Helping Africa Help Itself: Lessons from Chad

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Poverty - extreme deprivation - is a perennial problem on much of the African continent. Regardless of the cause, whether it be Africa's history of slavery and colonialism, or its continuing problems of corrupt governments, civil and cross border wars and well-intentioned but ill-planned and badly executed international aid, the question remains - "How can the poorest of the world's poor achieve some modicum of health, wealth and well-being?" People in the developed world take these things for granted; those in the developing world, quite rightly, want them as well.

Two points are clear. First, anti-globalism protesters and politicians have nothing to offer Africa's poor. They are a motley collection of religious zealots, environmental extremists and anti-immigrant neo-fascist isolationists, each of whom for their own reasons, desires the West to take a hands-off policy towards African development, which leads to the second point: The only thing more morally repugnant and politically objectionable than attempting, if only to fail, to help the people of Africa's varied poverty stricken nations improve their economic and political fortunes, would be to follow the advice of the anti-globalists and leave Africa as is.

Fortunately, there are some bright spots on the horizon for Africa. First, the tactics and message of anti-globalist protestors have lost much of their appeal in the aftermath of the terrorists attacks of September 11. Second, every major international meeting, from the meeting of World Bank early this year, to the G-8 industrialized nations held in Canada in June, to July's world AIDS conference in Spain, to the U.N's Global Conference on Sustainable Development scheduled for South Africa in August - all are or will be centrally focused on aid for and development in Africa. The plight of Africa has the world's attention now as never before.

History shows that money alone is not the answer to Africa's woes. Billions of dollars in development aid and loans have been squandered or, worse, used by corrupt African leaders and warlords to enrich themselves while keeping their countrymen politically powerless in squalid conditions. The question is how to avoid mistakes of the past and ensure that future investments in Africa yield gains and sustainable progress for all of the continent's people.

There is a great experiment underway in Chad that may hold the answer. The people of Chad are the fifth poorest on earth. Annual per capita income is $230 and life expectancy is 47. Three-quarters of the population lack access to health care, sanitation, or safe water. Hope comes from Chad's vast mineral resources and oil companies that want access to them.

In particular, a consortium of international oil companies, led by ExxonMobil, is developing a $3.5 billion pipeline project through Chad and Cameroon. Over the lifetime of the project, Chad's share would top $2.5 billion and double the government's annual budget.

However, anti-globalists, human rights watchdogs and some environmentalists have been leery of the project, having watched as other African energy projects wreaked havoc on the environment while solidifying some violent dictator's grip on power. Thus, to make this project happen, the Exxon-led consortium brought in the World Bank to negotiate terms and mediate disagreements concerning pipeline development. In doing so, Exxon and the World Bank shared the role of development agency, human-rights watchdogs, and, perhaps most unlikely, environmental guardians. The World Bank lent $93 million to the governments of Chad and Cameroon so they could participate in the project as investors.

In addition, the World Bank negotiated a unique agreement with Chad's President: Under a law passed by the country's parliament, 10 percent of oil revenues would be held in trust for future generations; 80 percent would be earmarked for education, health, and rural development; and no less than 5 percent would go back to oil-producing regions. All expenditures would be supervised by a nine-person committee that includes four non-governmental representatives. And because Chad lacks a basic system of financial controls, the Bank will help the government build one from scratch.

On the ground, this venture is already paying dividends: benefiting people in some of the neediest regions of Chad by building basic infrastructure like roads, schools, medical clinics and water works. Only time will tell whether the unique arrangement in Chad will be successful and improve the lot of the average citizen of Chad. If it does, however, the development project in Chad may prove to be the best model for future development projects in Africa.