BookReview – Pitfalls of Western aid

By John Robertson

A Great Deal of Nonsense, by John Hollaway, published by Capricorn Books. FEW people have tried harder than John Hollaway to make sense of the huge gaps between rich and poor, but perhaps n

obody at all has drawn evidence from as diverse a range of topics to explain the facts.

For us in Africa, the world’s poorest and most disease-ridden continent, all the issues covered in this book are of enormous importance, and all the more so because Africa has received by far the most aid. For countries in the rest of the world, the issues are just as important. Taxpayers in the donor countries should be at least concerned that their generosity is going to waste. Could it be that the assortment of organisations they formed to disburse aid have failed in their mission?

Hollaway suggests that the mission itself is not what it pretends to be. The aid business is not trying to make the poor countries rich. It has evolved a more limited objective of alleviating poverty and no more.

This is because developed countries have decided that if the vastly bigger populations of poor people start to consume the Earth’s resources at the same rate that the rich do, they will use up all the oil, chop down all the rain forests, destroy our essential bio-diversity, accelerate global warming and smother the planet in garbage.

These make up the core of the claims that Hollaway sets out to prove to be a great deal of nonsense.

Some of the angles from which the claims are challenged go to the heart of the public debate. Hollaway argues that the greenhouse gases that humans generate are tiny compared to those produced by mother Nature. Also, the rising use of scarce materials drives up their prices and causes the adoption of alternatives, but the recovery of useful materials through recycling are also bringing about welcome changes.

If advances in the developed world are now keeping pace with, or even overcoming the damage done to the environment, surely rich countries could be much more imaginative about the forms of assistance they offer the third world? The truth of this must be all the more powerful now that the means of creating wealth are now so well understood.

But more particularly, as these methods are not patented or protected by copyright laws, the third world could choose to be more determined to adopt them. Their adoption should not depend on aid, especially as aid can be shown not to have merely failed, but to have made things worse.

When patches of Africa can be shown to be as richly endowed as any in the prosperous world, but the African populations remain poor, something has to be missing. What is it? Rich resources in Africa have proved to be a curse rather than a blessing in very nearly every case. Why? In offering his suggestions and prescriptions in answer to these questions, Hollaway reaches into a broader sweep of history, geography, religion, ecology, economics, politics, psychology, farming, mining, sociology and pathology than any reader could hope to encounter in dozens of selected books.

How people behave, why they behave that way, how their value systems evolved, how and why their societies have preserved beliefs that might have been their salvation in past times, but are now holding them back, are examined and explained. In most cases, friction is caused by the clash of traditional values with the explosion of possibilities opened up by modern technology and market-based institutions.

As one of many very pertinent examples, the author guides the reader through a description of how Islam came to be in such conflict with the more materialistically successful West. It is the West’s capacity to profit from and adapt to technological changes that has left Islam far behind and Islamic fundamentalists resentful. Their uncompromising beliefs prohibit their adoption of many western ideas, but their population growth now denies them the option to pursue their religious beliefs as their forefathers did.

Population growth has also cancelled the option that African communities once had to practice shifting agriculture over what used to be thinly populated vast tracts of land. They then ascribed value only to moveable assets, which included large families. Trying to stick to such traditions now is badly affecting their chances of progress.

Quite simply, the great challenges of modern times are not being addressed at all by the world’s leading nations. If poverty is to be overcome, not merely lessened, and if envy is to be converted into productive energy that narrows the gaps between rich and poor, cultural changes have to be accommodated. It is on the adoption of these needed changes that the efforts should be concentrated.

The most basic of the essential concepts is so standard in western minds that it is taken for granted. It is the idea of individual property rights. When properly recorded and respected, these rights permit individuals to use property as collateral for bank loans, to plan and develop. This is the foundation of the wealth of individuals in every prosperous country. Why is it denied to individuals everywhere else?

It is the social structures that can be built on the individual property rights foundation that set the prosperous countries apart. These lead to slower population growth, more manageable use of resources, more efficient means of food production through completely sustainable land use, more investment and the needed job creation to sustain larger urban populations.

From these the developed countries are now achieving more effective land management to preserve natural forests as well as animal and plant species, lower greenhouse gas emissions and far fewer risks to the environment. These are the possibilities that make the limited objectives of the aid donors wholly inappropriate!

This extensively referenced book should be required reading for rich country taxpayers as much as poor country peasants, but politicians and development economists would do well to be first in line.

* John Robertson is a Zimbabwean business consultant.