Corrupt political elites block development in Africa | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 08.09.2009
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Corrupt political elites block development in Africa

African leaders are responsible for the problems in their countries, and not former colonial powers. Development aid often makes things worse. That's the message of a new book by former German ambassador Volker Seitz.

An African suffering from hunger

Africa's corrupt political elites are leaving their people to suffer

"African politics," Volker Seitz writes, "lead to poverty." The continent has a wealth of natural and human resources, but lacks responsible leaders. "The political elites I've met," the author said in an interview with Deutsche Welle, "have Europe or the United States on their mind, not their own population."

Seitz spent 17 years of his diplomatic career between 1965 and 2008 in Africa, the last four years as German ambassador in Cameroon. He observed throughout the post-colonial era how things did not improve for common people in most African countries, and how simultaneously political elites became richer all the time.

The former diplomat says there is no link between former colonial times and today's poverty in Africa, where the masses still survive on less than one euro per day. "You cannot blame colonialism for the fact that tax money is abused today," Seitz argues.

Well-meant development aid only contributes to the problems, he believes, because that way politicians have more money to keep for themselves: "Let me call it an aid fiasco: we feel responsible for Africa's development, while actually the African elites should be responsible." His advice is that, "we should support independent African solutions only."

Exception to the rule

Benin's president, Thomas Yayi Boni

Benin's president, Thomas Yayi Boni, has tried to crack down on corruption

That is exactly what Hubi and Vinciane, a small Belgian aid organisation, does in the Republic of Benin. Talking to Deutsche Welle chairman Piet van Assche confirms that their approach is different: "In almost 30 years in Benin we never took any initiative of our own. We are busy enough with the requests we receive. We listen first, find out what the people need, and then try to give it to them. Most other organisations are specialised. They may offer drinking water for example, where there is plenty of it already."

Benin, Volker Seitz says, is in more aspects than one the positive exception to the rule: "The new president travels through the country, looks at the projects of his ministers and that can occasionally lead to the dismissal of a cabinet member."

Dr. Thomas Yayi Boni became the president of Benin in April 2006. "He focuses on education and that way offers the people perspectives," says Volker Seitz. "Of course he's got his problems with the old political elites. His predecessor at least was not corrupt. But he didn't do enough."

Corruption - the good and the bad

Corruption is a big issue in Africa and in Seitz's book as well. But the author distinguishes between rich and poor. "I don't condemn the policeman, who collects a bribe on the side of the road. I don't condemn the poor, who are often desperate to survive. I condemn the political elites, who don't give a damn about the people."

Paul Banoba from Transparency International in Berlin, which studies and fights corruption worldwide, disagrees. "You cannot just blame the top," he says in an interview with Deutsche Welle. "In comparing corrupt policemen with corrupt politicians Volker Seitz may want to make a distinction between petty corruption and large-scale corruption. But we define corruption as an evil in itself, at whatever level it occurs. There is corruption at every level, it is widespread."

A bundle of currency notes

Money makes the world go round especially for Africa's political elites

It's not easy to talk about corruption. Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which is represented in nearly all African countries, turned down Deutsche Welle's interview request, arguing that, "MSF is not involved in corruption, never deals with officials who expect a personal benefit and therefore hardly can answer the questions. MSF is neutral and does not officially blame others without being involved itself."

Piet van Assche from Hubi and Vinciane says his company has managed to stay clear of any allegations of corruption: "To my knowledge we've never had anything to do with corruption."

Democracy and its many faces

Van Assche says that the transition of power in Benin has gone smoothly since he started working there in the mid-eighties.

But Volker Seitz warns that European democracy doesn't always fit into an African environment: "It's difficult to transfer our western parliamentarian system to Africa. What counts is the political will to improve the standard of living. Education is important. Human rights must be respected. Those things, I believe, are not negotiable, but it doesn't have to be parliamentarian democracy as we know it."

Author: Patrick Vanhulle
Editor: Rob Mudge

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