By John Kidenda
Integrity, Aid or Trade; the choice, at least between two of these is almost impossible to make. It goes without saying that it takes a balance of numerous factors working in concert to nurture any sort of successful socio-economic structure. Having to choose one out of three puts one in the difficult position of having to implicitly relegate the remaining two to positions of inferiority which may in turn lead to the false notion that the factor chosen can, on its own, drive progress. I do believe however that the inability to at least prioritize our pursuit of these factors has led to a crippling inertia in policy toward Africa that has done more harm to the continent than has so far been accounted for.
As with most people who have grown up in Africa, I am very skeptical of aid’s ability to deliver anything more than stop-gap measures for short term crises. Unlike some, I do believe that it has its uses and can be effective if applied properly i.e. to short term projects with a very tightly controlled scope defined by self articulated needs of a specified population. Any attempt to use aid to foster any sort of long term systemic change in Africa will fail because the open-ended nature or such commitments necessarily creates dependency and undermines accountability in young countries fragile political structures. Though I fully acknowledge the importance of stop-gap measures in times of crisis, I am primarily interested in systemic change in Africa and so I will focus on trade and integrity.
At this point I will take what some may consider a controversial step and prioritize trade over integrity as an immediate need for the African continent. I am well aware that there can only really be long term success in trade with political integrity, but as John Maynard Keynes once put it ‘In the long run we are all dead’. For over half a century now, African economies have been dying a slow methodical death as local activists and those in the west mauled over ways to inject our leadership class with the type of integrity that would make it possible for western style capitalism and commerce to work in Africa. You don’t have to be a scholar to deduce that those efforts succeeded only in painting an image of Africa as a continent filled with despotic warlords, a chaotic land where business was impossible because the only certainty was the uncertainty of your hold on your investments. This image problem is the main reason why it has taken Africa so long to begin emerging onto the world stage as not only a viable investment destination but a lucrative one even when returns are risk adjusted. This reassessment of the African continent has been driven by trade, not by the sudden emergence of a new integrous leadership class on the continent. It has been driven by the application what Loretta Napoleoni calls ‘Maonomics’ in her book of the same title  , the sort of nimble adaptable capitalism that has been able to navigate the chaotic African business landscape and create value despite the challenges.
I am not saying that the emergence of international trade with Africa was some kind of panacea, there was and still is lot of waste and corruption that does a lot to hold the continent back from reaching its full potential. This is regrettable and needs to be addressed. What I am saying is that trade has transformed the continent from a place that was regressing deeper into the backwaters of the global economic landscape to a region that is projected to have an average growth rate of 6%  in 2012 as the rest of the world reels from the effects of the recession of 2008. Africa has gone from a continent that had almost no democracies to speak of to one in which over half the countries have held elections albeit with varying degrees of success . There is no doubt that the democratic and political institutions in Africa as a whole are strengthening, and this has come on the heels of robust economic growth fueled by trade which has created a new African middle class which the world bank estimates to be at about 300M people , a full third of Africa’s population. This middle class is deeply invested in the well being of their countries and continent because Africa now not only represents their physical homeland but is also the home of their economic livelihoods. Aided by the vast proliferation of broadcast technology, this new class of Africans have began to successfully advocate for the kinds of political and policy changes that will make their governments more accountable and yes, increase the level of integrity in their respective countries.
My own country, Kenya, only recently held a constitutional referendum in which over 70% of the electorate participated . The government campaigned vigorously against the implementation of the new constitution but graciously accepted the will of the people when the public voted overwhelmingly in favor of the new constitution. This high level of civic participation was particularly impressive given that the country had just gone through a difficult election which really strained people’s faith in the democratic process due to irregularities in the voting process that lead to violent riots and deaths in early 2009. All this has happened despite the fact that the Kenyan corruption perception index has barely moved up an inch this decade. What has changed though over the last 10 years is Kenya’s economic trajectory. The country has experienced an unprecedented period of economic growth with the World Bank projecting this year’s GDP growth to be around 5.0% , impressive especially for an economy that does not rely on the extraction of mineral resources but rather on trade with its neighbors and the world. It is therefore not much of a stretch to attribute the strengthening political landscape in Kenya to growth in economic opportunity that has come with enhanced trade. This strengthening is sure to give rise to more integrity in both the public and private sector.
So in conclusion I would like to say that I believe that both trade and integrity are important for the true success of the African renaissance but waiting for integrous leaders to create the ‘appropriate conditions’ for trade is putting the cart before the horse. The evidence points to the fostering of trade and the subsequent wealth creation as the surest way to make progress on the integrity front. Let’s trade Africa!