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Sebastian Mallaby, Columnist

Easy Ways to Aid Africa

By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, March 21, 2005; Page A19

People know that Africa is desperate -- that half the population lives on less than one dollar daily; that life expectancy has fallen to 46 because of the AIDS crisis. But people are mostly resigned to this. They believe, wrongly, that progress is impossible. They suppose, wrongly, that helping Africa would cost impossible amounts.

In 1960 the same pessimism infected Asia. Life expectancy in South Asia has since jumped from 44 to 63 years, and in East Asia it has leapt from 39 to 69. Surprising and dramatic change is possible. Indeed, the turning point for Africa might even be now.

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In the past five years, as the British-convened Commission for Africa recently noted, more than two-thirds of the countries south of the Sahara have had multiparty elections, albeit of varying quality. In the decade ending in 2002, 16 of them sustained average annual growth rates of 4 percent or higher. Ethiopia notched average growth of 6 percent, up from 0.5 percent in the previous decade. Mozambique sustained growth of 7 percent, thanks partly to aid flows amounting to more than $100 per citizen per year.

So progress is possible. Is it expensive? The Commission for Africa calls for an extra $25 billion in annual aid for the continent, rising to $50 billion later on. The United States might be on the hook for $12 billion of that eventual figure, meaning that it is being asked to double current aid spending.

Would this be unreasonable? The $12 billion represents 0.1 percent of the U.S. economy, and Americans spend about $9 billion on movie tickets each year. Aid is cheap, relative to the unspeakable misery of absolute poverty, and the only reason to stint is the fear that it might be wasted. The best research suggests that it won't be wasted in countries with good policies. If you look at a country such as Ghana, which lifted perhaps 1.5 million people out of poverty in the 1990s, it's hard to argue that the $500 million or so it gets in annual aid isn't money well spent.

So it's scandalous that, as a share of the global economy, aid fell by about half during the 1990s and has only recouped part of that loss since the terrorist attacks of 2001. But then there's a second scandal, which is even less excusable. There are things that would help Africa but that would cost the rich world nothing. And yet these things remain undone.

Rich countries could enforce transparency in extractive industries, enablers of the official corruption that destroys poor countries' prospects. The British government is sponsoring a voluntary code that would commit poor states to independent audits of their oil, gas and mining revenue; money received in broad daylight is less likely to vanish down dark holes. But the British, French, Americans and others could also pass laws requiring their own companies to publish their payments. That would reinforce transparency and remove the incentive for odious governments to ignore the voluntary code.

Rich countries could also stop hiding the corrupt money that flees poor countries into Western banks. Nigeria's democratic government is fighting to retrieve money stolen by the former dictator, Sani Abacha. The Swiss, to their credit, disgorged $458 million last month, but the British have returned only a fraction of the Abacha millions under their control. Rich countries are prepared to force banks to cooperate in tracking terrorist finances. They should be equally tough in tracking dictators' loot.

Rich countries should also eliminate the agricultural subsidies and trade barriers that fleece their own citizens and harm producers in poor countries. Every cow in Europe receives almost $2 a day in subsidies, or double the average African's income; Japanese cows receive nearly $4. The U.S. sugar program transfers $120 million a year to two companies in Florida, according to a new paper by Kimberly Elliott for the Center for Global Development; it exists because these companies ply politicians with money, and it damages efficient sugar exporters such as Brazil and South Africa. The United States subsidizes 25,000 cotton farmers, who are paid twice the world market price for cotton, threatening the livelihoods of more than 10 million West Africans.

Helping the poor world is not just a matter of charity. The United States and its rich allies will gain if African societies grow strong enough to control the pathologies that spill beyond their borders, whether environmental, viral or criminal. But sometimes the cost of helping Africa is zero, or even negative; the only obstacle to action is entrenched lobbies. During the 2004 election cycle, those two fortunate Florida sugar companies slipped $925,000 to politicians. Corruption is not exclusively the problem of the poor world.

mallabys@washpost.com


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