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Panorama tells part of a complex story

Panorama tells part of a complex story

Editorial concerning whether aid to Africa is part of the solution or part of the problem.

Tonight BBC Panorama will be airing a program called "Africa's Aids addiction".

The sentiments expressed in the program are not new: large sums of money in an African environment have a corrupting influence, and attempts to solve Africa's problems by the West writing a large cheque and then watching are unlikely to be successful. But writing a large cheque and then micro-managing is also a problem: as has been pointed out there are literally thousands of expensive white expat staff seconded from NGOs into the Ugandan government alone, fifty times more in fact than when the country was governed by the UK.

Instead of studying what we all know doesn't work, perhaps we should look harder for examples which did? Félix Houphouët-Boigny was one of Africa's most successful ever presidents, and he ruled Côte d'Ivoire for 33 years during the first 25 of which the economy boomed. I believe this is still the longest sustained period of high economic growth of any country in the world, ever. I lived there in his last years in power where, sadly, in his nineties he lost control a little. I mention him because he had a far deeper understanding of Africa than any of us and always refused to develop the country's considerable oil reserves. An extraordinary decision; an African leader refusing huge amounts of "free money" and economic development? How could he leave his people poorer when there was cash there ready to be taken, but that's exactly what he did. Instead he concentrated on agriculture and education, built agricultural colleges, universities and plantations. Money from agriculture, he said, starts in the hands of the poorest farmer whereas money from oil arrives in the hands of the wealthiest politician where it just makes matters worse. His approach over the years proven very wise, nearby countries which relied on oil never enjoyed a similar level of economic prosperity and social well being as Côte d'Ivoire and even when I was there in the mid 1990s it was a top five exporter of coffee, cocoa, cotton, rubber, palm oil and pineapples.

Côte d'Ivoire went wrong after that. Partly western interventions elsewhere in the world destroyed the world coffee market. The long term suppression of an Islamic majority finally broke. Civil war broke out and the situation now is too sad even to comtemplate. But there was an important lesson, which should not be forgotten in what followed:

Start with the poor, not the government

The lesson was "start with the poor, not the government". If you want to help a country, you need to improve the status of the very poorest and help them to help themselves. SOS Children works in very much this kind of way. Child sponsors help each orphaned child all the way from foraging on a rubbish dump to being financially independent. Family strengthening programs work one family at a time finding a way for their children to get education, helping feed them if there is no living breadwinner, and help learn and micro-finance a trade if there is. It isn't about addiction to aid and funding: that may exist in governments but on the ground the whole focus is on finding a way out of a hole into independence. SOS also has an enviable track record in terms of "outcomes" for the children we help, and unlike what was always called the "Ivorian miracle" sixty years on we are still growing and improving.

Every time we watch programmes like "Africa's Aid addiction" we ask ourselves "should we do more to present the successful side of the country". Then we look at the cost of producing a TV programme and the cost of the academic "experts" who comment on it, and we look at the cost of providing love for one more child in Africa. The decision isn't hard.

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