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How to really solve poverty in Africa

Well, here is a checklist. And it doesn’t include aid

By on Wednesday, 30 March 2011

People in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, could better themselves if they were given legal title to their dwellings (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)

People in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, could better themselves if they were given legal title to their dwellings (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)

You might find yourself wondering just what the solution to poverty in Africa is, if it is not government aid. Professor Philip Booth’s book provides a pretty good checklist of the necessary preconditions for economic development. In other words, if these things are not in place, you can forget about growth.

They are:
• Good governance
• The protection of private property
• Freedom of contract
• Enforcement of contracts
• The rule of law
• The authority of law
• The absence of corruption.

None of this sounds very glamorous but they are all things that we take for granted in a country like Britain. None of these things pertain in a country like Somalia, which is one reason why Somalia is not going to develop any time soon. Imagine you own a field in Somalia and try to raise a loan on it – you can’t. Some warlord might confiscate your field tomorrow, so what bank would accept it as collateral? Again, how is business or trade possible when contracts are worthless, and where the only enforcement comes from the barrel of a gun? Without rule of law or the authority of law there is no marketplace for business. Who would invest in Somalia, given that no investment is safe from predation by bandits?

Somalia is an extreme example, but similar conditions prevail even in outwardly civilised countries like Kenya. Numerous Kenyans have been driven off their land in civil strife and become “internally displaced persons”. That means that they own farms and houses which they cannot visit without risking their lives. Thus their property rights are rights on paper only.

Again, Kenya is a land where powerful people are able to have their enemies killed, and evade justice for years. Consider the case of Tom Mboya, assassinated in 1969. Or the case of Dr Robert Ouko, murdered in 1990. And what about the case of Fr John Kaiser, killed in 2000?

None of this makes Kenya an inviting place to do business in. And as for the ordinary people living in squalid conditions in Nairobi, in places like the Kibera slum, most of them would be able to better themselves if they were given legal title to their dwellings. If they owned their own houses (all of which are illegal shanties) they could repair and improve them, perhaps build another storey, rent out rooms, and thus make progress. But such investment is simply not possible in a land where property ownership is such a shaky concept.

Unless these things are sorted out first, any aid money given to a government like that of Kenya will not alleviate poverty. Indeed it might make it worse, as the aid will serve to prop up the structures that perpetuate poverty.

One thing that Professor Booth asks is how is it possible for countries that do not have the rule of law to develop the necessary legal structures and the culture that goes with it. Such change is possible – all countries that enjoy the rule of law today once did not. So it is possible for the rule of law to emerge, as it did in Europe. There can be Magna Carta moments. One reason for confidence in the future is globalisation. People in Kenya can see that things can be different, for they can look at the example of other countries; and people in Kenya can make their opinions heard these days, thanks to a free press and a free and pretty uncensorable radio and internet. Kenya is changing and is probably, despite the debacle of the elections of December 2007, better ruled than it has ever been, simply because the world is watching, and the people of Kenya are watching – and they want change.

  • Anonymous

    What do you do in the meantime Father?
    not give money because a considerable amount of it will be stolen or used for wars and only a tiny amount will trickle down to the needy?
    but the needy will get sick or die if they don’t get that little bit won’t they?

    All too good being idealistic talking about social structures – but when there are hungry, sick and dying all around?

    What do we do?

  • Philip Booth

    Give money to people who are working on the ground to solve problems on the ground. The dynamics set in place by charity are entirely different from the dynamics set in place by government-to-government aid. US charity to the developing world is greater than the government aid to all the top OECD countries put together – so it is not that you need governments to be involved in order to mobilise sufficient funds. We are always wanting to put our hands in other people’s pockets to solve these problems – that neither works nor does it carry any particular moral weight.

  • Peter

    Exhort your parish to twin with a third world parish so that whatever funds your parish raises can go direct to the local parish community in, say, Africa. You cut out the middleman, ensure that the funds all go where they are needed and have the satisfaction that they are allocated in line with Catholic teaching.

    Sadly not all parish priests over here are enthusiastic about twinning.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Paul, we can help the poor by supporting projects that actually help the poor rather than harm them, as so much government to government aid does. Two projects that I have seen in action and that I would urge all to support are those run by the Medical Missionaries of Mary in the Kibera slum, which provides HIV pateints with retovirals and employs people actually in the slum to do social work with those in need, and the home run by the Good Shepherd Sisters which look after women who have been raped, and their children, also in a Nairobi slum. Both projects are grass roots projects, not top down, and they are run by people who actually live side by side with those in need. Both, incidentally, were mentioned by the David McLaurin column on Africa that used to appear in the Catholic Herald some years back. Oh yes, ther eis also the excellent project by the De La Salle Brothers to train teachers who work in the slum schools and who have no formal training…. And while I am on the subject, could I just say that the religious working in places like Kibera are true exponents of Christain charity. Kudos to them!

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    There is an outstanding parish in the Kibera slum dedicated to Christ the King, run by the Guadalupe Missionaries.

  • Michale

    I speak as an African, who knows how Africans think, who’s been all over Africa (south of the equator) and loves Africa but believes that “tough love” is the only thing that will bring Africa out of poverty.
    What is this “tough love” I’m talking about?
    Well, stop sending us billions and billions of dollars of foreign aid.
    Why such a drastic measure?
    Because that’s the only way to stop corruption and without eliminating that, all the other good government practices listed above don’t have a chance.
    I know there are those well intentioned but, honestly, totally misguided people who think we will all die a horrible death without the aid we’re given but truth be told most of us never see a penny of this money anyway, or the friuts of it, as invariably it goes into the hands of corrupt politicians who control the banking systems either directly or through their cronies. They’re all just lining their pockets but every now and then when some official from the USA or the U.N wants an accounting of where all the money has gone, trucks, laden with flour, other foodstuffs, medicines and clothes arrive at the villages said foreign officials will be visiting to continue the farce that the funds are being used for the betterment of the people.
    And of course when these foreign accountants are here, oh my goodness, do our politicians only promise everything under the sun to the people and, unfortunately, many of them are wanting better lives so badly they are only too happy to believe them.
    But once these foreign number-crunchers have left everything returns to what it was and the people wait forlornly for the political promises to materialize which they never will and they just become more and more demotivated and dejected.
    So, harsh and counter-productive as it might sound, don’t send us your money; use it, rather, to pay your doctors, engineers, farmers, businessmen and the like to come to Africa for at least a year at a time to teach us how to do things for ourselves.
    Africans are not inherently lazy people although some visiting here might think that, nor are we the ineducable dunces we are often caricatured to be. In fact, we’re actually very creative and innovative. But if you have no training in anything and no one to train you, you see no future and you just give up.
    We need motivation and encouragement and when we do actually make stuff or have produce to sell please allow our products and produce into your markets as you would anyone else and if you find our goods competitive please buy them.
    If we do need medicines to combat things like AIDs and malaria dont send us money to buy them, send the medicines per se.
    If you help us by providing the building blocks we will build everything we need ourselves and from this environment conscientious and honest people will arise to govern us and bring us on a par with the rest of the world.
    This phoenix-like resurgence will not happen overnight but happen it will.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Michale, I do so agree with you…. and I also like your very important point about trade, and opening up markets. Conversely, wil lthe West please stop dumping its goods that it cannot sell in Africa and thus undercutting local producers?

  • Dcruz

    Poverty can be best solved in Africa by development work such as emplyment , investment,educational institution and healthecare rather than ditch out cash and food.Also corruption and rule of law should be controlled.