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$568 billion in African aid and little to show for it

In the 50 years since the first African countries won independence, the world has spent $568 billion on Africa. Yet Africans are poorer now than a quarter century ago, and much of the money has ended up on the road to nowhere.
/ Source: The Associated Press

To judge how far aid has helped Africa along the road to prosperity, just look down at the pavement — or the lack of it.

The most important highway in East Africa starts at the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa. Tens of thousands of trucks every year carry food, fuel and other goods to 100 million people in east and central Africa up a bone-jarring two-lane road.

Despite millions of aid dollars spent on roads, the wear and tear is so bad that journeys take weeks. And the cost makes it cheaper to have a container of corn shipped from Iowa than to truck it 500 miles to western Kenya.

In the 50 years since the first African countries won independence, the world has spent $568 billion on Africa. Yet Africans are poorer now than a quarter century ago, and much of the money has ended up on the road to nowhere. This dismal record is sparking a vigorous debate on how best to help the world's poorest continent, and to what degree aid is the answer.

A growing chorus of Africans is saying what they really need is not to rely on handouts, but to rebuild on their own with investment. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former finance minister of Nigeria, says many African countries now realize that while they can invite partners to join them, it is up to them to succeed.

"Africans do not want to be viewed as a charity case," adds Okonjo-Iweala, a World Bank managing director. "Ninety-nine point nine percent of Africans are people who are getting on with their own lives. All they are asking for is ... a set of tools."

Lifeblood of a continent
Roads are the lifeblood of an economy, the delivery system for agriculture, mining, tourism and other mainstays of African industry. But roads in Africa are few and bad. When foreign companies calculate the price of doing business on the continent, they look at figures like the cost of transportation and decide to go somewhere else.

"No one would ever have 100 million people in the rich world along a broken-down, two-lane, undivided road as we do here," said leading economist Jeffrey Sachs about Nairobi. "If the donors were thinking about what would really provide development, it's a proper, divided highway on which truck traffic could go."

Truth is, they did think of it — and almost built it — 40 years ago. But today, the east-west Trans-African Highway exists only on maps. On the ground, it turns into a muddy footpath in the jungles of eastern Congo.

The story of the highway shows why aid to Africa has largely failed in the past, and what can be learned for the future.

Back in 1969, the Japanese government proposed extending the Mombasa Highway to Lagos, Nigeria, on the Atlantic Ocean. The four-lane, 4,400-mile paved highway would be slightly longer than Interstate 90 running from Boston to Seattle across the United States. It was to bring modern trade to six African countries.

By 1971, the deal had the support of the six countries, nine other rich countries and six international aid agencies. They hoped to have at least two lanes of all-weather road open by 1978.

Joke reflects Africa thinking on roads
It did not take long for problems to emerge. Dictator Idi Amin took control of Uganda and threatened neighboring Kenya, which then closed the highway.

The fight reflected a constant plague for foreign aid to Africa — corrupt dictators, and donors who gave them money to protect political and economic interests. Nowhere was this exchange clearer than in Zaire, now known as Congo.

Zaire needed to build roads from scratch. But the Central African country was ruled by Mobutu Sese Seko, one of most brutal dictators in African history.

Mobutu seized power during the Cold War, at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were scrambling for influence in Africa. In the mid-1970s, he was a funnel for arms flowing to anti-communist rebels.

And so billions of dollars poured into Zaire to keep him happy, and to maintain the flow of Zairean gold, diamonds and copper to the West. Western nations largely looked the other way as the aid money disappeared into his offshore bank accounts and into the pockets of dozens of corrupt leaders.

Mobutu stopped plans for the highway in 1974, after stealing the money Belgium gave him for initial surveys. In a well-known African joke that reflects the thinking of the time, a young African dictator calls Mobutu for advice after coming under rebel attack.

"Did they come by sea?" Mobutu asks.

"No," the younger ruler would reply.

"Did they come by air?" Mobutu asks.

"No, they came by road," the protege answers.

"Tsk tsk, my son, I always told you," Mobutu says. "Never build roads."

Lack of maintenance hurts roads
Despite Mobutu in Zaire, the highway was in good condition in Kenya. In the 1970s, the East African country's economy was booming, with trucks filled with valuable coffee and tea running downhill from mile-high Nairobi and across breathtaking African savanna to the port of Mombasa.

But roads do not last forever. The average African highway is designed to last 15-20 years, if properly maintained, says Andrew Gitonga, the Kenya roads project officer for the European Union. Since 1983, the European Union has spent $200 million to repair Kenya's section of the highway and has about $120 million more of road projects planned this year.

Gitonga says the road needs to be completely rebuilt.

"There has been no standard maintenance program for 15 years, so the roads are falling into disrepair until they collapse," he says. "Some government contracts in the past were given in an untransparent manner to unqualified contractors without clear standards."

The transition between good road work and bad is painfully obvious when you hit a pothole at 50 mph. A close examination of the hole will show that whoever built it skimped on the thickness of the rock bed and the asphalt surfacing, pocketing a little extra profit.

Almost every day road workers can be seen patching the holes. One man sprays in some tar, a second shovels in a little asphalt and a third goes over it twice with a compactor. Within five minutes the lane is open, with hundreds of cars every hour driving over a repair that will probably last less than six months, or until the seasonal rains wash it away.

Road travel six times costlier in Africa
The same neglect for maintenance has led to the slow deterioration of thousands of donor-funded projects over the years.

Just off the Mombasa highway in Nairobi, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains its distribution hub for eastern Africa. Trucks loaded with food and supplies set off to deliver aid to some of the world's most desperate people.

The biggest obstacle: The roads.

"The roads are in a desolate state and they are not getting any better," says Bent Korsgaard, logistics director for the Kenya office.

A University of Minnesota study determined that big trucks cost about 43.4 cents a mile to operate on normal roads. In Africa, the cost for Red Cross trucks is $2.88 a mile.

A truck that follows the Trans-African Highway for the 1,500 mile, 21-day roundtrip to Butembo, Congo requires five days in the workshop when it gets back. It's cheaper to hire a Russian cargo plane than to drive a truck to some cities within 620 miles.

That doesn't even count the bribes truckers have to pay on African roads. A recent survey in West Africa found they range from about $3.33 per 60 miles in Togo to $25 in Mali.

Not only aid problem
Roads are hardly the only aid fiascos. Kenya alone is littered with dozens of half-baked, half-built projects funded by wealthy countries, monuments to good intentions gone awry.

Often donors did not understand Africa or talk to Africans. The Norwegian government built a fish processing plant on Lake Turkana in the 1970s to provide jobs for nomadic cattle herders — soon doomed in part because the local community had no fishing culture.

In a self-assessment in 1987, the World Bank found 106 out of 189 African development projects audited — almost 60 percent — had serious shortcomings or were complete failures. African agriculture projects failed 75 percent of the time.

The World Bank did better when it worked more closely with communities and better monitored projects. But a recent report on aid from the World Bank's private arm, the International Finance Corporation, found only half of its Africa projects succeed.

Aid is also hampered because it is often determined not just by what poor countries need but by what rich countries want to give to boost their own economies.

Much so-called foreign aid never leaves the country that promised it, because donor governments spend it to buy domestically-produced products or hire its own citizens as consultants.

The World Bank estimates that throughout the 1980s, more than half of all aid was tied to what donor countries wanted to export, often at higher prices than could be found on the market. This practice reduced the value of aid by anywhere from 11 to 30 percent.

Under the Buy American Act, the U.S. Agency for International Development must spend aid money to buy products and services from U.S. suppliers whenever possible, and then deliver them aboard expensive U.S.-flagged ships or planes.

"Foreign assistance is far from charity," J. Brian Atwood, the USAID director under former President Clinton, told Congress in 1995. "It is an investment in American jobs, American business."

Other rich nations do the same. Japan, one of the largest donors to Africa, provides a lot of aid in the form of four-wheel-drive vehicles — despite the roads.

Critic: Aid must be invested at all levels
Sachs, the Columbia University professor, argues past aid failed because not enough was invested at every level, in every sector. In 2004, Sachs and the United Nations started the Millennium Project experiment to supply 12 African villages with all they need, all at once, and see if they can be self-sufficient in five years.

"The speed of results is astounding and the point is that if the resources are there, the rate of improvement is wonderful," Sachs says. "I believe that we're at the cusp of that now."

Sachs' nemesis, economist William Easterly of New York University, retorts that Sachs' results are on a very small scale. He says only a free market can lift a nation out of poverty, and wants to see far more limited aid for specific programs with good track records, such as health care.

Easterly argues that aid bureaucracies are now rewarded for giving money that never reaches those who need it.

"It's just not possible for outsiders with their experts to create economic development and prosperity in another country," he says. "We should say: `There are a lot of problems and as rich outsiders we can't fix everything, but where can we do the most good for the most people?'"

The stakes are high. The outcome will decide if — and how — the world spends another $568 billion on Africa.

World has learned
The dream of a world-class road network for Africa is still alive, at least on paper. The African Union has a plan to build it, but it would take tens of billions of dollars that could come only from rich countries.

The east-west Trans-African Highway is still missing about 1,826 miles. But West African states are building a regional network that will run from landlocked Chad to the Western port of Dakar in Senegal, and from Mauritania to Nigeria. Kenya is also building a road to neighboring Ethiopia.

Aid to Africa is going up again to about $37 per capita, from a low of $24 in 1999. But this time the world has learned something. Aid to countries with more democratic systems has tripled at the expense of those whose leaders have unchecked power, according to the World Bank.

These days, when a new road is under construction in Kenya, white cars with European Union flags on the doors visit every day to make sure every inch of the highway is built to specification.

And a maintenance contract comes with it.