Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The death of Françafrique? Or, old wine in new bottles?

Jean-Marie Bockel, the French minister of overseas aid, recently dropped a bomb: He’d like to sign the death certificate for “Françafrique,” the oft-corrupt, old boy network France uses to do business with its former colonies. The reason? It’s a waste of money that hinders the development of Africa.

France is a “generous” country, he says, last year alone doling out €9 billion in development aid through the French Development Agency. However, he admits there is a creeping skepticism regarding the results obtained from spending all these Euros. “I understand this skepticism. The efficacy of our aid, just like that given by other donors, is far from being optimal. It is useless to deny it. The results of several decades of development aid to Africa are disappointing,” he told an audience on January 15.

While the French cooperation with Africa has yielded some good results, Blockel is certain the system remains bankrupt at its core. (The translation is mine, so please don't quote me. Here's the original.)

It is necessary to consider what did not work, to understand how to replace the raison d'être for development aid, so that our generosity is effective. One knows part of the answer. One of the first problems for development is bad governorship, the wasting of the public funds, the negligence of failing administrative structures, the predation of certain leaders. Everyone knows it, well little say it.

…When the barrel is with more than 100 dollars, and that important oil-producing countries do not manage to develop themselves, their governance is in question. When the social indicators of these countries stagnate or regress while a minority carries out a luxurious way of life, their governance is in question. What becomes of these oil incomes? Why does the population not profit from this money? Is it legitimate that our development aid is allotted to countries which waste their own resources?

…It is to the Africans themselves to judge the action of their leaders. My intention is not to adopt a posture of moralism; it is to require efficiency. Initially because these are sums of money from the State, I want to spend them correctly. But also, because it is of our interest, as French, Europeans, to see Africa developing.

I have long practiced the culture of results and evaluation desired by president Sarkozy. I want to apply it to development aid. All too often, the evaluation of assistance is a long document proving to explain why the results were only reached "partially.” And sometimes, really very partially... I want a true evaluation, and when that does not work, one will stop (the aid).

He then reminded the audience that this is not a pretext for unilaterally canceling or decreasing aid. On the contrary, aid will increase, but – and this is the important part –on the condition that countries put forward effective policies and practice good governance. To do this, the French government will have to dismantle and sweep away “Françafrique” – code words for the obsolete system of safeguarding particular interests, the defense of secure incomes, the propping up of criminals masquerading as political leaders.

Today, in front of you, I want to sign the death certificate of "Françafrique." I want to turn the page on the practices of another time, on a mode of ambiguous relationships and complacency, from which some, [in France] like over there [in Africa], take advantage [of the situation] to the detriment of the general interest and development.

His proposals include: French cooperants will be evaluated not only by the host governments, but through a dialogue with the civil society in these countries, made up of the youth and the elites. He also proposes to define France’s development priorities with the Parliament, including a tallying of progress in the broad sense of governance (democracy, human rights, fight against corruption, business environment) for the ten countries most aided by France. Finally, he hopes to open up the dialogue regarding the goals and efficacy of French development not only to the government, but also to include such groups as NGOs and businesses.

Radical? On one hand, this speech comes from a member of the government which helped define the term “neo-colonialism.” A government where the previous head of state lamented the loss of Togo’s long-serving psychopath Eyadema Gnassingbé as a “close, personal friend.” A government that had not allowed – the Independent in London once claimed – “perestroika to take place” in its former colonies. A government where companies who are run by people with close ties to former leaders continue to receive preferential treatment in former colonies – Areva, I am looking at you.

Others are not so sure. Roland Marchal, a fellow at the Center for International Studies, recently wrote a piece in CSIS Online Forum claiming the Sarkozy government may have grand ideas regarding France’s new relationship with Africa, but the importance of the continent will soon be eclipsed by other domestic and European issues.

Sarkozy uses the media well, and he is interested in proving how different he is from Jacques Chirac. “He conveys a sense of drastic reforms to come,” Marchal argues. “The reality, however, is more prosaic… he will very likely pass on the less flashy but vitally important work on the continent to expert advisers. The breakthrough or rupture he is claiming will likely be nothing more than an adaptation to dynamics and trends that are beyond his reach, at least when it comes to Africa.”

It will be interesting to see if these reforms present a real turning point in the French African relationship, or it represents nothing less than “old wine in new bottles.”

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