Poverty and Africa's Good "Samaritans"

By Tom Kamara

The Perspective
April 10, 2001

It was a fascinating scene, scores of Dutchmen and women, along with other Europeans, brainstorming over Africa's multiplying woes in the city of Utrecht recently. Under the theme "Aandeel Afrika" or "Interest Africa," Dutch politicians, including the energetic Minister of Development E. L. Herfkens, among others, diagnosed Africa's multiple problems of poverty and the absence of democratization, all with the well-intentioned aim of arriving at solutions for Africa. The symposium showed that when it comes to rescuing Africa, "Good Samaritans" are limitless.

Here they were, analyzing and diagnosing their media's disinterest in Africa, the non-ending negative portrayal of Africa as a poor, wretched, violent and backward Continent. Without a single African voice on the panel, they dissected Africa's media excruciating problems. But perhaps like in all other areas in which Europeans are the dominant "experts", it may be that they could not find a single African journalist half intelligent to discuss and understand the complexities of issues they were tackling. An African in the audience tried unsuccessfully to be heard by raising his hand in helplessness. He was ignored, of course, not deliberately.

And what were some of the issues under scrutiny? Age-old ones such the stereotype of Africa in European media, a stereotype that dwells on beaming images of poverty and wars while ignoring gains in a number of African states, and their people's lack of interest in African stories. Also analyzed is the orientation of Dutch journalists in defining what is news when it comes to Africa, along with the need to engender positive news in the Dutch press regarding sorry, sad Africa.

But if an African with working media experience had been found with the requisite intelligence to sit with the "experts", he/she would have perhaps told them that what Africa needs is its own media to tell its own stories, carve its own image. They would have perhaps heard that without democratization on the continent, independent journalism is a futile dream. They would have heard that Africa's media need to be financially independent, and that this is not possible in economies governed by tyrannical rulers. They would have heard the uncomfortable, which is that the new form of European "parachute journalism", whatever the merits, helps to reinforce the stereotypes. And to begin finding solutions, Africans need their own independent media, financially strong, professionally managed, deciding contents and context, and capable of competing with other media. Without this, we are interpreted by others who scarcely understand us, our problems, or dreams. We simply live in their imaginations. Because they understand their readers, viewers and listeners, they do a very good job telling them what they want to hear, see, or read. It is the war for the markets. No one can blame them for selecting stories and images their people like.

But it borders on the paranoia to believe that the conference organizers deliberately left out their victims in finding solutions to victims' dilemmas. It may be that a good doctor must ask a patient what the problems are. On the other hand, a "smart" doctor can perhaps see through the patient and administer medicines he finds appropriate. If the patient dies, well.

Mrs Herfkens came under severe criticisms sometimes ago when she suggested a departure (in Dutch aid policy) from flocking Africa with "experts," instead opting to develop Africa's own experts. Much of the money now going into the pockets of the foreign experts and written off as aid could go to local experts with tremendous savings. For example, in Liberia during the war, conflict between local medical doctors and doctors from Medicins Sans Frontieres erupted when the Liberian doctors claimed they were underpaid and directed by individuals far less qualified. In another instance, to balance the flow of communication, donors financed a well-equipped radio station, Star Radio, which was managed by a team of British and American experts. Even before the money could run out, the experts left. Months later, the Liberian Government shutdown the station on claims it was anti-government, leaving the expensive equipment to rot, that is if they are not already looted.

Hefkens's ideas, perfected, could make a difference in training locals to what they are capable of doing for themselves instead of being inundated with expensive experts who leave when the money runs out. It is better, more resourceful for one to learn from his/her own mistakes, correcting along the way and being independent. Significantly reducing or eliminating dependence on foreign expertise where money is available is one of Africa's immediate challenges.

But certain patterns of behavior, however abnormal, become "normal" after a period of time, and this is the problem with European perceptions of the African. A case in point is when in 1996, a Dutch television channel VPRO, considered the most liberal, asked me to help in producing a documentary film on the Liberian war. It emerged that despite their enthusiasm, the producers did not know how to start and what aspect of the complex war to tackle. And it also emerged that my mistake was that as an all-trusting African, I failed to demand a contract stipulating the terms of cooperation. So when the voodoo- emphasized documentary was completed, everyone, including the office secretary, was listed as a contributor. My name was left out, although I had written the TV guide story introducing the film, directed them to contacts and helped in providing the theme. "It is simply a mistake", they explained, promising me a copy of the film, which never came because of another "mistake".

This pattern is not strange. At every corner in Europe, the poverty of Africa is proclaimed. Colorful posters portraying tattered refugees carrying their worldly belongings on their heads as they flee from rebels, multiple pictures of sick people that leave no doubts that, indeed, the African is the "original man" they say we are, decorate train stations and other public places, appealing to the emotions of the increasingly dwindling generous to give. Thus as an African, one is viewed through these images constantly beamed on television screens and printed on glossy posters. You are nothing more than a symbol of poverty and ignorance. You can't change that. It is an image built over centuries and now justified by the deteriorating political and economic conditions on the continent. The World Bank, in its recent Report paints a horrific picture of the Continent.

If South Africa is left out, Africa, comprising 48 countries, has the lowest income in the world, something like $315 per capita, just a little over that of Belgium, barely $2b. This is just the economic output of a rich European or American town with 60,000 inhabitants.

Africa accounts for 2 percent of the world's trade. Three decades ago, African countries were trade-dependent with their primary products. Now, they are aid-dependent even as generosity disappears. Aid has dropped from $32 per head in 1990 to $19 now.

Africa's poor are the poorest in the world. Almost half of its 600m people live on 0.65 per day. The number of Africa's poor has jumped from 25% to 30% in the 1990s. Almost one out every two Africans cannot get safe drinking water.

About 20% of Africans live in countries affected by conflicts in which 90% of the casualties are civilians. There are over 20 million landmines on the continent, 16m displaced and 3m refugees. The statistics of poverty and deprivation depicting hopelessness are simply unending, and to change this situation around, the World Bank Report gives three conditions.

1. Improving governance and resolving conflicts.

It is here that the conflict between theory and practice was noted at the Dutch African conference. Burkina Faso occupies a special place in Dutch development as one of the big recipients. So the country's delegates were some of the stars at the conference, explaining their macro economic policies, land reforms, agriculture, etc. Over 90% of the audience was, of course Dutch, as were the panelists, all experts on Burkina Faso. The interesting aspect was that Burkina Faso's destabilization role in West Africa was hardly mentioned. Because of Blaise Compaore's polices, Liberia, Sierra Leone and now Guinea cannot be invited to sit and discuss economic or agricultural development for they are buried in ruthless wars originated by Burkina Faso. The UN Panel of Experts, in its report on West Africa's decay under conflicts, singled out Burkina Faso as a culprit in backing rebels and shipping arms for diamonds. A researcher on illegal diamond trafficking was recently deported from Burkina Faso because he would have perhaps discovered too much on this country's continuing destabilization projects. Burkina Faso has admitted sending its troops to help install Charles Taylor President of Liberia. Guinea has accused this tiny, very poor country of backing its rebels. Another UN Report on Angola lists Burkina Faso as main arms provider for Unita rebels in exchange for diamonds. And yet, this country, at the heart of Dutch generosity, sat proudly discussing its economic development while sowing the seeds of its neighbours' death. But Africa's Good Samaritans find no evil in this, no contradiction. Burkina Faso will continue to receive Dutch development assistance for practicing "good governance", even if journalists are butchered in this star of good governance on the continent.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom among many Europeans, the World Bank Report notes among others, that conflicts are not necessarily caused by Africa's diverse ethnicity, but poverty, politics of exclusion, and unemployment, etc. "Although African countries are ethnically diverse, this does not doom them to civil violence and slow growth. Poverty, unemployment, and underdevelopment, as well as politics that exclude segments of the population from political and economic participation, are the root causes of social fractionalization and conflict."

However, such views, despite their veracity based on evidence, are disputed by European idols like Robert Kaplan, an icon in The Netherlands when it comes to interpreting Africa. Widely publicized and acclaimed in Holland, Kaplan believes the continent is inherently doomed, and that in the case of Liberia, the forest, because of its darkness, in fact caused the war. For such views, he was paraded on Dutch television as the new prophet on Africa.

2. Investing in People

" A wide range of social and psychological factors contribute to low material well-being, including exclusion, powerlessness and pervasive insecurity made worst by absence of assets to tide over bad periods. Living at the margin, the poor run a constant risk of deeper impoverishment and are often alienated from and distrustful of state institutions-including those responsible for law enforcement," the Report notes.

With the rise of rebel leaders backed by European criminals and some states as noted in the UN Report on Sierra Leone, investment in people becomes a dream in many countries. It is now investment in child soldiers, tomorrow's men and women responsible for building better societies, that counts. Here again, the Dutch conference should have placed greater emphasis on Burkina Faso's role in creating conditions within West Africa that divert resources from schools, clinics, etc., to weapons' purchase and mercenary recruitment.

3. Increasing Competitiveness and Diversifying Economics

The Report says, "Infrastructure, information and communications technology and financial services play an important role in development. Without wide-spread access to these services, most people will be excluded from development and growth will be slowedAfrica trails the world on every dimension of these services - quantity, quality, costs, access. Freight cost for imports are up to 70 percent higher than in Asia, air transport cost are twice those elsewhere. Telephone density is low, and telephone calls across Africa can cost 50 - 100 times more than across North America"

Submerged in wars and led by thieves as in the case of Liberia, it is difficult to see how this trend can be reversed. Diversification of the economy requires planning and honest implementation of programs. With most rural areas empty as farmers flee from rebels, agriculture, in the long run, will be a thing of the past for most societies. The Report sees the emergence of mega cities in Africa as rural areas are abandoned, as unemployment, already at 20 percent in African cities, rise. Failure to change this trend, the Reports note, will "further the declining political and economic instability and the business environment." If countries like Burkina Faso are not constantly rewarded for fertilizing such a scenario, a good start is possible.

4. Reducing Aid Dependence and debt and Strengthening Partnerships.

"In Africa more than in any other region, engagement with international community has come in the context of aid and debt. Africa enters the 21st century in the midst of an intense debate on aid dependence and debt relief and of a watershed change in aid relations, including with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund"

Although generosity is declining, the Report says the continent will need significant aid to reduce poverty, and that 30 percent investment of its GDP would be needed to support high growth needed to halve poverty by 2015. Just where will the aid come from in the growing Me Economy?

Here is our dilemma; we are caught in the clutches of a world in which we cannot compete since we are a plagued with "pirates in power", leaders incapable of understanding global perceptions and priorities when it comes to the African. With this scenario, being an African is not a very proud label, for the posters announcing your backwardness will continue to decorate cities of the rich while conferences are held to diagnose your problems without asking you, "What are your problems." The answers will always rest with our Good Samaritans. They know best.

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