Editorial: You Can't Argue with the Figures!
Monday, 18 January 2010

‘You can't argue with the figures!' A friend who had bemusedly followed my aversion to badly dressed rock stars appointing themselves to the already overcrowded position of Saviour of Africa decided it was time to get serious: Bono's ‘Project Red' had raised more than USD135m for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, he threw down the challenge.

I practically argue for a living, though, and this was mere entry level: USD135m looks like a good chunk of money, but only until you put it in perspective: It's roughly what Safaricom pays in taxes in two years. One company, in one country. And not unlike the money collected by the KRA, a fair bit of the money disbursed by the Global Fund also gets diverted to people it wasn't originally intended for: Uganda's well connected had a good jolly with the cash in 2005 (and in piece of supreme irony, money allocated to investigate the stolen Global Fund cash has also gone safari. Kenya has just lost out on another funding round for similar reasons. Hey, you'll say. Don't be such a witch, don't knock good intentions. Surely some of it will go to a good purpose, no?

But consider for a second the PR price that ‘ Africa ' has to pay for this handful of dollars. I'd be quite happy for Bono and Angelina Jolie and the like to stay right where they are and keep quiet. So Project Red's massive media campaigns, celebrity visits or events such as LiveAid may raise awareness, but of what? Of a continent lumped together as one entity, full of needy poor people? Will that get anyone out to do business? At best, it will send yet more people to the global ‘Doing Something About Africa' industry and the donor and charity theme park it has created across the continent, breeding ever more absurd initiatives like Underwear for Africa' and ‘Bras for Africa' (not related, though, so don't hold your breath for co-ordinated underwear sets) and even teddy bears collected by Canadian teenage beauty queens and US recycled hotel soap to be shipped to Ugandan refugees?

The New York Times' Freakonomics blog has a piece about ‘African entrepreneurs' that readers appreciated as ‘heartwarming' – but what a non-profit hospice has to do in there is a mystery to me. As is the question why an article on African entrepreneurs doesn't bother with at least a nod to the big boys like Dangote, Ramaphosa and Mo Ibrahim (in his previous incarnation). Not heartwarming enough? Pinstriped suits, glass-tabled board rooms, vast number of jobs created, sums paid in taxes too boring, too familiar, too much like, perhaps, the rest of the business community around the globe? In contrast to this cute effort to train refugees in camps for outsourced jobs , Nick Nesbitt's KenCall makes less discernable efforts to be heartwarming – but employs and trains more people, and pays more taxes, and doesn't depend on donations to expand.

To come back to my starting point: When Bono starts playing a couple of concerts across the continent, when he makes music with his peers like the delightful Paul Simon did with the beautiful Graceland album and concert , when he invests in a couple of companies around here, then I'll listen to him again. In the meantime, I'll go about my business.

Enjoy the articles. They are largely free of rock stars and underwear.





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