It is hard not to nod in sad agreement with The Economist's recent headline on Africa, "The Hopeless Continent." No region of the world is poorer, more heavily in debt, or more besieged by civil wars, refugees, famine, preventable deadly diseases, and state repression. On no continent is life more Hobbesian, quite literally, short, nasty, and brutish.
In the grip of an AIDS epidemic, life expectancy in some African countries is plunging back to precolonial levels. Many older Africans think things were better under British or French colonial rule. With some exceptions (mainly in southern Africa, primarily Botswana), the promise of independence has been squandered.
Africa has been wretchedly governed. Its now endemic political pathologies—corruption, nepotism, ethnic domination, abuse of power, decimation of the rule of law—have seeped into the culture. There are ways of reversing this tragedy, but unconditional debt forgiveness for the poorest of the poor countries is not one of them. Africa is flat broke. The nearly $400 billion it owes internationally represents three-quarters of its GDP and nearly four times its annual exports. But in many countries, the external debt—Nigeria's more than $30 billion, for example—is equaled or exceeded by what its political leaders have embezzled from the state.
Unless African countries lay the institutional foundations of limited and accountable government, under a true rule of law, they have no hope of relief from their burdens. Those institutions will not be encouraged by an unconditional debt write-off. Rather, "forgiveness" would reinforce the irresponsibility that has brought the continent to this juncture.
Africa needs the compassion of the West, but it also needs its conditionality. Debt must only be forgiven in exchange for lasting reforms that will control corruption. A new American president should lead the West in offering to Africa an international bargain: debt for democracy and development for good governance.
The bargain would suspend repayments on the debt of any poor country that established credible laws and independent structures to monitor the assets and conduct of public officials; to prosecute and remove corrupt officials; to audit public accounts; to insulate the judiciary from political interference or ethnic favor; to ensure public access to government information; and to protect freedom of the press and other freedoms of expression and association.
For every year a country holds to this bargain, its external debt should be reduced by 10 percent. After ten years, if the country continues to respect its own institutions, the preexisting stock of debt should be retired altogether.
Along with debt retirement, more assistance should go to train, equip, and empower the judges, lawyers, accountants, auditors, administrators, elected officials, journalists, civil society leaders, and activists necessary to make good governance a reality.
Such a bargain would help African countries lay the institutional foundations for sustainable economic growth and for attracting foreign investment outside of oil and other minerals. Only with freedom, transparency, and a rule of law can Africa escape its miseries. Only with conditionality can the West show compassion.