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The Road to Recovery

7 minute read

It’s a smooth ride from the Rwandan capital of Kigali to the border shared with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Heading west on an immaculate stretch of tarmac, the road winds through hills covered by quilts of carefully tended fields. Where it has ruptured, workers are busy digging in preparation for patching. The only delay comes from uniformed police officers who check driving licenses and safety regulations. Once across the border into Congo, though, it’s an altogether bumpier ride. Deep potholes ravage the tires. There are still police at the roadside, but these officers demand bribes for safe passage. To where? Goma, the first stop along the route, is desolate. A 2002 volcanic eruption and almost a decade of civil war have laid waste the town; endemic corruption has siphoned off crucial funds for reconstruction.

Goma is one reason why rich countries are wary of giving more aid to Africa. And the problems that plague this border town — natural disasters, dire poverty, corrupt and brutal leaders — afflict the continent as a whole. Money alone can’t banish these scourges. After recent meetings at which the failures of development policy, and possible new approaches, were discussed — the Commission for Africa two weeks ago, the G-7 Finance Ministers’ meeting in February — donors were asking why they should now forgive more debt and stump up more cash. Can African governments be trusted to spend wisely? Or are outside nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) a better investment?

Some say that Africa can’t — or won’t — turn itself around. Yet back at the start of the road to Goma lies a powerful counterargument. Ten years ago, Rwanda was torn apart by a genocide in which 800,000 people died. Now, though still terribly scarred, the country is recovering. The government has tackled corruption and brought order to the countryside. In Kigali, business is booming. Rwanda’s own efforts are bolstered by assistance from foreign governments and aid agencies. Its citizens have cause for hope — and so, too, say African leaders, does the rest of the continent.

Africa’s horror stories mask real progress. Three years ago, the continent’s 54 countries launched the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), an umbrella organization that hopes to attract investment by bolstering good governance. NEPAD differs from ambitious past initiatives, say its fans, because it was created in Africa, is headed up by Africa’s most influential leaders — Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki — and because it is matching words with deeds.

Under a system of “peer review” introduced by NEPAD last year, African countries now must submit their democratic credentials to a panel of African experts. Supporters hope the scheme will lead to a kind of good-governance rating system that investors and donors can use as a guide for where they should put their money. Critics say the system is voluntary, and therefore useless in countries like Zimbabwe, where despotic regimes are in power. But Senegal’s Wade insists that despite the limits to NEPAD’s efforts, this time Africa is getting it right. “In the past, we used to come up with thousands and thousands of pages with drawings and coefficients and formulae telling us how to fix Africa,” Wade told Time. “The concept of NEPAD is simple: if you improve the way you govern, you’ll be rewarded.”

Senegal, along with other maturing democracies such as Ghana and Mozambique, shows how effective this approach can be. While these nations remain poor, they hold regular and fair elections, are improving basic services and have begun to knock their economies into shape. As a result, they’ve enjoyed partial debt relief and now receive a lot more aid directly into their national budgets, which means governments can set out long-term strategies and avoid the boom-and-bust cycle of money tied to specific projects. “Where a democracy is mature enough, it’s better to give money straight to the government and then help strengthen civil society,” says Emily Larbi Jones, an economist in Ghana’s Ministry of Trade and Industry. “That way, local people can hold their leaders accountable.”

Unfortunately, extra money doesn’t always make for better governance. Analysts worry that countries that receive too much of their national budgets from foreign donors become answerable to outsiders rather than voters and are more open to corruption. “It’s human nature that when you have a huge gravy train of money, you have more people hopping aboard,” says Ross Herbert, head of the NEPAD and Governance Project at the South African Institute of International Affairs. Even in Senegal, President Wade says he will insist on joint Senegal�donor oversight of all new aid money. “One never knows,” he says. “If there is ever corruption or bad management, we will share the mistake.”

Kenyans know all about those kinds of “mistakes.” When Mwai Kibaki won Kenya’s presidency in late 2002, he announced a war on corruption and enlisted veteran anticorruption campaigner John Githongo to lead a new graft-busting unit. Last month, Githongo threw in the towel, saying his job had become impossible. Corruption, say foreign diplomats in Kenya, has cost the country more than $1 billion over the past three years. “We are talking about massive looting,” British High Commissioner to Kenya Edward Clay commented. Germany and the U.S. have suspended their anticorruption aid programs to the country.

When governments can’t be trusted, donors can still channel money through international aid groups and NGOs. But charitable intervention holds perils, too. Aid groups don’t always spend wisely, and even the best organizations can inflict unintended damage — distorting local economies, driving up real-estate prices and luring talented locals from government or private-sector jobs.

Sustainable economic growth, on the other hand, can produce amazing results, which is why some campaigners now focus on creating a fair trading environment. When it comes to the international market, African countries find themselves on a playing field that’s still far from level. Even with much cheaper labor costs, African cotton farmers, for instance, can’t compete against the heavily subsidized cotton grown in the U.S. — though a World Trade Organization ruling last week that found U.S. cotton subsidies illegal offers new hope. But some entrepreneurs are succeeding despite the obstacles — and with the help of new technology. In Uganda and Tanzania, for example, farmers now use mobile phones to follow the international coffee price, cutting out middlemen and timing sales to make bigger profits.

Business alone can’t rebuild the entire continent, though. It will take political will — from Africans and outsiders — to do that, as the nurses in the Qoaling clinic on the outskirts of Maseru, Lesotho’s capital, know. Assistant nurse Mpolokeng Ramohlabi flicks a syringe, squeezes up a fold of skin on the leg of two-month-old Pontso, and plunges the needle in. She and a colleague will vaccinate more than 100 children over the next few hours, safeguarding them against measles, polio, diphtheria and tetanus. Ramohlabi’s salary comes from the government, but the vaccines are supplied by Japan, the clinic was built with Dutch money, and training for Ramohlabi and other clinic staff is paid for by the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF. “Here in Lesotho,” she says, “the patients are many but the nurses are few.” It will take more nurses like Ramohlabi and more help from outside to heal all of Africa’s ills.

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