EVER since the 19th century scramble for Africa, we have become used to western intervention although decolonisation was supposed to mark the end of this. But soon after the pith helmets and starched uniforms had left Africa, a new breed of colonialists emerged: the statist Non-Governmental Organisations that are here to save us from everything from genetically-modified food to globalisation.
These NGOs consist of â€œconsumerâ€ and humanitarian groups and â€œdevelopmentâ€ charities, united in the belief that modern industrial civilisation, profit and competition are unethical.
In their view, people, particularly those in developing countries, would be better served by regulations and state intervention that put â€œequityâ€ and the redistribution of wealth ahead of the economic dynamism that has enriched the West and such eastern countries as Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.
But despite their claims to represent the interests of the poor, only a few hundred of the several thousand NGOs registered at the United Nations come from developing countries. The vast majority are from the USA, with many from Britain, France and Germany.
These groups have an influence that stretches way beyond their size. Many poor countries do not have the technical capacity to formulate their own policies for social services such as health, so they subcontract bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), whose mandate it is to provide impartial scientific advice to governments.
The WHO has been colonised by these NGOs, acting as policy consultants and playing a big part in formulating the WHOâ€™s technical and policy advice to members. But the NGO advisers consistently get things wrong.
Take AIDS. Because there is no cure, the only way to tackle the spread of the pandemic is to prioritise prevention, thereby stopping the number of infections from increasing every year. Of course treatment is essentialâ€”but not to the exclusion of prevention.
The NGOs, however, pushed hard for most public money to be spent on drugs for those already infectedâ€”even though the worst affected countries do not have the doctors and clinics to administer the drugs. The WHO bowed to this pressure, so infections continue to rise and treatment is haphazard.
A similar thing happened with malaria. For years, countries from India to South Africa successfully controlled malaria by spraying the insides of houses with DDT. Environmentalists and NGOs played up scientifically unsound scare stories from the USA to demonise the pesticide and pushed for a ban: the WHO stopped recommending its use in the 1990s but it was effectively banned. Malaria soared globally.
Recently, South Africa reintroduced DDT spraying and cases plummeted. Western NGOs and pressure groups have also scared European consumers away from buying Genetically Modified crops grown in Africa, making it difficult for farmers exporting to the European Union to make a living.
NGOs operate at government level too, directly feeding in statist policy advice. The latest campaign concerns the relationship between intellectual property and public health.
Activists have for many years argued that because very few drugs have been developed for a handful of tropical diseases that occur in the poorest countries, patents prevent this and are inherently unjust.
These activists have been using this claim to push the WHO for a Medical Research and Development Treaty in which bureaucrats rather than markets determine what diseases are researched.
They hope that removing profit will usher us into a magical new age in which cheap new blockbuster medicines will become freely available to the poorâ€”never mind the fact that market-led research and development has produced the vast majority of all treatments available in both rich and poor countries, at little or no cost to the taxpayer.
This treaty would also weaken intellectual property rights and allow any government to copy patented medicines, removing the incentives to innovate in research and development.
The NGOs achieved this by lobbying African governments at the WHO: the similarities between the NGOsâ€™ campaign literature and the official position of Kenya, a leading proponent of this scheme, are too many to be a coincidence.
Of course, the Kenyan government has its own reasons for promoting this scheme: protecting its own pharmaceutical industry and transferring the blame for its own failures in healthcare onto foreigners such as multinational pharmaceutical companies.
Statist NGOs have enormous influence on public opinion, the UN and African governments even though their ideologies have been shown not to work in their own countries.
But before we take their medicine, we must carefully read the label or suffer dangerous side effects.
The writer is a director of Free Market Foundation, a South African think-tank
Who will save Africa from the new colonialists?