophes among its neighbors was the Ivory Coast under President Felix Houphouet-Boigny.

Yet neither the Ivory Coast nor its leader attracted nearly as much attention, much less adulation, as was showered on Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, or other big-name African leaders who led their countries into ruin.

The Ivory Coast in those days relied on markets instead of the kind of policies and rhetoric that the intelligentsia favored. When its policies changed, it became just another African basket case.

Today, too many people in the West continue to see Africa as an outlet for the visions and policies of the left that have failed in the West and are even more certain to fail in Africa.

Part II

Nature and man have combined to make Africa the most tragic of the continents  -- and the men who did this have been both black and white.

The great French historian Fernand Braudel said, "In understanding Black Africa, geography is more important than history." Much of Africa's history was in fact shaped by its geography.

Almost every great city in the world has arisen on navigable waterways -- and such waterways are more scarce in Africa than in any other continent. An aircraft carrier can dock on the Hudson River in midtown Manhattan but there is not a single river where that is possible on the vast continent of Africa, which is larger than Europe or North America.

Even smaller boats can travel only a limited distance on most African rivers because of cascades and waterfalls. Most of the continent is more than 1,000 feet above sea level and more than half of Africa is more than 2,000 feet above sea level. That means its rivers and stream must plunge down from those heights on their way to the sea.

Water transport was crucial in the thousands of years before there were trains or automobiles. It was crucial for developing an economy and crucial for developing a culture in touch with enough other widely scattered cultures to make use of advances in the rest of the world. But many African societies have been isolated by that continent's dearth of both navigable rivers and harbors.

Isolated regions have almost invariably lagged behind regions in touch with a wider cultural universe. One among many signs of the isolation and cultural fragmentation of much of sub-Saharan Africa is that African languages are one third of all the languages in the world, even though African peoples are only about 10 percent of the world's population.

Small, tribal societies were another consequence of geographic isolation -- and the vulnerability of such societies to conquest by outsiders was another.

If cultural diversity was all that the multiculturalists claim, Africa would be a heaven on earth. Too often and in too many places it has been a hell on earth.

Many people expected great things from Africa when new independent African nations began to emerge from colonial rule in the 1960s, often headed by leaders who had been educated in Europe and America.

Unfortunately, what these new leaders brought back to Africa from the West were not the things that had made the West prosperous and powerful but the untested theories of Western intellectuals and ideologues who had taught them. Such African leaders by and large lacked both the common sense of the African masses and the technological and economic experience of the West.

The net result was that African leaders, full of confidence because of their Western education and the adulation of the Western intelligentsia, made their people guinea pigs for half-baked theories that had contributed nothing to the rise of the West and had contributed much to its social degeneration.

Poverty-stricken Africa could afford these economic and social disasters far less than the affluent West could. However, African leaders were not judged in the West by their results but by their rhetoric and their visions that resonated with the rhetoric and the visions of the Western intelligentsia.

Thus Julius Nyerere became virtually a secular saint in the Western media while he was driving the people of Tanzania deeper into poverty and tyranny. Nor was he alone.

Conversely, when Felix Houphouet-Boigny made the Ivory Coast an oasis of economic advancement and civil peace, he was either ignored or disdained. He was one of the few new African leaders with any previous experience in business or any understanding of economics. His successors have ruined the country.

Whatever damage European colonialism did to Africa during its relatively brief reign, that was probably less than the damage done later by well-meaning Western would-be saviors of Africa. Africans do not need to be treated as mascots but as people whose own efforts, skills, and initiatives need to be freed from the tyranny of their leaders and the paternalism of Western busybodies.


Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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