Saturday, May 02, 2009

Bright, hopeful, sunshining Africa

As an African living in the diaspora, there re few things more frustrating than having to constantly dispel apocalyptic views about our continent, or our country. From the preconceptions that people all live in mudhuts, and roam around with lions and leopards, to the assumption that all of Africa is nothing but a collection of sempiternal, unsolvable ethnic/tribal wars, coming to the defense of Africa is often an exhausting task with limited returns.

People in the West (and in China or India for that matter) are so comfortable with the image of Africa as a basket case that the world media has created over the years, that it has become difficult for them to think outside the box, thus, in many ways, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: because of this erroneous assessment of the situation in Africa, the policy prescriptions by the international humanitarian/development industry end up worsening the situation, or at least perpetuating the status quo.

Now, any longtime reader of this particular blog will know that I do not shy away from pointing out the downfall of our continent, its leaders, its corruption, especially when it comes to the Dem. Rep. of the Congo. But that is just part of the story of Africa. As Nicholas Kristof put it yesterday in the New York Times, in his review of Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, by Richard Dowden:
"My own take is that we in the news media and in the aid world can and should do a much better job providing context and acknowledging successes."
I concur: what is often lacking is context. But I would go further in saying that stories about Africa sell only when there is no context. The story often has impact only when it reinforces the Western public view of poor, exotic and hopeless Africa, that pulls at their heartstrings, and that they can "help" by throwing money/charity at the problem. What people don't stop to think about, is how it is possible that after decades of charity, Africa is poorer than ever before, and the humanitarian industry is healthier and more lucative than ever before...

I think it is time to look at Africa differently. In that same New York Times article, Kristof links to a website titled See Africa differently, dedicated to provide an alternative, more positive view of the realities on the mother continent.
See Africa Differently:

"When you think about Africa,
what do you see? Drought, hunger, disease…OR… progress, education and opportunity. We’re here to tell some pretty amazing news about the world’s second largest continent."
What I like about this website, and with people like Dambisa Moyo (author of Dead Aid, is that they are, finally, breaking with the various (and often counterproductive) "Save Africa", or "Save Darfur", or other initiatives, to begin to focus more on empowering Africans to generate African solutions to the challenges the continent faces.

Many of the messianic (almost evangelical) organizations trying to "save Africa" (ONE, Save Darfur, CARE, and even the ENOUGH project at times), though often very well-intentioned, tend to deny Africans their natural and civil right to have agency in addressing their own challenges. It becomes a case of "Don't worry little Africans. We have the solutions to all your problems. Let us impose them on you, because we know better". The humanitarian industry often becomes an extension of the "white man's burden" complex. It is as though it is unimaginable to the magnates of the humanitarian industry, that Africans could actually have the best interest of their continent at heart, or that Africans could actually have the integrity, and the intellectual capacity to be part of the solution. As long as that will be the prevailing paradigm, it will guarantee the humanitarian industry stays in business, and gather expat salaries, and Africa will continue its downward spiral.

I am not one to claim that the humanitarian/development industry is simply unnecessary, or pointless, or without its place in the equation. As I stated earlier, they are often well-intentioned, and they wield resources, contacts, and influence that could be crucial for the future of Africa. But the well-being, development, accomplishments and future of Africans should be at the center of their actions, something that is not - in my view - the case today. Africa is not a complete basket case, nor a hopeles case. There is a lot going on in Africa, and the continent has a bright future. The people, the human resource of Africa, is the key to that future. And any action that does not focus on developing that partcular resource at a grand scale, is simply a band-aid, and ultimately counterproductive. In my view anyway.


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