Prizes for Presidents or Charity for Villagers?

Two interesting and contrasting approaches to development in Africa are making headlines at the moment. One starts at the top, tackling governance issues. The other takes a bottom-up approach, working at the village level.

In the first, former Mozambique president Joaquim Chissano has won the inaugural Mo Ibrahim prize awarded to a retiring head of state for excellence in leadership. Worth $5m over 10 years and $200,000 a year thereafter the idea is that African presidents don’t have to loot their own country in order to secure their pension.

In the second, The Guardian newspaper has adopted the village of Katine in northern Uganda to see whether the paper’s usual Christmas appeal can be turned into a three-year development project designed to lift the villagers out of poverty.

Both are eyecatching ways of catapulting development into public consciousness. The Guardian’s approach is not entirely novel. Jeffrey Sachs, economist and friend of Bono, is doing something similar with his network of “millennium villages” – a demonstration that tangible differences can be made with modest sums of money. Of course, the outcome is not really in doubt. These people are poor, and an influx of funds will inevitably make a difference. The question – as The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger points out – is whether this approach is sustainable and replicable.

But there is a bigger question that goes unasked: In what way is lifting one village out of poverty a model for the development of an entire continent?  This is where the bottom-up approach, harnessing the undoubted talents, energies and motivation of villagers shows its limitations. It still requires a government that can be trusted not only to pursue policies that stimulate economic development, but also manages to avoid the temptation to skim a percentage of donor money. This is where Mo Ibrahim, an entrepreneur of Sudanese origin, seems to have come up with something genuinely new.

wajir2.jpgMy adopted home country of Kenya should not be poor. Its tea and coffee industries, the flower farms and game parks generate millions of dollars every year. It has escaped civil war, and much of its land is green and well-watered. Yet my apartment in Nairobi (with pool) is half a mile from Africa’s biggest slum. The inhabitants of Kibera are poor because they have the misfortune of being born in a country where successive governments have ignored their interests.

Aid, trade and debt relief can have a very limited effect without transparent, accountable and democratic leaders. This is where Mo Ibrahim offers something very different. I wish The Guardian project well. It will no doubt greatly help the people of Katine. But ultimately it seems a more sophisticated version of an old-fashioned charity appeal – with all the same limitations and questionmarks – rather than a mould-breaker.

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