Chris McGreal writes: American aid to the country once called Zaire appeared to have an amazing effect.
The more the US gave its ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko, the shorter Zaire’s roads seemed to get. By the time Mobutu was overthrown in 1997, after two decades of American and other western largesse, his country had just about one tenth of the paved roads it had had at independence in the early Sixties. Once US aid shrank, the roads started getting longer again.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, began a tour of Africa this month with a thinly veiled warning that China is out to plunder the continent and its governments would do well to huddle under the protective wing of America’s commitment to freedom. Clinton told an audience in Senegal that, unlike other countries:
“America will stand up for democracy and universal human rights even when it might be easier to look the other way and keep the resources flowing.”
She didn’t mention China by name, but everyone got the message. The US secretary of state is getting at a point made by other critics of Beijing’s role in Africa: that China is so hungry for resources it does deals with authoritarian regimes and doles out aid without consideration of issues such as good governance.
That sounds an awful lot like what the US and its allies got up to for decades – with the difference that Chinese aid does sometimes deliver something tangible, such as thousands of kilometres of new roads in the former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Whereas US aid mostly disappeared into Mobutu’s buoyant bank accounts, or was used to buy off the army to keep him in power, China’s deal with the DRC government – trading thousands of kilometres of new roads and rehabilitated railway track for copper and other minerals – is transforming lives by linking up parts of the country cut off from each other for decades except by air.
None of this happened with US and western money. US aid to Mobutu was tied up with the cold war, his support of US-backed rebels fighting Angola’s Marxist government and his general hostility to communism. Barely a word was said – by successive US administrations – about Mobutu’s dire human rights record. Few questions were asked about how, despite the billions of dollars thrown at Kinshasa, Mobutu went on getting richer while the people he ruled got poorer and his country’s infrastructure fell apart. [Continue reading…]