I think [events such as Live8] are effective at mustering attention and getting people thinking about things. What I find frustrating as someone who has written about Africa now for nearly 20 years is that the message becomes so simplified, and it's distorted in the process. I find horrible in G8, Africa Commission, the Live8 this sort of patronizing sense that "we can deliver recovery to Africa. It's in our hands. It's in our control. We the generous well-meaning West are going to deliver recovery to Africa." Things are never that simple. There's the whole issue of governance, leadership, corruption, the whole issue of countries that want to go to war. In Eritrea and Ethiopia, we have two countries for example that are still re-arming in preparation for a future war. Where does what we decide in the G8 affect that? This is not all in our remit. In my own guts, in my heart I believe that Africa's recovery will come from Africa. It will come from the young Africans I meet when I go there, who are educated, who are motivated, who know exactly what they want to do. They want to run their small businesses, they all have three mobile phones each and are extremely clear in their thinking. They don't want charity, they don't want help, they just want to be allowed to run their own businesses. I think those people are going to build their future, I don't think it's going to come from the West. I think there are things we have to do out of sheer human decency, and the trade issues come in here, but I don't think we can deliver salvation. We are not the cavalry.

Michela Wrong on NPR's Fresh Air

I heard this story last week, but it's been a hectic couple of weeks, and I've only now had a chance to comment on it. The 35 minute segment is very interesting overall, focusing on Eritrea and the fascinating, sad story of that country's abuse by colonialism and Cold War neo-colonialism. Near the end (minute 26 or so) she had the above absolute gem to offer on the general issue of today's hype over aid to Africa.

Hostess Terry Gross's question was:

Do you think mega-concerts like Live8 and its predecessor LiveAid are useful in calling attention to the issues in Africa?

And as you can read, Michela completely nailed what I and some other colleagues have to say about these matters.

She follows up with another interesting statement:

I think that debt relief comes into this, but I'm not one of those people who think you just deliver unconditional debt relief. There are countries whose dictators, for example Mobutu, whom I've written a lot about, just racked up these unspeakable debts, and it was outrageous that people ever lent money to people like Mobutu, what were they thinking of? This man was so manifestly corrupt and everybody knew what he was spending his money on. There is the issue of odious debts, but I think we have to be a little realistic and critical. I worked for a magazine that was talking about debt relief in Angola, and I felt, if you have manifestly corrupt government in places such as Angola that are brimming in diamonds and oil, is it for us to write off their debt? This is a government that has repeatedly shown that it don't give a damn about the population are is quite happy to let poverty levels, AIDS levels, education health go through the floor. Is it really for us to save Angola? I think it's time to get a little more realistic and tough talking with some of these horrible regimes that still exist in Africa. One of my main criticisms of the African Commission is that it keeps talking about this new leadership that's emerging in Africa, and I'd like to know which leaders they're talking about? Which ones in particular, because I don't see those leaders.

I think this is interesting. I think that to some extent "odious" makes up most of the debt to African by the West, whether or not to corrupt governments. As such, I do think that there is an element of moral obligation in debt relief, but it's clear that it is a dangerous distraction from the real engine of development, the professionals Michela mentions.

And this is as good a time as any to mention that even though I sometimes lump my fellow native African professionals in diaspora with our colleagues based on the continent, this is a false parity. The latter group is so much more important in the grand scheme of African development, and I get the sense, which Michela also puts across nicely in her quote, that they will soon be impossible to ignore, much as their Indian and Chinese counterparts before them.

It seems I'll be having a go at Michela's books.

[Uche Ogbuji]

via Copia
1 response
Nice posting -- I've also been struck by the patronizing tone about aid and debt relief during the Live8 thing.

Europe and North America have an horrendous track record messing around with sub-Saharan Africa's affairs over the past two centuries, and the earnest NGOs and aid agencies today remind me of the Christian missionaries of a century ago -- mostly honorable and well-intentioned, no doubt, but poisonous all the same.

The real problem is the assumption -- still surviving from the colonial period -- that sub-Saharan Africans are somehow children who need the guidance of kindly North American European father figures, from Cecil Rhodes to Dwight D. Eisenhower to Bono.  It's telling that video clips and photographs released by charities working in Africa nearly always show mainly children rather than adults.

Enough ranting -- I'll stop now and go back to nice, impersonal technology.