Africa is being cheated by the West

Cameron Duodu
10 June 2005

Those opposed to the efforts of Bob Geldof and other pop stars trying to influence the G8 countries to end poverty in Africa have not been sparing in their bad-mouthing of the continent.

Over and over again, we hear their droning: Africa must not be helped because it is badly governed. Or, many of Africa's leaders are corrupt and so will pocket the proceeds from any aid given. And anyway, aid doesn't work - trillions of dollars' worth of aid has been "wasted" on Africa already, and nothing more should be "poured down the drain".

Now, it is true that some African countries do have corrupt leaders and that some also suffer from bad governance. But there are more than 50 countries in Africa and it is simply not fair - or even sensible - to lump all of them together and taint them with the brush of corruption or bad governance. How would a Briton feel if he or she was stereotyped as this or that, alongside a Spaniard or a Greek, just because they are all Europeans?

Besides, even in the worst-governed African countries, a serious attempt is now being made to get the governments to mend their ways. The New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), adopted by all African countries, provides a mechanism for African countries to carry out a "peer review" of their internal politics in order to name and shame those who fall short of certain specified standards.

So, in many cases, Africa can prove she is wrongly accused. But a good defence is not Africa's concern, for in reality the charges against her are just a diversionary exercise that masks the heart of the matter, as far as poverty in Africa is concerned.

For Africa was poor before power passed into the hands of its indigenous leaders. And Africa has been poor since they got power. So the reason why Africa is poor must be different from the claim that her leaders are either incompetent or corrupt. What is it?

It is that Africa has been involuntarily locked into an earnings logjam on the international market, which keeps her poor when she sells to others, and poor when she buys from them. Simultaneously, she's been diverted, by the promise of foreign exchange, from producing food and goods for her own use.

Land that ought to be used to produce food is now used mainly to produce cash crops for export. However, the production of cocoa, coffee or tea for export, does not always bring the foreign exchange bonanza that is hoped for. Sadly, by the time this is realised, the trees are simply too big to be cut down and replaced with the crops that Africans eat.

Thus, during the terrible drought of 1984-85, when millions of people were starving in Ethiopia, that country was still able to produce 179,000 tons of coffee for export - just 61,000 tons less than in the previous year. You see, some of the best land in the country had been put to use to grow coffee. What if, instead, that land been under teff (a local staple) wheat, maize or millet?

What does Ethiopia gain by trying to satisfy the alluring, but deceptive, export market? I found the answer in a heart-rending tale by a Ugandan coffee entrepreneur, Andrew Rugasira, He revealed that: "One needs approximately five grams of roasted and ground beans to make a cup of coffee that sells [in the UK] for £2, so one kilogram can make 200 cups, worth £400. Green coffee beans are bought [in the coffee growing countries] for an average price of 70p per kilogram. In other words, less than 0.2 per cent of the value of processed coffee is retained by the growers."

Where does the remaining 99.8 per cent of the coffee price go? Mostly to the transnational corporations that roast coffee and sell it to the supermarkets and smart coffee shops of the West.

Coffee is not the only commodity whose growers are cheated out of the rewards of their labour. My late father, a cocoa-grower, told me that in 1921 and 1937 Ghanaian cocoa farmers burnt the cocoa which they had harvested and laboriously dried over a number of days, ready for export. They had to run to cover it each time there was a raindrop and they had to sift it carefully to take out sub-standard beans.

That is how Ghana got its reputation as the best cocoa producer in the world. But at times, the farmers were so badly paid that they preferred to burn their precious crop, rather than sell it for the pittance the Western cocoa merchants were offering. That situation has not changed in 100 years.

If these farmers were paid a living wage, if the gold, diamond, copper, iron, tin and manganese exports of Africa were paid for at prices which better reflected the final selling price, no one would be talking of debt cancellation. And aid would be history.

The writer is a novelist and journalist from Ghana

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