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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala with the Last Word on Aid
Ethan Zuckerman, 8 Jun 07

Former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the sort of visionary African leader everyone on stage and in the crowd would wish for Africa. She’s challenged with summing up four days of discussions on “Africa, the next chapter”.

She tells us we’re seeing changes in Africa that we never thought would happen. We’ve seen annual growth of 5%, in some cases 6-7%, up from 2%. External debt has been massively reduced. Countries are building up foreign exchange reserves, shoring up their currencies. Private investment flows are increasing, remittances to Nigeria are skyrocketing, and there’s a net inflow of capital.

But Africa needs jobs. 62% of Africa’s population is under 24. We have to figure out how to make these people productive. Nigeria is now building an opinion research organization, a way of listening to citizen voices, which she notes is a rare thing on the continent. The top issue in every survey? Jobs.

Just a few years ago, she tells us, we couldn’t even talk about “the next chapter” for Africa. There was negative economic growth. There’s been an amazing transformation, and this is something that’s allowed us to have our debate about aid versus the private sector. “It has been a simplistic debate.” It needs to be about “a partnership that involves governments, donors, private sector, and ordinary Africans.” It’s not trade or aid - “what is the combination of all these factors is going to yield results?”

African entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim dreams of the moment when Africa is giving aid. “But we’re already doing it - the UK and the US could not have been built without African aid. The resources - including human resources - have made those countries what they are today.” So when those countries are willing to give something back, we need to take it, but we need to use it effectively.

Okonjo-Iweala tells a story about growing up during the Nigeria-Biafra war. Her father was a brigadeer on the Biafran side, and her family was doing very badly, eating a single meal a day. When she was 15, her mother was ill, and her three-year old sister was deathly ill from malaria. She put her sister on her back and walked 10 kilometers to a clinic, where she’d heard there was a good doctor. When she arrived, there were a thousand people outside, trying to break down the door. She went to the side and climbed in through the window. The doctor told her she’d barely saved her sister - she gave the girl a shot of chloroquine, put her onto rehydration and within hours, she was back to health. “The ten kilometers home with her on my back, that was the shortest walk of my life.” The point of the story: “When someone is saving a life, you don’t care that it’s aid - you want the person to be alive.”

Okonjo-Iweala tells us she doesn’t believe aid, even aid to save lives, in the sole answer. We have to use it well. Why has southern Spain developed? On the back of aid which was provided to build road and infrastructure. Ireland is one of the fastest growing economies in the world - they used aid to build infrastructure to build an information society. “They didn’t say no to aid - but if they can build infrastructure in Spain, why do they refuse to build the same infrastructure in our countries?”

She asks, “Are we calling the NGOs together and telling them what we want, asking them to coordinate? No. We haven’t taken charge and sat these people down to hear about our priorities.” [Having sat in endless donor coordination meetings, I’d ask whether this is really true.] “Aid can be a facilitator, a catalyst. If we fail to use it as a catalyst, we have failed our people.”

The Chinese are so popular in Africa, she tells us, because they don’t shy away from infrastructure. She talked with the Chinese ambassador, who told her that to develop, “You need infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure and discipline.” Okonjo-Iweala wants this infrastructure and discipline to create jobs, especially for women, who will use this support to support their families and their societies.

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