Statist NGOs wreak havoc in Africa

Ever since the 19th century territorial scramble for Africa, Africans have become used to Western intervention in their affairs. Decolonisation and independence was supposed to mark the end of this, and to a large extent, Africans govern their countries in a sovereign way. But long after the pith helmets and starched uniforms of the colonisers have left Africa, a new breed of colonialist is emerging. These are the statist NGO campaigners who hope to save Africa from everything from GM food to globalisation.

These NGOs consist of ‘consumer’ and humanitarian groups and ‘development’ charities. They are united in the belief that modern industrial civilisation, profit and competition are unethical. In their view, people, particularly those in developing countries, would be better served by the existence of strong, comprehensive regulations and state intervention that put ‘equity’ and the redistribution of wealth ahead of the economic dynamism that has made the West and eastern countries like Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea wealthy

But despite their claims to represent the interests of the poor, only a few hundred of the several thousand NGOs registered at the UN come from developing countries. The vast majority are from the United States.

These groups have an influence that stretches way beyond their size and funding. Many poorer countries do not have the technical capacity to formulate their own policies around the provision of social services such as health, so they subcontract to bodies such as the WHO, whose mandate it is to provide impartial, scientific advice to member states.

WHO has been colonised by these NGOs that now act as de facto policy consultants and play a big part in formulating the technical and policy advice WHO gives to its member states. But despite their elevation to the policy establishment, the NGOs consistently get things wrong.

Take the example of AIDS. Health experts recognise that the best way to tackle the disease is to prioritise prevention, thereby stopping the total number of infections from increasing every year. Of course treatment is essential, but not to the exclusion of spending on prevention. The NGOs, however, pushed hard for the majority of public monies to be spent on drug treatment programmes for the already infected – even though the most affected countries don’t have the doctors and clinics required to administer the drugs. WHO bowed to this pressure: infections continue to rise, and treatment is delivered in a haphazard and therefore medically questionable manner.

A similar thing happened with malaria. For many years, countries from India to South Africa successfully controlled malaria by spraying the inside of houses with DDT, the insecticide that enabled developed countries to rid themselves of the malaria-carrying mosquito. Environmentalists and NGOs played up scientifically unsound scare stories to demonise the pesticide and pushed for WHO to stop recommending its use, which it did from the 1990s. Malaria cases soared globally. Recently SA unilaterally reintroduced DDT spraying and cases plummeted.

Western NGOs have successfully scared European consumers from buying GM crops grown in Africa, making it very difficult for farmers exporting to the EU to make a living. Now they are adding to these problems by claiming that flying fresh produce from Africa to Europe contributes to climate change.

NGOs have begun to operate at the national level, feeding statist policy advice direct to African governments. The latest frontier for this invasion of policy space is the relationship between intellectual property and public health.

Activists have for many years argued that because very few drugs have been developed for a handful of tropical diseases that occur in the poorest countries, intellectual property is inherently unjust. These activists have been using this claim to push for a health research and development treaty in which bureaucrats rather than markets determine what diseases are researched. They hope that if profit is removed from the R&D equation, we will be ushered into a magical new age in which inexpensive new blockbuster medicines will become freely available to the poor – never mind the fact that market-led R&D has produced the vast majority of all treatments currently available in both high and low income countries at no cost to the taxpayer, and that cancer and heart disease are now among the biggest killers in poor countries. Similarly, activists downplay the fact that the terrible health problems faced by most poor countries are a direct result of decrepit and corrupt state health monopolies and terrible living conditions, and have very little to do with intellectual property.

NGOs have now managed to initiate the beginnings of a global treaty on health R&D, which would see intellectual property standards diluted and more research done by governments. They achieved this by lobbying African governments at WHO: the similarities between the NGOs’ campaign literature and the position papers of Kenya, the leading proponent of this scheme, are too many to be a coincidence. Many African countries have signed up to Kenya’s proposals.

The Kenyan government is not credulous, and has its own reasons for promoting this scheme. It may be that it wishes to protect the interests of its own domestic pharmaceutical industry, or it may be a politically useful way of transferring the blame for its own failures in healthcare provision to external bodies such as multinational pharmaceutical companies.

Statist NGOs have enormous influence on public opinion, the UN, and now, it seems, on African governments, even though, time and again, their proposals have been shown not to work. But before we take their medicine, we must carefully read the label. If we do not, we are likely to suffer serious and unpleasant side effects.

Author: Temba A Nolutshungu is a director of the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

FMF Feature Article/ 02 October 2007
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