The Answer for Africa

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Here's
a novel idea for the leaders of the Group of Eight highly industrialized
nations, scheduled to meet this week, June 26-27, in Alberta's breathtakingly
beautiful Kananaskis country. If summit host, Canadian Prime Minister
Jean Chretien, and the other leaders really want to help Africa
pull out of its economic death spiral, as they say they do, then
perhaps the best thing they could do would be to decide to leave
the continent alone. But if Somalia's recent history is any guide,
they might benefit the continent even more if they simply dropped
a team of paratroopers over each African capital and wiped out all
the governments.

According
to Andrew Cockburn in the July
2002 issue of National Geographic magazine
, Somalia is
rising, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the 1993 war (which inspired
the movie Black
Hawk Down
) and becoming an economic powerhouse in western
Africa precisely because anarchy has reigned ever since. Consider
Cockburn's on-the-scene assessment of what has happened since the
war. “Like plants sprouting after a forest fire, Somalis have managed
to survive and build on their own, in some respects with more success
than developing nations on the receiving end of international aid
and advice.”

Significantly,
the Somalis get it. They have learned through experience that less
government is good, and that no government is better. Hear what
telecommunications tycoon Abdirizak Ido told Mr. Cockburn: “We have
been through some hard times, but the worst was when we had a government.
Once there was no government, there was opportunity!”

Small
entrepreneurs are doing well. Better yet, they also understand they
are doing good. “In the northwestern city of Hargeysa, in the congested
Sheikh Nur community for returned refugees, the Ismail family invested
their meager resources in a water tap to supply the entire neighborhood.
Abdi Ismail not only garners a weekly profit of $20 but also points
out: u2018We are contributing to rebuilding Somaliland.'”

Needless
to say, in a land where enterprise is truly free, the customer is
king. Ten phone companies compete for business in the capital city
of Mogadishu. Landline service is connected eight hours after it’s
ordered. And it only costs $10 a month. North Americans should be
so well off. Cell phone connections are instantaneous. Local calls
are free and international calls are only 60 cents to a dollar a
minute. Amazingly, long distance is available even in remote villages,
due to shortwave radio hookups. Somalis proudly point out that their
phone service is far superior to anything found in neighbouring
Kenya and Ethiopia.

All
kinds of private enterprise is flourishing. Mogadishu now boasts
a spaghetti factory, a plastics factory, a mineral-water plant,
a bakery, and two fiercely competitive cable companies. And contra
the protestors that have flocked to the G-8 summit to scream out
their belief that economic fairness means the UN must be allowed
to forcibly redistribute the world's wealth, Somalia's nouveau riche
even give something back to the community. For instance, Abdirizak
Osman, an entrepreneur in the desert town of Gaalkacyo who started
with phones, then branched out to electrical generators, now provides
street lights and free electricity to the local hospital.

Incidentally,
the local Muslim fundamentalists can’t get a foothold, not since
1993, anyway. People have better things to do. And clan loyalties,
now allowed to flourish, prevent the fundamentalists from controlling
any significant power-base. Despite rumors and innuendos flowing
from the US State Department, Somalia is no friend of al Qaeda terrorists
either. When the US government reported that Osama Ben Laden might
be heading for the Horn of Africa, Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah
suggested he should stay away if he did not want to be cashed in
for the $25-million reward.

Not
all is well in Somalia. Poverty and starvation still abound. Warlords
still vie for power, and meaningless, brutal death still strikes
without warning. Moreover, Somalia has no exports to speak of; most
of the cash that keeps the country going flows from the Somali diaspora,
the million or so Somalis who live and work throughout the world
and send cash back to their families and clans. But even here, entrepreneurs
compete for the fees that cover the cost of shifting some $20 million
a month into the country, which means transactions are done on trust
and are usually completed within 24 hours. The system works because
each transfer house knows that if a single penny is purloined, its
business will immediately evaporate.

Few
westerners realize how poorly Africa has fared in comparison to
the rest of the world since colonialism ended in the 1960s. According
to Columbia University economics professor Xavier
Sala-I-Martin
, in 1970, 11% of the world's poor were in Africa
and 76% in Asia. By 1998, Africa supported 66% of the poor and Asia's
share had shrunk to 15%. And although it may be harder to prove
why Asia has done well, Africa's afflictions are fairly obvious.
Free money from the West has always been a temptation to thieves
and thugs. In Somalia, for example, the warlords arose in part in
the battle for control of the foreign aid that once flowed into
the country.

If
G-8 host Chretien is allowed to define how aid is communicated,
history suggests that Africa's difficulties are far from being over.
In spite of his professed sympathy for suffering Africans, Mr. Chretien
has never met an African dictator he didn't like. Moreover, although
his plans have been necessarily vague, he gives every sign of being
willing to pump millions more Canadian pesos and American dollars
into those dictators' Swiss bank accounts. One can only hope that
someday the African people will rise up and reject their overlords,
foreign aid, and World Bank money in one fell swoop. It will be
the beginning of the continent's renaissance.

At
least Mr. Cockburn has seen the light. At his article's end he points
out that some Somalis are thinking about asking the U.S. to impose
a political solution on the still-warring warlords. “[But] recent
history,” he asserts, “suggests that Somalis may fare better when
left on their own.”

June
26, 2002

Shafer
Parker [send
him mail
] is pastor of Zion Baptist Community Church,
Edmonton, Alberta, and former senior editor of Report
Newsmagazine
.

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