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THE INDEX — October 16, 2009

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Jodi Liss: Omar Bongo and the Big Vegetables

Every student of International Relations Theory 101 gets treated to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Parable of the Stag Hunt. You remember the tale: two hunters are sent into the woods looking for a stag to feed their starving village. To bag the animal, they must independently choose to work together or each can choose to snare a rabbit for themselves (which can be accomplished alone). In the end, they choose the lesser task: feasting as the villagers starve, foregoing the uncertain rewards of cooperation for more immediate, assured ends. Rousseau’s parable illustrates the all-too-prevalent triumph of self-interest over group loyalty. But it's also a perfect metaphor for corruption. Omar Bongo, the president of Gabon died last week. Few in the West had heard of him until his obituary appeared on the front page of The New York Times. Gabon is a small but oil-rich country on the Atlantic coast of Africa, and Bongo, who ruled for 41 years, was one of the smoother, most clever oil despots the world has ever seen. He sustained his power not by overt violence but by co-opting enemies and, allegedly, running a network of spies and informants. Gabon is a former French colony, and Bongo played on that nation's guilt and need for oil to keep in the West's good books. He and his family amassed a fortune on what should have been a civil servant’s salary. No one was fooled. Everyone knows Bongo’s story is scarcely unique in the developing world. Yet what Omar Bongo did is almost beside the point—it’s what he didn’t do in 41 years that matters. Simply put, he didn’t bother to create a functioning country. For years, we've heard the truism that developing countries needed Western aid to build successful economies. But has it worked? Despite billions in loans and gifts to developing nations, poverty is still rampant, especially in Africa. Since the beginning of the Cold War, international aid was often a fig leaf for payoffs and bribes to dictators to keep them in one camp or another. Rarely did the money spent trickle down to the people who needed it most. Economists now debate whether the West should continue to lend or give aid money to developing countries in the hopes that it will eventually help matters, or whether it just abets corruption and makes things worse. But dozens of countries haven’t truly needed aid....



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