A July 3 front-page article in The Post quoted a Kenyan farmer named Peter Kanans: "Even if they cancel the debt, even if they give our governments aid money, ordinary Africans will not benefit. That money will only make the corrupt people richer and Africans international beggars for decades to come."
At the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), we have been saying something similar about crime and corruption in Africa, and now that the Group of Eight countries have pledged additional billions of dollars in aid to that continent, it may be time to weigh in on where this money may make the greatest difference for ordinary citizens.
We know, as Kanans does, that crime and corruption are enormous obstacles to aid and development. A UNODC report, "Crime and Development in Africa," is filled with examples: Official crime figures, for instance, are unavailable for half of the African nations. In some cases, a lack of courts, prosecutors and workable judicial systems renders the exercise fruitless: "The police do not have the transport to collect suspects; the courts run out of paper and then can't hear cases until more arrives; parties have to pay marshals to serve summonses; court records are written on already used documents and folders; and some of the court buildings leak so badly that during the rainy season court records get damaged."
In other cases, Africans simply do not report crimes when they know that the authorities will not follow up. These men and women, who are targets for robbery, assault, kidnapping, rape and homicide, understand that without laws or the ability to enforce them, security and development are pipe dreams. This basic fact -- that the rule of law is fundamental to the effective delivery of aid -- is one that many member states overlook. Debt relief, billions to attack disease and enable education, legal protections for women and girls, and additional resources from every G-8 nation all sound like the kind of heavy ammunition needed to set Africa right. And these proposals can and will go a long way -- when it is possible to implement them in a lawful, secure environment. But right now, in post-conflict regions across Africa, organized crime rules economies fueled by guns-for-drugs trading schemes, drug trafficking, the looting of natural resources and enterprises ranging from forced prostitution to child militias to trafficking in human organs. These regions are black holes in the criminal universe, areas rendered so dense by illicit activity that they capture and absorb any attempt at amelioration.
Corruption in Africa is a way of life. The poor, in particular, are resigned to unending indignities to body and soul: choices between a weekend in jail on trumped-up charges or surrendering the grocery money to a corrupt police official; bribes to local officials or having no running water; and sex or a ticket for "breaking curfew" after working overtime on a job that pays less than $1 per day. On a larger scale, corruption continues to separate the haves from the have-nots in ways that the rest of the world cannot imagine -- the highest income earners make 31 times what their poorest neighbors bring in. Nigeria's anti-corruption commission recently reported that former rulers stole or misused more than $386 billion.
Unless we lay the proper groundwork in Africa by helping states to institutionalize the rule of law, crime and corruption will undercut the best of intentions. In recent years, foreign investment in Africa has fallen while capital flight has increased. Still, as bad as the situation appears, there are reasons for optimism.
Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of UNODC, says it best: "Africa's hope lies in the hunger of its own people for justice. They see an alternative vision on television, in films and on the Internet. They know things are not just different, but also better in other parts of the world, and they want their fair share of prosperity and justice. This is the energy driving increasing numbers of politicians to campaign on anti-corruption platforms. This is the impetus behind the push for democratically elected governments. This is the force that continues to counter the instinct for conflict and civil violence in places where change has never happened any other way."
Africa's needs are overwhelming -- money, food, education, medical supplies, infrastructure -- but there is no assurance that any of this will get to the people who need it most unless we also make sure that withholding, appropriating or misusing these resources is punishable by law.
The writer is deputy spokesperson of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.