Time to Call US Aid to Africa by Its True Name: Bribery

Aid, what is it good for? While many Bono-loving, bleeding heart liberals would be appalled at the very thought of questioning the importance of giving money to charity or to the less fortunate, such a belief is rooted in pure fiction. In fact, the seemingly innocuous act of transferring money abroad in voluntary Robin Hood fashion is at the root of most political problems wreaking havoc across the developing world. Why? Because doling out truckloads of cash has not only utterly failed to raise the living standards of Africans, but has served solely as a way for the United States to prop up unsavory regimes and coax autocrats into toeing Washington’s line.

Indeed, the West has spent more than a trillion dollars over the past 50 years for allegedly “improving the livelihoods of Africans”, yet real per capita GDP is as much as 10% lower than in the 1970s. According to the IMF, the proportion of people living below the poverty line has actually increased by more than 150 million since 1990, even as billions of dollars were pouring into the region every year, through the aegis of USAID, the IMF, the World Bank and private charities.

While this might be befuddling – how can a country that is being given cash handouts and zero interest loans actually get worse? – some clearheaded scholars, like New York University’s William Easterly,  have correctly identified the problem: the illiberal, despotic, money hungry political leaders that have struck up partnerships with the West. According to his research, aid is not used to improve the livelihoods of citizens, but it allows the local strongman to divert more money towards building the security apparatus and the military.

Indeed, while many bemoan the horrific human rights abuses unleashed by Africa’s strongmen, their entire system of power is built and fueled the United States. In the name of fighting the fictitious ‘good war’ against terrorism, the US has channeled billions of dollars to some of the world’s most horrendous dictators and serial human rights abusers. In the name of safeguarding the so-called national interests, Washington has empowered the very individuals that are directly responsible for the Islamic terror groups America is supposed to be fighting.

As such, calling these cash payments “aid” is not just disingenuous, it’s downright revolting. Moving across Sub-Saharan Africa from country to country, one can see Washington’s blatant hypocrisy at play in each opposition figure shot or jailed, journalist gagged or in the sumptuous residences where the local ‘political establishment’ dwells. This is not aid, this is institutionalized bribery and its trickle down effect is limited to US cronies and their entourage.

The Obama administration has been feeding Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni half a billion dollars per year, this despite being in power since 1986. During his thirty year rule – which is about to get an extra five year term this year – human rights have cratered, the political opposition neutered and journalists jailed. Brought to power thanks to the People’s Defense Forces, Museveni has wielded this guerilla army to carry out atrocities in the restless northern regions. Washington has used the Entebbe airfield to fly secret surveillance missions and special ops.

America has lavishly funded a corrupt Ethiopian regime, supplying almost $4 billion in “aid” since 2010. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desa and his EPRDF party won all the seats in the May 2015 elections, thanks to a sustained campaign of harassing journalists and activists, which also featured the death of three opposition party members. The country is also one of the topjailers of journalists in the world. Until January 2016, when it was unexpectedly shuttered, Ethiopia housed a key American drone base that fought against Al Shabaab insurgents.

Djibouti, the least know country from the trio, nonetheless houses America’s most important military base on the continent, Camp Lemonnier, which brings a cool $70 million to the country’s coffers. Since 1999, the small nation has been ruled by Ismail Omar Guelleh, who is officially seeking a fourth term in 2016 and has remained impervious to the many crimes attributed to his rule. Just in December 2015, government forces killed 19 people, including opposition figures, who were participating in a peaceful rally. Djibouti boasts one of the least free presses on the continent, and journalists are routinely tortured, harassed and imprisoned.

Addicted to red carpet receptions in Washington or Paris, these aging autocrats are lining their own pockets with international aid money while their populations are living in abject poverty, repressed, disenfranchised and marginalized, with their basic human rights trampled. It is in such environments that groups like the Islamic State or Al Shabaab thrive, promising a life of meaning under a twisted interpretation of Islam while doling out generous salaries to wannabe terrorists.

Fighting the good fight doesn’t mean aiding and abetting a authoritarian system of governance. If Zaire under Mobutu taught us anything is that the billions poured in the country were not used to build schools and roads, but to strengthen “the Leopard’s” hold on power by providing him with the means to entertain a system of patronage and venal office holding.

The surest way to bring about the collapse of these murderous regimes is therefore to expose and stop the aid gravy train and watch as autocrat after autocrat is forced to stand at the ballot box and hold credible elections. It’s no magic bullet, but it’s the West duty to the more than a billion Africans suffering under the diktat of narrow foreign policy interests.

David Berggren is a Swedish security consultant currently based in New York. He spent the past 10 years working for NGOs in several countries in Africa and Europe as a security adviser. Read other articles by David.