Wednesday 16 July 2008

Aid in Africa

Kevin Myres has written another article which has caused a bit of stir. This time on Africa. Myres laments that aid to Africa has only allowed its population of miserables to multiply and propped up several vile regimes in the process. The Indo letters page was bombarded. Then in today’s Irish Times Bryan Mukandi from Zimbabwe expresses his shock and horror at what Myers had written.

The reaction on the Indo letters page to Myres’ piece tells us two things. First, people still care about Africa. And second, many share Mr. Myres frustration and despair.

Given the overall record in Sub-saharan Africa since the withdrawal of the colonial powers between the 50s and the 80s, it is understandable that many people have given up hope. People in rich countries can feel betrayed too, when a country they have supported and was making progress is suddenly swept back to square one by another coup d’état. Sometimes it all seems so futile.

Yet I find it disheartening that the debate on Africa has taken on a kind of fatalism. Ah, sure it’s the Dark Continent, a basket case. This attitude misses the fact that Africa is huge and varied and that some parts are making progress while others are not. Last month, for example, a World Bank report found than democracy in Botswana continues to mature and that its political leaders have led it from being one of the poorest in Africa at independence to being at the top end of middle income countries now. Botswana proves that Africa is not condemned to deplorable governance and endless misery.

We often hear about African countries closing ranks. Sadly that is often the case. But nuances are emerging. For example, Kenya’s prime minister Raila Odinga recently spoke out against Mugabe, but there too internal political games might well be at play. The reality behind this is complex. The African experience of Western colonialism – which was so recent and brutal – has shaped a particular world view. Whether we like it or not, the world looks very different to African leaders. There is a fundamental ideological spit which prevents any real dialogue from taking place. Having said that, it seems undeniable that a gradual willingness on the part of moderate African leaders to crticise brutal regimes would be a vital step forward for the continent.

Aid too is a complex issue and it appears that many economists doubt its long term value in terms of development. That said, in a situation of crisis, such as war, famine or epidemc, aid is nothing less than essential and those who would deny it for some ideological position do not possess a human heart. The other point about aid is that nowadays no-one is under the illusion that aid alone can bring Africa’s worst performers, or nations elsewhere for that matter, to where they need to be. In tandem with aid other measures are required – a consistent and agenda free diplomatic approach, strict management and oversight of aid programs, close co-operation with local initiatives on the ground, fairer international trade regimes, and perhaps, in worst case scenarios military intervention. Unfortunately these latter components are often missing or applied for the wrong reasons in the wrong way.

Before we explode in anger at Myers’ uncompromising and seemingly heartless words, we need to appreciate that his piece comes from the pen of seasoned polemicist. He has honed his arsenal – and when he fires the results can be devastating. But his job is not to educate or enlighten – merely to provoke. In that he succeeds brilliantly. I welcome his opening of the debate on Africa, though it’s unfortunate that Irish media remain silent on Africa until a controversial shot is fired. It would be a regrettable side effect of Myer’s piece if some readers swallowed his arguments to re-inforce their own prejudices. But that is the price of freedom of expression. In any case, this is an eddy of a breath of a puff, and doubtless the Irish media will let the subject of Afica drop as suddenly as it picked it up.

I digress, and I’d like to return to a few points in the article. Mr. Myres inadvertantly raises a crucial point. He pointed out that Japan, China, Poland, Germany, and others suffered horrendous catastophes, yet they found their way back to the path towards progress and prosperity. True, but here is the nub: these countries have a history and culture which is better adjusted to the requirements of a functioning, central government geared for progress. No system is a guarantee against calamity, but the absence of certain values and norms invite leaders to view the apparatus of state as a set of tools for personal advancement. This is a controversial view – and I would emphasise that my point about Africa having an unfortunate starting point is historico-cultural not racial. That should not need to be said, but unfortunately it does. Africa’s horrific experience of colonialism and its own cultural baggage left it poorly equiped to deal with the nightmare of the modernity it faced. Not only that, but it wasn’t even left alone to sort things out – the Cold war first, and a form of neo-colonial meddling now is anything but helpful. Darfur is one case, so too are the seeds of the ugly and shameful genocide in Rwanda. At home in the west so to speak, we are obsessed about the harsh effects of globalisation – farmers marching about WTO deals, credit crunch flowing across the face of the financial world like dominoes, outsourcing, offshoring and so on. Globalisation is harsh and volatile even for rich, robust democracies. Imagine how it is effecting the weakest players who are so poorly equiped to deal with it and who have little power in the global institutions to make any difference and where their interests are often bulldozen by those of the West.

Again to Myers’ comparison. China’s presence on the list signals that even where progress and prosperity are possible, democracy doesn’t necessarily follow. Africa teaches a similar lesson as the ongoing adventure in Iraq: nation building and democracy are not some kind of default settings that kick in when all else is cleared away. Like vulnerable seeds in the perpetually volatile soil of human nature, they require patience and constant care. When they wither, the only response is to replant, and replant again if necessary. And democracy is that peculiarly delicate plant that can only be grown and not transplanted.

If we work with Africans to help them build functioning societies and if we fail, they cannot walk away, and neither should we. We just replant, and try harder next time.

1 comment:

Celtic donkey said...


Couldn't agree more - only heard about this article yesterday and I couldn't believe it when I read it.

Myers seems to think he is the anti-PC warrior, and sometimes I have to acknowledge his point, but I think this is taking it a step too far.

True, Africa has an insane degree of problems with war, famine, disease and lack of education. True, some of these problems are self-inflicted - while the continent's colonial past left massive and deep scars, it has to be said that these are only partly to blame.

India, for example, is a country that suffered in a similar way under colonialism, but which seems to have handled the transition to democracy very well.

Then again, as you point out, being used as a pawn throughout the Cold War has reopened many of those colonial wounds.

But Myers' arguments about aid could be used in almost any charity situation - do you help an alcoholic relative or ignore him because he's fallen off the wagon before? Do you save one generation of children from famine even though the next generation may die from the same thing, or as he points out, something worse?

Of course you do. Because you have to. Because not to do so would be to deny a common humanity with the recipient of your charity - I'm not religious but I always keep in mind "but for the grace of God, there go I" - any one of us, Myers included, could have been born in Africa, it's just an accident of birth that we weren't.