After hearing the stupid words French President Nicolas Sarkozy said about Africans this summer, and the clichés some friends used to excuse him, I am glad to read a very lucid analysis of the situation by Jeffrey Sachs ("The end of poverty, economic possibilities for our time", chapter "The voiceless dying: Africa and disease"):
"The outside world has pat answers concerning Africa's prolonged crisis. Everything comes back, again and again, to corruption and misrule. Western officials, including the countless «missions» of the IMF* and World Bank to African countries, argue that Africa simply needs to behave itself better, to allow market forces to operate without interference by corrupt rulers.
When it comes to charges of bad governance, the West should be a bit more circumspect. Little surpasses the western world in the cruelty and depredations that it has long imposed on Africa. Three centuries of slave trade, from around 1500 to the early 1800s, were followed by a century of brutal colonial rule.
Far from lifting Africa economically, the colonial era left Africa bereft of educated citizens and leaders, basic infrastructure, and public health facilities. The borders of the newly independent states followed the arbitrary lines of the former empires, dividing ethnic groups, ecosystems, watersheds, and resource deposits in arbitrary ways.
As soon as the colonial period ended, Africa became a pawn in the cold war. Western cold warriors, and the operatives in the CIA and counterpart agencies in Europe, opposed African leaders who preached nationalism, sought aid from the Soviet Union, or demanded better terms on Western investments in African minerals and energy deposits. In 1960, as a demonstration of Western approaches to African independence, CIA and Belgian operatives assassinated the charismatic first prime minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, and installed the tyrant Mobutu Sese Seko in his stead. In the 1980s, the United States supported Jonas Savimbi in his violent insurrection against the government of Angola, on the grounds that Savimbi was an anticommunist, when in fact he was a violent and corrupt thug. The United States long backed the South African apartheid regime, and gave tacit support as that regime armed the violent Renamo insurrectionists in neighboring Mozambique. The CIA had its hand in the violent overthrow of President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana in 1966. Indeed, almost every African political crisis - Sudan, Somalia, and a host of others - has a long history of Western meddling among its many causes.
Both the critics of African governance and the critics of Western violence and meddling have it wrong. Politics, at the end of the day, simply cannot explain Africa's prolonged economic crisis. The claim that Africa's corruption is the basic source of the problem does not withstand practical experience or serious scrutiny. During the past decade I witnessed close at hand how relatively well-governed countries in Africa, such as Ghana, Malawi, Mali, and Senegal, failed to prosper, whereas societies in Asia perceived to have extensive corruption, such as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan, enjoyed rapid economic growth.
At the same time, Africa's harsh colonial legacy and the West's very real depradations in the postcolonial period also do not explain the long-term development crisis. Other regions of the world that are now growing rapidly also experienced severe damage from decades or centuries of colonial rule and postcolonial meddling. Vietnam is a case in point, a country that had to fight for independence for decades and yet emerged from that brutal experience to achieve very rapid economic growth.
To understand - and overcome - such crises, it would be necessary to unravel the interconnections between extreme poverty, rampant disease, unstable and harsh climate conditions, high transport costs, chronic hunger, and inadequate food production.
The combination of Africa's adverse geography and its extreme poverty creates the worst poverty trap in the world. Yet the situation in Africa is not hopeless. Far from it. Just as my malaria-expert colleagues taught me about bed nets, indoor spraying, and effective antimalarial medicines, and just as my HIV/AIDS-knowledgeable colleagues taught me what can be accomplished through effective prevention programs linked to access to anti-AIDS drugs, so my colleagues in tropical agriculture, rural electrification, road building, and safe water and sanitation began to teach me what could be done in these other areas of vital concern.
Africa's problems, I have come to understand, are especially difficult but still solvable with practical and proven technologies. Diseases can be controlled, crop yields can be sharply increased, and basic infrastructure such as paved roads and electricity can be extended to the villages. A combination of investments well attuned to local needs and conditions can enable African economies to break out of the poverty trap. These interventions need to be applied systematically, diligently, and jointly, since they strongly reinforce one another. With focused attention by African countries and the international community, Africa could soon have its own Green Revolution**, and achieve a takeoff in rural-led growth, thereby sparing the coming generation of Africans the continued miseries of drought-induced famine."
*International Monetary Fund
**Allusion to Asia's rural-led economic growth in the 1970s through the introduction of high-yield crops.