The West Extorts Way More Money from Africa Than It Gives in Aid
by Oscar Rickett, First published Jun 15 2017
We should be putting our western guilt to good use and pressuring government to regulate “investment” in the continent.
The world’s second-largest continent, Africa, is still defined in the western media in just two principle ways.
The more “woke” understanding of Africa is the idea of “Africa Rising”, which is defined by images of young people on bustling streets speaking on mobile phones. “Africa Rising” stories tend to focus on smart entrepreneurs doing something tech-related in massive urban centres like Lagos, Nairobi or Cape Town. They promote an image of the continent that is considered modern and future-focused. These stories are often, as the Kenyan journalist Parselelo Kantai once put it to me, “insidious little fictions manufactured by global corporate finance”.
The other main narrative is the more familiar one: hapless Africa, the tragic continent that can only continue to survive with the help of aid money provided to it by outsiders. This is the narrative of Live Aid and Bono, the story told to us immediately after news reports of famine and unrest in places that, we are made to believe, just can’t get by without western charity.
Given these two themes, it would seem unlikely that more money is taken out of the 47 countries that form what is commonly called “Sub-Saharan Africa” than is put back in. Yet, British and African campaign groups, including Global Justice Now, released a report this month which found that, in 2015, much more money was taken out of Africa in the form of illegal extraction of natural resources, tax avoidance and spiralling interest on debt repayments than was “given” to the continent in the form of aid and grants.
The report, entitled Honest Accounts 2017 , finds that the countries of Africa are “collectively net creditors to the rest of the world, to the tune of $41.3 billion [£32.2 billion] in 2015”.
Rather than Africa being a hapless continent dependent on the rest of the world, it is the exploited continent whose natural resources are enriching a local and global elite at the expense of the vast majority of its citizens, and whose governments can do little about the illegal syphoning of revenue into tax havens.
According to War on Want, 101 (mostly British) companies listed on the London Stock Exchange control an identified $1.05 trillion (£820 billion) worth of resources in Africa in just five commodities: oil, gold, diamonds, coal and platinum. Twenty-five of those companies are incorporated in tax havens.
While African countries receive around $19 billion (£14 billion) in aid in the form of grants, $68 billion (£53 billion) is taken out in capital flight. The main culprits are multinational corporations and corrupt officials with their large infrastructure of lawyers, bankers, accountants and financial advisors skilled in tax dodging.
The main device used is transfer pricing. By overpricing imports and under-pricing exports on customs documents, companies and individuals can move money to tax havens. This means that multi-national companies deliberately misreport the value of their imports or exports in order to reduce the tax they have to pay on them. Furthermore, these same companies repatriate $32 billion (£25 billion) in profits made in Africa to their home countries every year. Money made on the continent of Africa, then, is returned to enrich those outside of Africa.
The report goes on to say that African governments paid out $18 billion (£14 billion) in debt interest and principal payments in 2015. Though they received $32.8 billion (£25.6 billion) in loans, the overall level of debt is rising rapidly, and loans often lock African governments into even more debt: private lenders, the report notes, “are encouraged to act irresponsibly because when debt crises arise, the IMF, World Bank and other institutions lend more money, which enables the high interest to private lenders to be paid, whilst the debt keeps growing”. Ghana is losing 30 percent of its government revenue to debt repayments. Private lenders benefit, while ordinary Africans suffer.
Illegal logging, fishing and the trade in wildlife and plants are also hurting Africa, with an estimated $29 billion (£22.6 billion) a year being stolen from the continent through these practices. Climate change is hitting the continent particularly badly; though of course the extractive and industrial practices that led to climate change were a phenomenon of non-African countries.
As Bernard Adaba, policy analyst with ISODEC in Ghana, says: “‘Development’ is a lost cause in Africa while we are haemorrhaging billions every year to extractive industries, western tax havens and illegal logging and fishing. Some serious structural changes need to be made to promote economic policies that enable African countries to best serve the needs of their people rather than simply being cash cows for western corporations and governments.”
Many decades after the official end of the western empires in Africa, the continent is still being sucked dry by a cartel made up of small local elites, multi-national companies and foreign governments. The money given to Africa to help its so-called “development” is referred to as “aid”, when in fact it should be seen as a form of reparations for a history of colonisation and ongoing domination that has left the African people almost as far from economic and social justice as they were when the European empires packed up and left in the years following the end of the Second World War.
Recognising the troubling role western governments and companies play in the impoverishment of Africa could serve as a beginning to reverse this process. The Honest Accounts report proposes a number of steps that can be taken to help reverse the flow of money out of Africa, including putting less faith in the extractives industry, enabling transparent and responsible lending and regulating the investment that corporations bring in to African countries.
The report also speaks of the damage done by enforced privatisation (sometimes disguised as aid) across the continent, and calls for the promotion of “economic policies that genuinely lead to equitable development”. Currently, too little power lies in the hands of local people and the market is given free rein.
Tax havens are a key issue, one that was recognised in Labour’s election manifesto, which said that the “current global tax system is deeply unjust”. Jeremy Corbyn’s party promises to “act decisively on tax havens”, which play a key role in allowing vast sums of money to be taken out of Africa. The UK enables this wealth extraction to take place and sits at the head of a vast network of tax havens.
Finally, there is the need for more public recognition of what is going on. This is not about stoking up western guilt; it is about identifying the causes behind rising inequality in Africa and elsewhere, and about correcting a lazy media narrative that patronises and insults Africans while keeping everyone in a state of ignorance. The truth is this: Africa is still being plundered. It is time western governments and the western media stopped pretending otherwise.