Working to make global poverty history

From our beginnings two decades ago (the same year as the Live Aid concerts) as advocates for free-market approaches to environmental protection, the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) has grown into an international organization with a firm belief that the twin ideals of free people and free markets are essential to creating and maintaining a clean environment.   


As we began traveling to world trade and environmental summits, our hearts were stirred for those living in poverty in nations with rich natural resources, but corrupt and oppressive, or just misguided, regimes.  Over the past two years we have devised a new approach for assisting the developing world to taste the fruits of economic freedom and develop resources for human use in ways that do not harm the environment. 


So it was with piqued interest that we observed the new Live 8 campaign and the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, two events that will forever be linked together in the hearts and minds of music and freedom lovers worldwide.  We knew the frustration of Sir Bob Geldof and Paul “Bono” Hewson as they watched so much of the money they had raised two decades ago fail to deliver on the promises of relieving poverty.  Instead, African poverty has increased despite  — or perhaps because of — Western assistance. 


The world socialists in London condemned Live 8 as “part of a multi-million dollar propaganda campaign” to help President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, while the Ayn Rand Institute’s Andrew Bernstein blasted the G8’s debt forgiveness plans (dubbed insufficient by Live 8 zealots) as decidedly un-capitalist.   


Even Live 8’s key backers admitted that debt relief alone cannot solve Africa’s problems.   But few were listening when Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of South African president Thabo  Mbeki, told the G8 that, “The best way to keep Africans poor is to continue handing money  to political elites who suppress development.”    Mbeki went on to explain that, 60 years ago, the Marshall Plan pulled Europe and Japan out of the doldrums because it was driven by the principles of strengthening democratic institutions and free markets.  Most African aid, however, has been provided under the erroneous assumption that strengthening the state will lead to development. 


The world press also failed to report that the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (the African Union’s own economic development arm) told the G8 that “lifting Africa from extreme poverty will require more than increased official development assistance or debt relief” and that “the key to creating favorable conditions for increased capital flows in Africa and keeping African capital on the continent will be its successful political and economic reform.” 


We, too, were saddened that so much of the Live 8 energy seemed to focus on debt relief and so little on economic reforms — even though Bono’s own group, DATA (debt, AIDS, trade, Africa), demands that rich nations open their markets, quota and duty free, to African exports, remove agricultural subsidies that hurt African farmers, and allow African nations  to harness the power of trade in their own way to maximize poverty alleviation and  economic growth. 


This part of the message was buried in Gleneagles and not well communicated to the millions who tuned in and signed petitions.  No wonder, then, that Cameroonian journalist Jean-Claude Shanda Tonme (writing in the New York Times) complained that “they still believe us to be like children that they must save, as if we don’t realize ourselves what the source of our problems is.”   “Our anger,” he continued, “is all the greater because despite all the presidents for life, despite all the evidence of genocide, we didn’t hear anyone at Live 8 raise a cry for democracy in Africa.” 


Why is it so hard for the West to get out of the way and let Africans help themselves out of poverty — or to provide the kind of help they truly need to overthrow tyrants, escape from oppressive trade policies, and develop socially and environmentally responsible free-market economies?  Does the West no longer agree with Mbeki that the private sector is the driver of modern economic development and that private property and the rule of law, free trade, just governance, and the absence of corruption in government are essential ingredients?


Given the West’s poor record of supporting local entrepreneurship in developing nations, CFACT believes that providing for economic growth and environmental responsibility in Africa and the rest of the developing world will require nothing less than a whole new mindset based on cooperation as opposed to edict.  We see the beginnings of this new mindset in the Millennium Challenge Corporation, created by President Bush in 2002 as a new template for providing U.S. foreign aid. 


The Millennium Challenge Account, which issued its first grants earlier this year, limits aid to nations that meet standards for governing justly, encouraging economic freedom, and investing in people.  The 16 nations that to date have qualified for aid have met measurable goals for civil liberties and political rights, the rule of law and control of corruption, public health and education, and empowerment of women (among others). 


The very first project approved, a $110 million grant to Madagascar, will help that nation formalize its land tenure system, modernize the nation’s land registry, expand land title services to rural citizens, improve the national banking system, and set up a body that identifies investment opportunities for rural citizens to reach markets and trains farmers and other entrepreneurs in production, management, and marketing techniques.  In short, this aid focuses on infrastructure and institutional reforms that will provide assurances for those investing capital that their profits will not be stolen. 


CFACT’s vision is to put teams together to serve fledgling entrepreneurs and local communities in developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America as they formulate and carry out their own economic development goals that are consistent with a free society and a cleaner environment.  Our South African colleague and spokesman, Kelvin Kemm, suggests that Western pop stars would do more for poor nations by pleading for big-dollar purchases of their manufactured goods than by suppressing economic development via handouts. 


To that end, CFACT’s new Social Entrepreneurship and Free-Market Environmental Demonstration (SEFED) program is seeking others who truly want to lift African and other poor nations out of poverty.  SEFED will create work groups in which governmental bodies, non-governmental organizations, financial institutions, capital suppliers, and environmental activists will work with local leadership to facilitate economic development, while at the same time incorporating social and environmental health standards. 


We anticipate finding many allies among the Live 8 partners.  Mercy Corps, for example, strongly supports local management of economic development projects in communities committed to civil society principles and political stabilization via peaceful means.  OxFam America helps local farmers gain access to new markets, develop their agricultural methods, diversify production, and organize to enable testing of new markets and methods and to better compete for those markets. 


It will take new coalitions with this new mindset to make real progress.  British journalist Matthew Parris recounts that during a recent visit to Ethiopia, he went to a village in which women walked with buckets and rope in sweltering heat to get water from a dirty, uncovered well.  He wondered why no one had installed a cheap bush windmill and a pipeline to deliver the water to the villagers, and was told by a guide that the villagers were waiting for UNICEF or some NGO — “But it is too far, too hot for them,” he added.   


The regional authority was building a huge, multistory office 100 miles away (with foreign aid money), but no one was addressing the property rights and financing issues that would have encouraged a local entrepreneur (or even the community) to do this simple job for themselves.  Even though there was local capital, knowledge of mechanics, and demand for the water, no one was willing — without assurance of ownership — to borrow the money (if a trusted lender could be found) to do the job. 


CFACT intends to find partners who will meet people in Africa, Latin America, and Asia where they live, ask what they need, and help them get it.  The only remaining question is, who will join us?  


Special thanks to Duggan Flanakin, coordinator of CFACT’s south central U.S. region, who contributed to this commentary.

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CFACT defends the environment and human welfare through facts, news, and analysis.