Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda is man of strong opinions. His opinions in 2005 about Museveni’s government were strong enough to put him in jail briefly. He tells us that this is an auspicious time for this meeting, since it parallels the meetings in Germany for the G8 which are discussing “a Marshall plan for aid for Africa”. To call Mwenda skeptical about this idea is to do him an injustice – he’s a firm believer that international aid is a dangerous and largely harmful direction for Africa.
“The media tells nothing but the truth [about Africa] but not the whole truth”. The stories covered – despair, civil war, famine – are not the only reality. Actually, they’re the smallest reality. These stories create a misframing of Africa, and lead us to the long solutions. By giving food to the hungry and medicine for the sikc, Africa is stripped of self reliance and of hope.
Why can’t African nations enable entrepreneurs to trade internationally and sell goods to international markets? Why hasn’t hundreds of billions of dollars of aid transformed the continent? It’s because governments listen too much to aid providers and too little to their own citizens. Because the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund give so much money to governments, they find themselves in the odd position of telling national leaders what their people need… from the outside.
This government aid, Mwenda feels, does little more than allow governments to spend beyond their means. He picks apart the Ugandan national budget, pointing out that the government spends 105% of the revenue it collects. It can only do this because donor moneys allow the government to support development, which wouldn’t otherwise be covered by the government budget.
Where does the government money go? He argues that it goes disproportionately – roughly 25% of the Ugandan national budget – to “public administration”, in other words, “mostly patronage”. He points to 70 government ministers and 114 presidential aides, “who never see the president except on television… and then the President advises him, not the other way around.” There’s 333 members of parliament – “you need Wembley Stadium to hold our parliament.” Mwenda believes that cutting international aid would force governments to cut their own spending and address these core questions like corruption.
His speech ends abruptly – he tells us he was told that a TED talk should be like a miniskirt – “long enough to cover the important parts and short enough to maintain interest” – which, combined with a rowdy speech gets the first standing ovation of the conference. It’s clear he’s thrown down the gauntlet to some people in the room, especially Bono, who has dedicated much of his life to international aid. At one point in Mwenda’s talk, he asks the audience to name a country where aid has led to develoopment – someone puts up a hand (Bono, I suspect) and tells us that government aid helped Ireland through the potato famine. Mwenda won’t concede the point, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bono take him on in a later session.
Aked point blank whether he opposes all aid by Chris Anderson, Mwenda makes an important distinction – he thinks it shouldn’t be given to governments and should be given directly to indigenous groups and entrepeneurs.