Helping Africa


I have spent a lot of time in Asia and Africa, and I can see that Asia is growing and Africa is struggling, despite much more aid and attention. Here is what I have observed: In Asia, everyone works. In Africa, only the women and the Asians work. The men don’t. Unless they are working hard at corruption or have managed to get into tourism, most men don’t do much of anything. This may sound overly general, and of course there are exceptions, but I’m afraid it’s true. There are systemic problems at work in Africa, and the way we go about trying to fix them (one at a time) isn’t working.
I have seen a lot of aid money squandered in Africa – most of it. Schools built but not used. Toilets built but no one uses them. People don’t buy and use soap because they have to spend their money on food. A well gives everyone fresh water, but there’s no education and no way to get out of grinding poverty. It’s time to admit that the aid hasn’t worked.

What is the real solution to the Africa problem?

One way to NOT do it is the way Bill Gates is doing it. He’s hiring the most expensive consultants and treating it like a business problem, but he really doesn’t get it. Bill Gates, in a speech at Davos earlier this year and in this week’s Time Magazine cover article, says “Creative Capitalism” like microlending and encouraging big companies to do well by doing good, is a big part of the answer. I don’t disagree, but – well, yes I do. It’s not enough, and it will also fail if corruption and kleptocracy continue to rule, and they do. I agree more with Paul Collier, who wrote a fantastic book I’d like to recommend, called The Bottom Billion.
Rather than just being critical, I would like to add my concept for helping the worlds’ poorest: stop the aid. Sending in white people to dig wells here and build schools there and provide medical clinics over there doesn’t work. Whenever there are aid dollars, a few people figure out how to get most of them and leave the majority of people even worse off than before. It doesn’t help build a middle class, and if you are not building a middle class, you are throwing your money away. The only thing that counts is to do all the things necessary to bring about a middle class – a whole economic solution, community by community, country by country, where a society has a solid platform for getting out of poverty. You need critical mass. My concept is that people like Bill Gates, Bono, George Soros, USAID, the UN, and a bunch of influential businesspeople and NGOs develop a 12-step program for lifting a country out of poverty. They put forth the conditions a country must meet to get the first package of aid, then the next set of conditions, and so on. But it’s not give-away aid, it’s business. Like the way Martin Fisher does it at Kickstart. Martin just received a sustainability award from MIT to help him continue turning Africans into entrepreneurs (more than 300,000 so far). You can read more at
My idea is to send a message to the countries of Africa: if you meet the criteria in the first step, we are ready to do business with you. if you meet the initial minimal criteria for a certain degree of free elections, free press, noncorruption, equal opportunity for all children to get an education, build roads, monitor the environment, preserve your biodiversity, establish a bill of human rights, maintain a stable police force, offer a reasonable foreign policy, control military spending, make your streets safe, fight terrorism, etc – if you do all of these things, even at a low level, and you can show that this first step puts down the building blocks for improvement, we will come do business with you. The first step isn’t that hard, but it has a lot to do with reducing corruption, crime, and enabling the press. It requires more transparency on governance. We will even show you how to get there. Take that step and we will loan money interest-free. We will help build roads. We will buy more of your goods. Take the next step and we will start investing. We will help you build schools and clinics. Take the third step and we will help you turn your people into entrepreneurs. As long as you keep on the narrow path to democracy and investment in a solid future, we will start to do more and more business with you. We will tell you what we want and you can make it for us. We will help you build your own internal economies and business opportunities. We will help you develop tourism and sustainable businesses. In short, we will help you do the things that enable a middle class to emerge.
If that means all the investment and business goes to only one or two countries, like (maybe) Kenya, Ghana, or Rwanda, then so be it. Let all the corrupt officials and the people in the other countries watch those few countries pull themselves out of poverty. Many innocent people will die this way, but they are being killed today despite the aid, because the corruption and the traps Collier talks about in his book continue. Let them watch a few countries that don’t have natural resources follow the 12-step program and get the attention. Let them see what happens when those few countries start building roads and loaning money to people to buy motorbikes.

Suggestion: Bill Gates could use his money to help build a worldwide voting organization that can register citizens and hold elections – working with governments and their constitutions but NOT letting the governments themselves (or the U.N.) run the elections. We could use this in the U.S., too. You don’t need a paper trail to do it properly, but you do need an independent organization to build and run the voting procedures. In my new book I predict that by the end of this century most people will simply vote online, probably using mobile phones. The total number of mobile phones in Africa is expected to exceed that in the US in just a few short years.

This, I think, is what the U.N. Millenium project should be all about. But it’s not. It’s about yet more aid to try to overcome the scale of the tragedies created by the previous aid. In my scheme, there are a few years of no aid. Then, once the first country meets the requirements for the first step, all the rest of the countries will take notice. Then, I think, we will see real sustainable markets develop. I think it can happen one market at a time, rather than a little triage here and more band-aids there, spread out over a continent bigger than the US, Europe, and Australia combined.