Africa's Problem: Wrong Got It All Right

Roger Bate reviews It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower, by Michela Wrong.

Michela Wrong is an astute observer of the darker side of Africa's politics. Her third book, It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower (Fourth Estate, £12.99) is her best yet. It is also her most important because it highlights a key problem, not just for Kenya, but for all recipients of aid--corruption can undermine democracy.

Led by the Bush administration, the last decade has seen an explosion in health aid, and expectations are high that this will be sustained. However, much of this money may be badly spent, precisely because of the type of corruption that Wrong exposes.

Describing the actions of Kenyan politicians, she neatly explains why the problem of corruption is endemic: propping up vast patronage networks makes bending the rules obligatory. 'The man who abided by the rules and took home no more than his salary seemed to his relatives a creep; the employee who fiddled the books and paid for his aunt's funeral, his niece's education and his father's hernia operation a hero'.

By circumventing quality control, illegal actors can spread substandard drugs, making huge profits and killing hundreds of children.

To pay for these things, civil servants and politicians have to take bribes from businessmen and other deal-makers, both local and global. A current example, which is slowly being exposed in the Kenyan media, is the association between local business elites in Nairobi, Kenya's capital, and Indian pharmaceutical traders. By circumventing quality control, illegal actors can spread substandard drugs, making huge profits and killing hundreds of children.

The Daily Nation newspaper in Nairobi was leaked a copy of a report, 'Antimalaria Medicines in Kenya: Availability, Quality and Registration Status', compiled by government officials, the University of Nairobi and World Health Organization consultants in November 2008. It 'confirms what has always been known to be the biggest obstacle to a successful anti-malaria campaign--well-entrenched cartels of drug manufacturers and distributors working in cahoots with corrupt Health ministry officials to supply their own drugs', claims the Nation.

The paper let me see the report and it is revealing in the extreme. 'Of the medicines on the market, almost half have not been registered with the Pharmacy and the Poisons Board and of the unregistered products, the majority were from Kenya and India', it says. The study found that fewer than a third of the anti-malarial formulations in Kenya are recommended, and on average 16% of the antimalarials were substandard, with a higher failure rate for the most popular drugs. This kills hundreds of people.

While aid agencies generally buy good quality drugs, some, including the Global Fund, occasionally buy from unvetted suppliers. The Fund contracted to buy over seven million anti-malarial treatments from Ajanta, an Indian company; the drugs were not properly tested and the company also failed to deliver the requisite amount on time. In the end, the US government intervened with good quality alternatives.

While such direct occurrences are rare, aid agencies routinely cause problems by turning a blind eye to corruption. Michela Wrong brilliantly exposes this fact with myriad examples in Kenya. My favourite story is more implicit than factual, but it is indicative of the problem. Sir Edward Clay, Britain's High Commissioner to Kenya, repeatedly complained that the Kenyan government of President Mwai Kibaki was 'vomiting' on the shoes of donors, due to the very graft they had been elected in 2002 to stop. Yet during the same time the World Bank's Kenya Director, Makhtar Diop, was still promoting the country as a safe place for investment. But if Diop was ever an objective observer, by 2005 he was living in accommodation owned by the Kenyan president, and had become despised by those trying to fight corruption in the country. As Wrong puts it: 'The official responsible for telling World Bank headquarters whether Kenya deserved millions of dollars in aid, who influenced donor governments into granting or withholding further millions in bilateral assistance, saw nothing amiss in paying rent to the president of a client nation'.

The World Bank is such a large and influential donor that by turning a blind eye to graft, many others followed suit.

Roger Bate is the Legatum Fellow in Global Prosperity at AEI.

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