Among Ordinary Africans, G-8 Seems Out of Touch

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 3, 2005

KOMOTHI KIRATINA, Kenya, July 2 -- Peter Kanans, a coffee farmer whose house has no running water and a leaking roof, said he had a message for the leaders of the world's richest countries who will meet at the G-8 summit next week: Unfair trade practices are enriching African officials and international coffee chains while village farmers grow steadily poorer.

"Like many hardworking Africans, I have a serious bone to pick with the G-8," said Kanans, a slender man of 60 who has a college education but wears shredded flip-flops. This year, Kanans said, his crop netted about $300 -- less than his brother in Delaware spends in two months on takeout cappuccinos.

"Even if they cancel the debt, even if they give our governments aid money, ordinary Africans will not benefit," he said. "That money will only make the corrupt people richer and Africans international beggars for decades to come."

The G-8 conference of the eight major industrialized nations, which starts Wednesday in Scotland under the leadership of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, hopes to address trade imbalances in Africa and endorse two major plans championed by Blair that would double aid to the continent and cancel the debt of 14 African countries so they can use the money for such needs as health and education.

This weekend, 10 massive rock concerts, called Live 8, are being held in major cities from Philadelphia to Berlin to Johannesburg to rally support for debt relief and aid to Africa. The celebrity-studded events (Bono, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dourare are among the artists appearing) are similar to the Live Aid concerts that were held in 1985 to raise money for world famine relief.

On the world's poorest continent, however, feelings about debt relief and aid money are far more nuanced than many Westerners may realize. Africans interviewed this week, from farmers to artists to health workers, say they are grateful for the outpouring of sentiment, and glad to hear that glamorous musicians and actors are championing their cause and that college students are wearing bracelets with the slogan, "Make Poverty History."

But they also said there was a dangerous disconnect between what the industrialized nations see as solutions and what Africans believe they need. Instead of debt relief and more aid, many Africans said they wanted the G-8 to focus on ending corruption and on improving roads, courts, banking and secondary education.

Another useful step, many Africans said, would be to end Western countries' trade subsidies for their own farmers, which make it impossible for African industries to do much more than survive. Debt relief, some asserted, is actually hush money to get free trade advocates off the backs of European countries, the United States and Japan, which offer huge subsidies to their corn, cattle and cotton farmers and thus undercut African farmers' ability to enter the market.

Ousmane Sembene, the prominent Senegalese-born filmmaker, shocked a crowd of earnest young people in London during a talk in early June when he condemned the G-8 and the Live 8 concerts as "fake," and added: "African heads of state who buy into that idea of aid are all liars. The only way for us to come out of poverty is to work hard."

Sembene used the example of cotton, which African countries grow but none of the G-8 countries buy. Instead, he said, they subsidize their own cotton farmers and then dump used clothing on the African markets, crippling Africa's domestic clothing industries.

"We make great cotton in Africa, but the West won't buy it. Instead they are selling us rags," he said. "Everywhere you go in Africa, in the big cities, you would think that you were in a Salvation Army store."

Corruption is an issue that Africans raised repeatedly in discussions about aid and debt relief. In Kenya, many people said they felt betrayed by the new government, which was elected on an anti-corruption platform in 2002. After taking office in early 2003, some said, cabinet officials voted themselves a 172 percent salary increase, putting them among the world's highest-paid ministers.

"Anyone who has spent any real amount of time in Africa knows that corruption is the reality. It's a disservice to ordinary Africans to not be honest about that," said Rose Mucheke, 35, a Kenyan health care worker in Nairobi. While her salary is barely enough to meet her monthly bills, she said bitterly, "the aid money will go into the pockets of corrupt officials to buy their fully loaded Mercedes-Benzes."

Kenya, ironically, does not qualify for immediate G-8 debt relief, because it technically has enough cash to pay its debts -- even though the average citizen lives on $1 per day. The 14 countries due to receive the relief are considerably poorer.

While international pop stars sing to promote relief of poverty and debt, African intellectuals and civil society leaders said they were lobbying hard to shift world attention to other issues, such as the need to link aid to a reduction in corruption and to decrease Western subsidies on agriculture.

"You can address poverty needs by filling someone's belly, giving them a doctor and clean water and a house. But that doesn't make them competitive in the world market," Ross Herbert, a researcher with the South African Institute of International Affairs, said from Johannesburg. "A strong element of aid is about national posturing. Then again, Africa needs so much help that we are taking what we can get. Debt relief is a start, but it's not a panacea."

Herbert said he would like to see G-8 leaders focus on ensuring that aid money goes to developing institutions such as courts and banks, to promote confidence in the rule of law and stability for investors, and on building roads to help cut Africa's onerous transport costs for crops and other products.

The story of Peter Kanans is a case study in how corruption can sabotage even the most ambitious African families. His father was once a successful coffee farmer who sent his sons to college and donated land and money to build a three-story church in their town, 40 miles northeast of the capital, Nairobi.

Kanans got a degree in criminal justice, and rose to become a senior police official and an expert on terrorist bombings. But in the late 1980s, he said, he was fired when he tried to stop a Kenyan official named Nicholas Biwott from smuggling in cheap sugar from abroad without paying taxes. Newspaper reports from that time confirmed Kanans's story. Since then, Biwott has been the subject of numerous corruption investigations.

Kanans went back to farming and took over his father's coffee business. But he said he soon found that government-controlled cooperatives, which acted as liaisons between farmers and the large Western coffee companies, were skimming profits while giving farmers a drastically lower price. He also observed that Kenya was relying more and more on aid, even as its leaders grew richer.

His wife, though a midwife herself, died in childbirth, he said, because the hospital had received little of the aid that supposedly had been donated by foreign countries. His brother, a professor at Kenyatta University, became frustrated with the low pay and left to teach in Delaware.

Back in Kanans's village, many people started to get sick with HIV/AIDS. Kanans and his new wife suddenly found themselves feeding 20 orphans. Aid groups said money was being sent, but he said little reached them.

"Now, I find myself poorer than my father ever was," Kanans said, pointing to a hole in his pants. "All I want to say to G-8 is: Spend some time with the real people of Africa. You're welcome at my home anytime, if you don't mind life without running water."

Staff researcher Robert Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company