Letter from Africa: Continent-wide Katrina just waiting to happen

Michael Wines – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
JOHANNESBURG Hurricane Katrina, it turns out, was not merely a monster storm. It also was a Category 4 metaphor, especially on this least fortunate of continents.
Africans first looked at the television pictures of the Gulf Coast and were aghast to see, in the world’s richest and strongest nation, a mirror reflection of themselves.
“Some of these images from New Orleans have looked like Mozambique,” said Steven Friedman, a savvy political scholar at Johannesburg’s Center for Policy Studies, echoing the thoughts of many here and, no doubt, many Americans as well.
More recently, Africans have watched Washington’s response to Katrina – $200 billion in handouts and reconstruction, conjured from an apparently bottomless Treasury with no strings or lectures attached – and seen everything that they are not.
Those comparisons are as striking as they are obvious. But the most powerful question left in Katrina’s wake bears only indirectly on power and wealth. Not surprisingly, it came up in a recent conversation with Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University scholar, director of the United Nations Millennium Project and more-or-less ceaseless goad for a greater American effort to end global poverty.
“To me, the main thing about New Orleans is not how much we’re about to spend,” he said in a telephone interview from New York. Rather, he said, “this is a disaster that was well predicted, well understood. The topography of New Orleans; the risk of being hit by a hurricane; the risk of flooding was all very well known, well documented, reported.
“The same is true of Africa. They’re not thinking at all. What’s supposed to happen next year, the year after that and the year after that? We’re not attending to any of those issues.”
To use another overworked metaphor, Sachs essentially argues that a perfect storm is building in Africa: a confluence of the AIDS pandemic, extreme poverty, mass hunger, illiteracy and, he would say, potentially devastating climate change.
Not tackling these problems now, he says, is penny-wise and pound-foolish, for the costs of salvaging the continent later are likely to be huge.
Sachs was largely aiming at the Bush administration, which initially sought to excise the Millennium Development Goals – the global commitment to halve poverty by 2015, and to increase foreign aid from rich nations – from the joint declaration issued at the recent UN summit meeting. He also was speaking to the American government in general, which allots a smaller share of its gross domestic product to foreign assistance than almost any other wealthy nation.
But he allows that this brewing storm was ignored for at least a decade before Bush, who increased American aid to sub-Saharan Africa by 56 percent, to $3.4 billion a year, through fiscal 2004, the Brookings Institution reported in June, and has pledged to seek to double it again by 2010, two years after the end of his second term. (Total American foreign aid, at $16.3 billion, is almost twice that of any other nation, and American philanthropic aid to the developing world dwarfs that – $62 billion in 2003, or nearly half the world’s total, the Hudson Institute estimates.)
If one takes Sachs’s warning seriously, it cannot but resonate across the wealthy world, where the United States is far from the only laggard in helping to lift the poor.
Should one? Anyone who travels in Africa cannot help but be astounded by the poverty and suffering so evident on every city corner and rural road, from crowds of orphans making nighttime camp in Zimbabwe to Malawi’s hills, stripped bare of trees by villagers whose only money comes from making and selling charcoal. Yet academics and politicians do not even agree on the severity of climate change, much less on whether a continent of 906 million people is approaching some sort of economic and social precipice.
This reporter was in Niger in 1985, when African famine first seized the world’s attention and made Bob Geldof a household name, and again in 2005, when near-famine briefly saturated the media and triggered a new round of Live Aid-style charity concerts. In some ways, little has changed – not the misery, not Niger’s ability to avert catastrophe, not the outside world’s occasional bouts of empathy.
But of course much has changed. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 11 million children have lost at least one parent to AIDS, 25 million people are HIV-positive, and 2.2 million die from AIDS annually – all world-beating numbers, all destined to rise in coming years. The World Bank says that Africa is the only developing region where per capita production declined in the last three decades of the 20th century; the only region where per capita investment and savings dropped during that period. Excluding South Africa, a comparative powerhouse, the entire income of sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 nations in 1997 was approximately equal to that of Belgium.
More important, perhaps, Africa is falling farther and farther behind the rest of the world by these and other crucial yardsticks.
Despite progress on debt relief at the recent G-8 summit and a commitment by developed nations to increase aid, much of the world appears oblivious to many of these problems. In recent months, the World Food Program issued an emergency appeal for $376 million in food aid for six nations – Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe – where at least 10 million people are faced with severe hunger because of crop failures. To date $220 million has been given, $100 million of that as an in-kind contribution of surplus food by the United States. France and Germany gave $1.2 million each. The Middle East’s oil-producing nations, awash in profits, have yet to give anything.
Stimulating as that debate might be, Sachs argues, spending money wisely now to forestall Africa’s problems is both an economic and political no-brainer, even if one believes the continent’s problems will never worsen.
Hunger, he says, is but one example: Across much of the continent – and certainly in Niger – rich nations have spent billions to rescue nations from famine but a tiny fraction of that to introduce modern farming practices that might make the continent self-sufficient. Malaria is another: Spending to prevent or eradicate the illness, while rising, is far below the economic cost of the sickness and death it leaves behind. AIDS, illiteracy – the list is long.
Spend some billions to erect levees against those forces now, Sachs argues. Or be ready, as in New Orleans, to spend countless hundreds of billions to clean up the mess later.


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