Why to aid Africa now

There are dozens of ethical and strategic reasons for assisting the new nations of Africa with American economic grants and loans. Such aid, if intelligently directed, can make it possible for poorer countries to modernize, avoid the perils of predatory authoritarianism, and escape military control. Many advocates also promote American aid as a means of minimizing Soviet influence in countries struggling to maintain minimal growth rates.

Nevertheless, aid has become far less fashionable than before in congressional circles. Despite American help in the 1960s, African countries experimented with varieties of strong and despotic rule. They also flirted with or became Marxist almost irrespective of American and Western aid flows. The percentage of American economic assistance as a proportion of gross national product has fallen below 1 percent. Where the United States once gave more than other major countries, it and Japan rank toward the bottom on most scales of generosity.

In early June the defenders of aid to Africa in the House of Representatives mounted a major campaign to preserve modest grants to the new Zimbabwe and to Zambia and Mozambique. For all three countries the arguments, which must still be made, are clear.

In the case of Zimbabwe, as a recent visit there confirmed, the new leaders are determined to make their country a showcase of sensible development. Despite the legacy of a bitter war and a decade of Marxist sloganeering, Prime Minister Robert Mugabe and his Cabinet colleagues have a clear sense of priorities. They have learned from the mistakes of other black African nations, and intend to avoid short-term solutions to complex, multifaceted problems.

As a result of a bitter war that lasted eight years and devastated rural areas of the country, Zimbabwe must rebuild schools, clinics, roads, and water systems. The list basic rural needs totals at least $200 million. If the long-neglect African farming areas are to be developed and agricultural productivity to be enhanced, then roads, water, and technical assistance must be provided on an urgent basis.

The settlement of war refugees and the provision of occupations for about 50, 000 ex-soldiers is a critical need. Zimbabwe's leaders want desperately to avoid the destabilization which could come from letting loose unemployed ex-soldiers into the countryside

The white-run civil service leadership is gradually to be replaced by Africans; those who assume top positions will need to be trained. So will diplomats. The pent-up demand for education is massive in the urban areas among long-disenfranchised Africans.

Each of these needs has a large price tag. The United States has promised $ 50 million over three years, was able to make nearly $5 million immediately available, and expects to send about $17 million in the first year. West Germany will assist. Britain has promised more than $100 million over five years, much of it immediately. There will be multinational aid flows, too.

But Zimbabweans put these amounts alongside the $1 billion promised by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1976. Admittedly, the circumstances of that gift were very different from those of the tangible aid to today. His promise was made to persuade whites to agree to black rule, and was intended to a large extent to assist white resettlement. Moreover, Congress would surely have balked in 1976 or 1977 at the appropriation of such an amount. Nevertheless, the legacy is there, and leading Zimbabweans forcefully make a point of reminding visiting Americans about it. Some even deride $50 million as mere "peanuts."

Zimbabwe's friends are Yogoslavia, Mozambique, Romania, China, Britain, and the US. The American Embassy opened on day one of independence. The Soviet Union has thus far been denied permission to open an embassy. So as East Germany.

Those in Congress who spoke recently against aid to Zambia and Mozambique complained about human rights violations and, in Zambia's case, of its purchase of MIG-21 aircraft from the Soviet Union. But Mozambique has recently begun moving back from a Marxist toward a mixed system of enterprise which will welcome private foreign participation. President Samora Machel even promoted the return of Portuguese small businessmen.

In Zambia, which is dependent economically on a severely fluctuating price of copper, there are desperate times ahead. President Kenneth Kaunda, like Machel, is leading a return toward a mixed economy and has restored the profit incentive to state-run corporations. Moreover, the MIGs have not yet arrived and perhaps never will.

If Zimbabwe fails to prosper, and if Mozambique and Zambia slide backwards into the economic abyss, Soviet initiatives in southern Africa will receive more local approval than they do now. If the three countries tend toward instability , then change in South Africa will be slowed. This is the precise moment to increase our flow of assistance to Africa, especially to the critical nations of central and southern Africa. If we do not or cannot, a splendid opportunity to influence the course of events in that part of the world, and to benefit needy and responsible peoples, will have been lost -- possibly for the balance of the decade.

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