The Conspiracy Against Africa
Published on 18th April 2009
Things change. Until 1945, Europe had been a hopeless war zone for millennia. South Korea has changed beyond recognition in the past half century. China and India are changing. And Africa will change too, though it’s always been Africa’s bad luck that it has no Africa of its own to exploit. What will expedite that change in the right directions?
A facile mantra is now widely recited by politicians both Western and African: African solutions for African problems. At best, that’s only a half-truth. Certainly Africa’s political, business, and professional elites must change. We have a new African Union — the continent’s equivalent of the European Union — which already outshines the shoddy record of its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, scornfully known as the African Dictators’ Club. But as the disappointing experience of the AU forces in Darfur revealed, it is so dependent on the West for resources and is so divided by all the troublesome African fault lines — French versus English speakers, north versus south, Christian versus Muslim, South Africa versus Nigeria, terribly poor versus very poor — that it will take years before it plays a truly significant continental role.
In reaction to Western demands, African governments initiated the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), described grandly as “a vision and strategic framework for Africa’s renewal.” But since NEPAD from the first has rested on discredited neoliberal assumptions about growth and development, it is a frail reed on which to rest the continent’s hopes. It’s destined to play a modest role, at best, for the foreseeable future.
The best hope for Africa lies with two developments. First is the increased number of countries that are experiencing political democracy, however tenuously. Second is the emergence of local civil society groups determined to entrench the idea that governments must rule on behalf of all their citizens, not merely cronies and kin. Everywhere, local NGOs fighting for social justice, democracy, clean government, gender equity, children’s rights, the environment, the rule of law, and human rights are well placed to have an impact. Many women’s groups and aids support groups play an especially inspiring and often courageous role. Heaven knows it’s a slow, frustrating, dangerous crusade, but you don’t reverse centuries of entrenched patterns and monstrous deeds overnight. If you’re looking for places where funds are well spent, here’s a pretty good bet.
But whatever steps Africa takes, unless the West radically changes its role, few positive results can be expected. What we should do is obvious enough: the evidence from success stories beyond Africa tells us that rejecting the dogmas and programs that the World Bank and IMF unilaterally impose on poor countries is a sine qua non of successful development and poverty reduction.
If the West were truly serious about helping Africa, it would not use the World Trade Organization as a tool of the richest against the poorest. It would not dump its surplus food and clothing on African countries. It would not force down the price of African commodities sold on the world market. It would not insist on growth without redistribution. It would not tolerate tax havens and the massive tax evasion they facilitate. It would not strip Africa of its non-renewable resources without paying a fair price. It would not continue to drain away Africa’s best brains. It would not charge prohibitive prices for medicines. In a word, it would end the hundred and one ways in which the West quietly ensures that more wealth pours out of Africa each day than the West transfers to Africa.
But that’s the catch. It’s the assumption that we want to help that needs to be questioned. I’ve no doubt ordinary Westerners sympathetic to Africa’s plight take for granted that our policies are meant to help; after all, that’s what they’re invariably told. In the face of palpable reality, rich countries largely continue to insist that their interest in Africa is based on compassion, philanthropy, and generosity. Let the word go forth: the white man’s (and woman’s) burden lives again. Occasionally, our missionary duty becomes so taxing, so exhausting, so damn boring, that we westerners suffer from bouts of “compassion fatigue.” We feel sorry not for those in need but for ourselves. But we pull ourselves together and re-embark on our “civilizing mission” — saving Africa from its leaders, its incapacity, its self-destructive tendencies.
But all this nobility serves to conceal the real obligation of the rich world — to pay back the incalculable debt we owe Africa. We need to help Africa not out of our selflessness and compassion but as restitution, compensation, as an act of justice for the generations of crises, conflicts, atrocities, exploitation, and underdevelopment for which we bear so much responsibility. Many speak without irony of the desire to “give something back,” not realizing the cruel reality of the phrase. In fact, that’s exactly what the rich world should do. We should give back what we’ve plundered and looted. Until we face up honestly to the West’s relationship with Africa, until we acknowledge our culpability and complicity in the African mess, until then we’ll continue — in our caring and compassionate way — to impose policies that actually make the mess even worse.
By Gerald Caplan
Gerald, Principal author of Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide (2000) has been a senior consultant to the UN Economic Commission for Africa.
First Published in The Walrus Magazine