Power to the African People
IPN Opinion article
Nairobi can get quite chilly in July. Barely 50 miles from the equator, its 5,200ft elevation means that night temperatures sometimes drop to 50∞F. As the G8 leaders meet in Gleneagles next month to discuss ëAfrica and Climate Change', Nairobi's poor residents will burn whatever they can to keep warm.
Wood and dung are the primary sources of energy in Kenya and much of Africa ó providing heat for the home and cooking. Clean fuels such as natural gas and electricity, not to mention central heating and air-conditioning, are luxuries reserved for plutocrats, politicians, and NGOs. Why do so many Africans rely on dirty energy sources? For the same reason that they are poor: their oppressive governments prevent them engaging in mutually beneficial economic activities. It is illegal in most African states to start a business without a licence. And licences are available only to those with government connections.
Even if it were possible legally to operate a business, few would have the necessary capital. While their governments have been borrowing as if there were no tomorrow, most Africans cannot obtain a loan at any reasonable rate of interest. Those same oppressive, corrupt and incompetent governments prevent them obtaining good title to their land and thus they have nothing to offer as collateral.
So instead of creating wealth through private enterprise, many of Africa's entrepreneurs hawk in the streets or engage in criminal acts. Among the worst criminals are the leaders to whom we have given massive amounts of ëaid'. Thugs such as Mobutu, Abacha and Mugabe bought themselves cars, planes and palaces ó and stashed cash in offshore bank accounts.
Ostensibly given to enable poor countries to escape from the poverty ëtrap', aid has actually harmed the poor by sustaining oppressive dictators. Now, Blair and Brown, the ëLennon and McCartney of global development', think that poverty can be solved by spending another $25 billion in Africa every year until 2015. Some chance. One reason that aid has failed dismally is that it was used to support foreign policy objectives. During the Cold War both the US and the USSR used it to bolster ëfriendly' regimes. Although many of those regimes' leaders were repressive, undemocratic and hostile to free enterprise, the US continued to send tens of billions of dollars, ostensibly to support liberty, democracy and free markets!
Since the end of the Cold War, the foreign-aid carrot has been used to encourage governments of poor countries to endorse foreign policy agendas such as environmental protection. Before the 1992 Earth summit in Rio, wealthy countries offered poor countries billions of dollars in return for commitments to sign treaties on climate change, biodiversity, forests and ësustainable development'. African leaders even got their own treaty, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification ó which contains numerous references to increasing aid to Africa (but will do nothing to halt land degradation).
As the Kyoto Protocol runs out of steam, an aid carrot is being offered to poor countries in exchange for commitments to future reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Yet attempting to control the climate through such restrictions may prove counterproductive. Meanwhile, this aid carrot will probably do more harm than good.
Dramatic warming is unlikely to result from humanity's emissions in the next century. The best estimates suggest a moderate warming of between one and two degrees Celsius ó a change that may even be beneficial. In a slightly warmer world with more carbon dioxide, agricultural output would increase, and more food would be available at a lower cost. Climate change may nevertheless cause some problems. For example, changing rainfall patterns might affect agriculture. While wealthy countries have increasingly sophisticated systems of water management, which enable us to cope with such changes, the situation in poor countries is more problematic.
At present, government control of water leads to massively inefficient overuse. Privatising water would force consumers and producers to pay prices that reflect delivery costs, thus providing incentives to use water more rationally and encouraging new methods of production and delivery ó such as piping water over longer distances or desalinating seawater.
Government mismanagement and corruption also mean that today over one billion people lack access to clean drinking water. A Kenyan colleague moved to Nairobi in 2001 to start a think-tank. Soon afterwards, local government officials visited his house and issued a water bill, which he diligently paid. A few days later the same officials returned, demanding that he pay, again. In spite of paying twice, his water is erratic and contaminated.
In Chile, water supply was privatised in 1981 and the proportion of households with clean, piped water soon shot up from 63 to 99 per cent in towns, and from 27 to 94 per cent in rural areas. Many other countries have followed suit. This week a group going by the name of ëPeople without Water' in Lima, Peru, called for their water to be privatised because they realise that the private sector is more accountable, less corrupt and more likely to deliver. By increasing the availability of potable water, privatisation would greatly reduce the number of deaths from water-borne diseases, such as diarrhoea and cholera, which now kill about two million children each year.
But cleaning and piping water requires energy. Imposing emissions restrictions would increase the cost of energy because suppliers would be forced to use more expensive, lower-carbon energy sources. As a result, the cost of water would increase. Likewise, the cost of producing, refrigerating and transporting food and medicines would rise, reducing the availability of these vital goods.
If clean energy sources such as natural gas and electricity are made more costly, Africans will continue to burn inefficient, dirty fuels such as wood and dung. Though such fuels may be ërenewable' and ëlow-carbon', their combustion in poorly flued indoor fires contributes heavily to acute lower respiratory infections, such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, which today kill more than one million children annually.
To enable development and adaptation to the current climate, let alone any future climate, Africans must be freed from oppressive governments. Emissions restrictions would hinder that adaptation process, especially if such restrictions are encouraged with ëaid' to their governments.
These observations cast doubt on Blair's priorities for the G8 meeting ó and the process of priority-setting for G8 meetings generally. Blair wants to be the great global statesman who saved Africa from poverty and the world from climate change, but these problems are not based on a rational assessment of global priorities. Of all the plans on the table, Gordon Brown's proposal to provide funds to buy new medicines for Aids and malaria is perhaps the most sane. Crucially, the money will not go to corrupt African leaders.
In 2004, under the auspices of the Copenhagen Consensus, a group of eminent academics concluded that eradicating communicable diseases, improving access to clean water and freeing trade would provide the greatest benefit for the world's people. By contrast, they ranked reductions in greenhouse gas emissions an extremely bad investment. Perhaps the G8 should conduct its own Copenhagen Consensus for next year's agenda