African singer slams "neo-colonial" aid, business

MANKEH II, Sierra Leone – African singing star and anti-poverty campaigner Angelique Kidjo has accused Western aid donors and big businesses of exploiting poverty in Africa to promote "neo-colonial" interests.

Kidjo, from Benin, is one of a group of celebrity anti-poverty activists led by Irish rock stars Bono and Bob Geldof who have chided the world’s richest nations for failing to deliver on promises to double aid to Africa by 2010.

"Sometimes aid just jeopardises things in Africa," Kidjo told Reuters on Wednesday during a visit to Sierra Leone, which is ranked by the United Nations as the world’s least developed state as it struggles to recover from a civil war.

"Instead of helping the poor, the money ends up in the hands of the wrong people … Now we face the consequences of years of money badly spent," said Kidjo, who visited two primary schools in north Sierra Leone built by U.N. children’s agency UNICEF.

Kidjo, who is a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, criticised what she called the "neo-colonial attitude" that accompanied aid flows, which she said often ended up serving the interests of big businesses from the same donor countries.

"Aid was supposed to replace the consequences of colonised living in Africa, but the colonial powers did everything to keep on going in Africa," she said.

"There are all these private sector conditions for the aid — that’s how they (the big companies) get in," added the Grammy award-winner, who sported a cropped blonde haircut.

Kidjo made her comments as development and aid experts and senior officials from donor and recipient countries met this week in Accra, Ghana in a major conference to debate how to make aid work better for the world’s poor.

Critics of aid from the West say development assistance is often accompanied by so-called conditionality — demands from the Washington-based World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for free-market reforms like privatisation.

Proposals to improve the effectiveness of international aid call for a shift from "donor-driven" aid to projects more closely aligned with the policies of poor, recipient nations.

"CYCLE OF POVERTY"

Kidjo said the current structure of aid and investment flows helped perpetuate a cycle of dependence and poverty in Africa.

"We Africans are already poor and then we have to buy food from these same people. The shortage of food is coming from the interests of big companies and farmers can’t farm anymore because of them. Business as usual is killing poor people and the proportion of poor people is growing rapidly," she said.

As soaring fuel and food prices push more people into poverty, activists are calling for fairer global trade terms to help small farmers sell their goods in markets dominated and distorted by government subsidies and big corporations.

"The cycle of poverty continues. As long as there is poverty then business can go on, aid becomes a burden and the consequence becomes more poverty," Kidjo said.

The singer and songwriter, who was born in Benin, first began performing at the age of six and later moved to Paris to pursue her career.

She sees improving education as key to helping Africans build a better future on the world’s poorest continent.

She was told that in Sierra Leone, which is still recovering from a devastating 1991-2002 civil war, only 11 percent of the country’s children finish primary school and more than a quarter of girls marry before they are 15.

Kidjo has created her own charity, the Batonga Foundation, to promote secondary education for girls.

"I was raised in a family of 10 and my father was the only one with a salary. But they made sure every one of us went to school," she said.