Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Getting rowdy with Andrew Mwenda

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.

8 Responses to “Getting rowdy with Andrew Mwenda”

  1. Al Kasujja says:

    With all due respect to Bono, his grasp of African issues pales in comparison to Mwenda’s

    Bono is too detached from the continent and would usually rely on journalists like Mwenda to paint a picture of what the situation on the ground actually is.

    It is not unlike Mwenda lecturing Bono on how to run a succsful rock tour

  2. Lauben says:

    Hey, Adrew!
    thanks alot for such good view.
    I promiss to support yuo in prayer.
    God bless you.

  3. Morrison Rwakakamba says:

    Accra conference discussed big. I am convinced that nations can sprought to economic supremacy if they are left to construct independent solutions to their economic woes. Your brothers wealth can rarely lift u from proverty! Aid cannot throw a profound solution to Africas problems but has rather engineered transactional leadership (patronage). Aid erased Africas agenda, otherthan governments, even entreprenuers and NGOs that Mwenda prefers, design their agenda on financial projections and guidelines of donors! this therefore means, aid should be dismissed. The examples of Germany and Poland that Bono and his compatriot Sachs like to parade for their ‘case’cannot qualify or fit in to be benchmarked for Africa. In Africa we need to scale up our own efforts and develop strategic plans that we can follow religiously till we attain progress. We should have one meal a day, but consumed in peace.

    Thanks for this space,

    Rwakakamba Morrison
    Manager;Research, Policy and Advocacy: Uganda National Farmers Federation; rwakakamba@yahoo.co.uk

  4. BRE says:

    BBC News is reporting today that editor/journalist Andrew Mwenda and two other journalists from Uganda’s Independent Magazine have just been arrested by government security forces in Kampala. The trumped up charges have something to do with sedition and treason against the state (as usual). Perhaps you or an SSA staffer at GVO can pick up this lead and stay on top of this important story. We can’t afford to lose an important voice like Mwenda’s to yet another repressive regime in Africa. Non?

    Here’s the link to the BBC News article:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7368954.stm

  5. Ethan says:

    Thanks, BRE – putting someone from Global Voices on it right now…

  6. Otim Michael says:

    Andrew Mwenda speaks the truth about the institutions and forces that keeps Africa from flourishing.

    Get up! Stand up! Stand up for your right! Don’t give up the fight!

    “Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.”
    Robert F. Kennedy

  7. BRE says:

    Hello Ethan, hoping that all is well with you and congratulations to both you and your wife on the pregnancy.

    While doing some follow-up research on the global reactions to Obama’s speech before the Ghanaian Parliament I came across an article at Foreign Policy Magazine by Andrew M. Mwenda (yes, I am also an avid reader of FP and the blogs authored by many of their excellent contributors).

    Andrew has authored a very critical piece on President Obama’s speech in an article that FP has headlined as follows:
    ‘Obama’s Trash Talk: Stop telling Africa what to do. Lectures are part of the problem.’
    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/07/15/obamas_trash_talk

    I though that you would like to read it in case you may have missed it. It will certainly be included in my follow-up post on the Obama visit to Ghana. Note also that America.gov has linked to GVO’s coverage of the Ghana visit and African blogger reactions at the ‘By The People’ blog.

    That’s it for me. Be sure to read Andrew’s latest piece. I guess this means that he will not be invited to the White House anytime soon? Non?

  8. Sabiiti Martin Rwabihurwa says:

    I tend to agree with Mwenda on the economic woes of Africa especially regarding aid. The biggest problem for Africa however is leadership. African Presidents are interested in keeping themselves in power. Most of them don’t care what happens to rest of the country as long as their grip on power is intact. There is alot of economic potential and yes potential because it will remain so until the Leadership issue is addressed. Sorry I have to go.

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