Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala with the last word on aid

Former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the sort of visionary African leader everyone on stage and in the crowd would wish for Africa. She’s challenged with summing up four days of discussions on “Africa, the next chapter”.

She tells us we’re seeing changes in Africa that we never thought would happen. We’ve seen annual growth of 5%, in some cases 6-7%, up from 2%. External debt has been massively reduced. Countries are building up foreign exchange reserves, shoring up their currencies. Private investment flows are increasing, remittances to Nigeria are skyrocketing, and there’s a net inflow of capital.

But Africa needs jobs. 62% of Africa’s population is under 24. We have to figure out how to make these people productive. Nigeria is now building an opinion research organization, a way of listening to citizen voices, which she notes is a rare thing on the continent. The top issue in every survey? Jobs.

Just a few years ago, she tells us, we couldn’t even talk about “the next chapter” for Africa. There was negative economic growth. There’s been an amazing transformation, and this is something that’s allowed us to have our debate about aid versus the private sector. “It has been a simplistic debate.” It needs to be about “a partnership that involves governments, donors, private sector, and ordinary Africans.” It’s not trade or aid – “what is the combination of all these factors is going to yield results?”

African entrepeneur Mo Ibrahim dreams of the moment when Africa is giving aid. “But we’re already doing it – the UK and the US could not have been built without African aid. The resources – including human resources – have made those countries what they are today.” So when those countries are willing to give something back, we need to take it, but we need to use it effectively.

Okonjo-Iweala tells a story about growing up during the Nigeria-Biafra war. Her father was a brigadeer on the Biafran side, and her family was doing very badly, eating a single meal a day. When she was 15, her mother was ill, and her three-year old sister was deathly ill from malaria. She put her sister on her back and walked 10 kilometers to a clinic, where she’d heard there was a good doctor. When she arrived, there were a thousand people outside, trying to break down the door. She went to the side and climbed in through the window. The doctor told her she’d barely saved her sister – she gave the girl a shot of chloroquine, put her onto rehydration and within hours, she was back to health. “The ten kilometers home with her on my back, that was the shortest walk of my life.” The point of the story: “When someone is saving a life, you don’t care that it’s aid – you want the person to be alive.”

Okonjo-Iweala tells us she doesn’t believe aid, even aid to save lives, in the sole answer. We have to use it well. Why has southern Spain developed? On the back of aid which was provided to build road and infrastructure. Ireland is one of the fastest growing economies in the world – they used aid to build infrastructure to build an information society. “They didn’t say no to aid – but if they can build infrastructure in Spain, why do they refuse to build the same infrastructure in our countries?”

She asks, “Are we calling the NGOs together and telling them what we want, asking them to coordinate? No. We haven’t taken charge and sat these people down to hear about our priorities.” [Having sat in endless donor coordination meetings, I'd ask whether this is really true.] “Aid can be a faciliator, a catalyst. If we fail to use it as a catalyst, we have failed our people.”

The Chinese are so popular in Africa, she tells us, because they don’t shy away from infrastructure. She talked with the Chinese ambassador, who told her that to develop, “You need infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure and discipline.” Okonjo-Iweala wants this infrastructure and discipline to create jobs, especially for women, who will use this support to support their families and their societies.

8 Responses to “Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala with the last word on aid”

  1. BRE says:

    Ms. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala really came back strong in Tanzania vs. that pep talk on investment in African business she gave to the TED Conference in March 2007. This is one of the best posts that I have ever read at My Heart’s in Accra, and one of the most moving stories about how a highly respected African leader got to where they are today.

    Congratulations to Minister Okonjo-Iweala and the rest of the speakers and attendees at the TED Global 2007 conference in Tanzania. It’s already a big success and it ain’t even over. We are tracking your work and crossposting/linking for our readers here in Germany (and the rest of the world). Great job EZ and cheers to the rest of the Africa blogger crew.

  2. Ethan, thank you for the quality posts and updates! This a great, fascinating reading…

    Cheers
    Tony

  3. Henok says:

    EZ many thanks !!!!!!!!!!

  4. peter says:

    I understand from the mwenye macho blog that St. Bono of Ballymun was also giving Ireland as an example of a country that developed on the back of aid. It is estimated that the contribution of aid (from the EU) to Ireland’s tigerish growth has been very limited and certainly not essential. The most important factor has been making Ireland a friendly place for foreign direct investment (google’s europe HQ is in Dublin). And trust me, our infrastructure is still a mess, much of it down to corrupt planning practices. Yes, there are other parallels that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala could have drawn…

    Check out William Easterly for a persuasive argument against aid as it has been delivered since the end of WWII, and think of China, which has lifted millions out of poverty with no significant aid flows at all. Similar with India, Thailand….

    Crikey, commenting on two separate blogs in one day. Maybe I should set up my own?

  5. peter says:

    i see from the getting rowdy with andrew menda post, that bono’s point about aid was apparently referring to the potato famine in the mid 19th century and not EU funds. I’m afraid that if that was his point he is on even shakier ground! Much of the food aid was of unprocessed maize from the states, an alien food that people had difficulty digesting, if they had been in a position to prepare it. If it had got us through the famine, how come 1.5 million people emigrated between 1845 and 1855 (famine kicked off in 45, and peaked in 46/47). Ireland’s population continued to decline until recent years.

    Bono should not try to back up his position for increased aid flows on the back of spurious and ill informed history.

    Similarly, comparisons with the marshall plan are spurious. Restarting well developed economies and societies that have been devastated by a great shock is a completely different exercise from trying to transform Africa. The history, politics, institutional set up, general levels of education, health and welfare are just poles apart and make any comparison erroneous.

    But thanks for the updates!

  6. johne says:

    “The Chinese are so popular…, because they don’t shy away from infrastructure.”
    Then what, pray tell, is most foreign aid being spent on? I was under the impression that roads, schools, etc., were the meat and potatoes of foreign aid, but perhaps I am living in the past.
    Nicholas Kristof had an interesting essay on foreign aid in the New York Review of Books, mostly relating to Africa and reviewing Easterly’s latest book: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19374

  7. Ethan says:

    It’s an excellent question, John. Some is spent on “governance”, which can either be effective anti-corruption measures, or an excuse to expand the size of ministries. Much is acute health care and food aid, which doesn’t go to infrastructure. The huge sums needed to build African infrastructure are hard to come by, which is why people are so excited about China… for better or for worse.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala with the last word on aid - AfricanLoft - [...] Original by Ethan Zuckerman (Blog: My Heart’s in Accra) writes from TED conference in Arusha, Tanzania. [...]
  2. …My heart’s in Accra » Digesting TED Global - I’m still chewing - [...] It’s a shame that Madame Okonjo-Iweala didn’t get to speak until the last day - she did a much …
  3. …My heart’s in Accra » Judging a magazine by its cover - [...] As one of those former well-paid contractors, and current researching academic, I can confirm French’s observation. The US businesspeople …
  4. …My heart’s in Accra » Incremental infrastructure, or how mobile phones might wire Africa - [...] This second question is getting a workout as a wide range of commentators respond to the Bono-edited Africa edition …
  5. moyo’s aid. at Where They Are - [...] gently smacked down at TED by former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who told a harrowing story about saving …

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