Africa in a Cooperative, Caring and Non-Exploitative Global Civilisation

Published on 31st January 2023

It was cultural theorist Leopold Senghor, the first President of independent Senegal from 1960-1980 who remarked: “Africa is not an idea, it is a knot of realities.” They are such realities as can be shaped so that we may, not only for Africans, but all of humanity, achieve sustainable and inclusive models of living cooperatively together.

Today Africa is the continent of the young, accounting for 20 percent of the young people of the world, a continent of over 1.4 billion people, constituting almost 17 percent of the world’s human population.

It is from Africa that we all came. And it is from Africa and the most populated continents that the most authentic expression of a new model of existence, I believe, may come to pass, a new model of balanced social, economic and ecological practice that can connect with a diversity of peoples and circumstances as necessary. Adjusting what has failed, I suggest, is not an alternative, and the assumptions of what has failed must at least be critiqued if space is to be made for alternatives.

When last I spoke to the UN Economic Commission for Africa in 2014, I did so having just viewed ‘Australopithecus Afarensis’ – also called ‘dinknesh’, ‘the wondrous one’, in her Ethiopian homeland, better known to many as ‘Lucy.’ This female skeleton, estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago, a discovery made by Donald Johanson in 1974, I suggested symbolised the overdue debunking of the pseudo-science of 19th-century European racial anthropologists and white supremacists, and changed forever scientific understanding of human origins

Science and its tools can be misused. In the 19th century, an appalling colonial use and misuse of the valuable tool that anthropology constituted suggested that certain people were “inferior”, had practices evidencing at best “backwardness.” This was practiced as a rationalisation of empire. That erroneous understanding and domination of cultures that was promoted by some colonialists perhaps explains why the tool of anthropology in times of independence `became somewhat lost because of its associations. It was a great pity because anthropology, when employed correctly, is a tool of utmost value. There are excellent field works underway on land issues, gender, food security and balancing work and food provision – being conducted by African researchers in cooperation with scholars such as Professor William Moseley and Dr Padraig Carmody.

I agree with Sankur Muthu that the arguments of great enlightenment thinkers, such as Diderot, Kant and Herder, enabled that era’s anti-imperialists to defend the freedom of non-European peoples to order their own societies[1].

I contend that such arguments could be re-invoked in our current circumstances so that we may invoke a new and emancipatory spirit of ‘African enlightenment thinking’, one that interweaves commitments to universal moral principles and incommensurable ways of life, one that links the concept of a shared human nature with the idea that humans are not only fundamentally diverse, but are capable of cooperating, agreeing to move on from what are insufficient, even disabling assumptions as to what constitutes just and sustainable forms of international economy – an Enlightenment that will bring into being a new model of connection between ecology, economy and society.

Such an intellectual temperament can, now in the 21st century, broaden our own perspectives about justice, human rights and the relationship between converging shared universal values and diversity.

Anthropology can, if used correctly, renegotiate the broken contract with nature, recognise the vulnerability of women labouring in fields without security. It can provide valuable insights, be utilised as informing policy, serve as alternative to some of the dominant international discourse, and not just as it relates to Africa.

The findings of anthropology, if allowed space in the discourse, can help re-tool multilateral institutions as they listen to the voices from the most populated continents. It is from such voices that our best prospects globally will originate. Most of all, anthropology can re-people economics, respectfully hear of essential needs, offer responses that are appropriately respectful of what is received wisdom, what is complex and local.

I suggest, that, as tool and method, anthropology, as carried out by African women and men, has the capacity to assist with the necessary transformation of globalisation, the necessary response to climate change, the promotion of sustainable development in an appropriate and inclusive way, enabling the best instincts of sufficiency to be privileged over unrestrained greed, any appeal to extreme individualism over collective welfare.

A new economics is being defined. It is one that is drawing empirically from the base that seeks connection with societies in all their vulnerabilities and capacities through ecological and social movements.

Anthropology can enable an African contribution to a new enlightenment, one that has so much in common with the best of the socially based scholarship that is now emanating from South America. That new anthropology is there in the new work dealing with issues of extensive land producers, insecurity of women producers, and the incalculable importance of policies on land.

When it comes to the continent of Africa, there are so many misperceptions to that remain to be undone – misperceptions which have created a distortion of African realities and that, while having a history dating to at least the mid-18th century, as exemplified in the racist language of David Hume in his essay, “Of National Characters” in 1748. They are ones that go on to include, inter alia, the language in annual reports of certain extraction companies in contemporary times.

If we challenge these misperceptions, have the courage to transact them, then we will have cleared the ground for models of contemporary connection that we need. We must be willing to submit development theory and practice, international trade, architectures of debt and dependency, to the necessary scrutiny and critique that our urgent set of global circumstances demands.

A new focus is required for the journey we all must now undertake, one that goes beyond a narrow focus on limited empiricism towards a broader intellectual consideration. This journey will require, too, that colonising nations be willing to reflect critically on their past actions.

It is necessary, as part of a clearing of the grounds, removing the ability of past actions to disable either present actions or future shared initiatives, to renounce old, extractive imperial models, some of which linger on today in the form of productionist models of agronomy. This is a task to which there has been insufficient energy demonstrated by such nations, and everybody loses from such unwillingness.

It is my suggestion that we need an African new departure that deals with African realities. This offers the security that a complete dependency on the international food value chain can never offer.

There are specific issues that must be addressed now – all of which have consequences for food security in the long-term. At the top of our mutual agenda must be securing the positive role of women as land-holders, as full participants in decisions in relation to food production, distribution and nutrition.

It is on this great continent that we might perhaps see the playing out to fruition of our efforts at achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, provide an adequate anticipation and response to climate change – in short, achieve that vital connection between economy, society, ecology and culture that we so urgently need and cannot postpone, involving, as it does, the future of the planet itself as a habitable space.

The implementation of the outcome of the United Nations COP27, a new global climate pact, requires this new model of connection between ecology, economics and social justice. It recognises, too, the importance of climate adaptation. However, we must recognise that, for some countries and communities, in Africa and elsewhere, adaptation measures may come too late. This points to the critical importance of support for loss and damage, an issue Ireland prioritised in its role as part of the European team brokering the Agreement on Loss and Damage at COP27. Achieving a recognition of loss and damage as a consequence of the North-South relationship was, in my view, the most significant outcome of COP27.

To bring new models that can serve the diversity of our needs in sufficiency in a sustainable way requires a recognition of the flawed assumptions upon which our current model was based. These are assumptions which have a history. From an early emphasis on the subjugation of Nature came the imposed hegemonic idea of “Progress”, followed by modernisation theory, evolutionist development theory, such as that outlined and led by the Princeton Studies of the 1960s, that would go on to guide the practices of the World Bank.

This was an ideological position. Postgraduates such as myself were invited in our welcome postgraduate opportunities to study the “backwardness” of our people, the factors that inhibited their ‘modernity’. Orlando Fals Borda has written of this in a way which I cannot better. What a price we have paid for ideologically laden modernisation-influenced development theory, with its inherent bias against indigenous practices and local cultural agency.

All actions that brought us to this point were undertaken within the prism of what was suggested as a rationality, one that Europeans were seen to have originated or achieved in policy, and others perceived as lacking. This movement generated in the social sciences a form of structural functionalism that would be epitomised in the reports of the World Bank, and other multilateral agencies, whose policies, in the limiting singularity of their vision, in their disconnect with indigenous culture, would have many disastrous effects on African experience.

Our broken connection with nature is thus not any accident. It was supported by a body of intellectuals’ work that facilitated an expression of power through colonisation, imperialism, exploitation and domination. This involved rejecting ancient wisdom, certain ancient methods of crop rotation and other practices of food provision. The enforced embracing of externally imposed market practices were seen as fundamental to the idea of “progress” in human achievement.

I offer this summary to emphasise, not only how tragic, but how unjust it is that, through such assumptions and the practices they unleashed, that those who contributed least to climate change are bearing the heaviest burden of its consequences. Nine out of the ten most climate-vulnerable countries in the entire world are in sub-Saharan Africa. As to emissions, of the 20 countries most affected by climate change, between them they account for only 0.55 percent of global emissions.

I was in Somalia during the ruinous famine in 1992 and witnessed horrific, preventable scenes of famine and severe malnutrition across the Horn of Africa, a region that has endured devastating hunger three times in three decades. We as a global community have the capacity to anticipate and prevent regional and global famines, giving meaning to the words “never again.”

We have not faced the basic structural issues that influence food insecurity. How did so many in Africa become so dependent on so few staples, the production, distribution and consumption of which they have so little control? How did the complex dependencies of global value chains develop and how are they sustained?

It is a remarkable statistic that, despite having two-thirds of remaining arable land, Africa still imports 100 million tonnes of food at a cost of $75 billion annually. Yet Africa has the potential to be self-sufficient in terms of food production and to make a contribution to feeding the world.

We now need best ecological practices in agriculture, including agroecology, to become widespread. This is substantially different from mere adjustments to the productionist agronomy model, a colonially imposed food system, which has exacerbated food insecurity by creating over-dependence on a small number of staples and an over-reliance on imported fertiliser, pesticide and seeds. We must acquire a space for the discourse needed to achieve the necessary transformation in policy and practice. It is an achievement we have yet to make.

Yes, our current context is challenging. The illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia has exacerbated an already existing food crisis by its blocking of grain and fertiliser shipments early in the war. Food and fertiliser prices have increased globally. This has further endangered an already fragile food security.

Last year at the UN Nutrition for Growth Summit, Ireland committed over €800 million to support nutrition over the next five years. At the United Nations last September, Ireland made additional commitments, along with USAID and UNICEF, to address appalling levels of acute child malnutrition, with a particular focus on the Horn of Africa.

This humanitarian response is urgent, essential, but it is not sufficient. The underlying failures of a structural kind and multilateral institution kind that are disrupting global food supply must be addressed. The global humanitarian response cannot be a mask that serves to cover for the continued neglect of the structural sources of food insecurity.

Increasing food production in an appropriate way for our growing world population must be undertaken as urgent, but what is crucial are the social structures in which that increase in production and distribution of food is achieved. Yes, it will require increases in productivity and yields, but this surely must be achieved in a fair and transparent set of partnerships. For example, it must respect the seed sovereignty of native practices and indigenous peoples, take cognisance of the consequences of largescale land and water resources. Such increases in food production must be sustainable, even as we continue to lose land to environmental degradation and climate change, with horrific attendant loss of biodiversity.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification projects that 700 million people are at risk of displacement by 2050 owing to land degradation. In addition, half of global grain production will be affected by water scarcity. This will create huge competition for resources.

To address this, we need to invest in land restoration and environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. The agreement reached by Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity before Christmas is therefore hugely important in this regard.

In the Global North we waste a quarter of the food we produce. In developing countries a similar proportion is lost during storage and transport. How can we regard a structure which delivers results such as these as not fundamentally flawed?

We must face up to some difficult questions. Do we have the balance right globally between feeding people and feeding animals to feed people? What about the balance between meat- and plant-based diets with regard to health, nutrition and climate impacts? How do we find the optimal balance between land used for food crops versus land used for bio-fuel crops? What are the cultural implications of changes in land use?

Participation, a core tenet of citizenship and democracy, is damaged by dependency. I repeat that we must address how has it come to pass that the people of Africa are so dependent on three food staples and that the food production and distribution model in place is so deeply flawed.

A range of staples high in nutrition can be produced in the regions where they are needed, and end the practice of long, hazardous transport routes and supplier monopolies. Agroecological models show us a path away from dependency and insecurity, towards a decolonised agronomy. We must make concerted efforts to ensure the removal of barriers to diverse agricultural development in Africa, as in, for example, offered through agroecology, if Africans are to unlock Africa’s potential.

Yes, I am aware and welcome that there is political will and commitment to agricultural development in Africa, as exemplified by the African Union’s Malabo Declaration of 2014 which aims for a doubling of agricultural growth and the achievement of zero hunger by 2025, and that we are now seeing significant investments from the African Development Bank and others. All of this is welcome, but must be built upon in an inclusive way, and we must have transparency on what is not working, what is partially achieving its goals, and what are sustainable successes, something I know this summit makes possible.

This is not an easy undertaking as the effects of climate change and the war in Ukraine are playing out on food security. However, we are all challenged not to allow the shadows under which we are living today to defeat what are our best hopes, including the implementation of international agreements such as the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda, agreements which have intergenerational appeal across our planet.

Regionally led initiatives, devised, led and transforming, managed and developed by the countries of the region, and supported by predictable and sustainable funding, are key to addressing long-term peace, justice and sustainable living. Some of the initiatives already underway as part of the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and other visionary policies, show us that transformation is possible.

We look to the Great Green Wall, combatting the effects of desertification in North Africa, and the entry into force of the African Continental Free Trade Area, unlocking the potential of one of the largest free-trade zones in the world, especially for intra-African trade, which has for so long faced many structural barriers.

Before I conclude, may I return briefly to where I started on the subject of the tools available to us – namely anthropology – and pose the question, what would an emancipatory post-imperialist anthropology look like? I suggest that it is already happening with notable African agency, using the classical methods of immersion in the field, and, assisted by new means, reporting on how the experience of the cycles of life is taking place, the basic needs of such cycles, the shared response required to address these needs, and the empowerment that comes from a celebration of transcending difficulties.

Such an approach in practical fieldwork makes a fruitful re-engagement with nature possible. In current circumstances it represents a new beginning, one which is inclusive, life-affirming and celebratory of diversity, and one which can work in a variety of settings. It celebrates the best of the endogenous, offers a democratic understanding of the exogenous, and meets the requirements of adjustment to climate change and sustainability. It offers best prospects for avoiding unnecessary conflict and achieving peace within and between peoples. Its presence in the policy discourse is essential, I suggest.

Let us endeavour, together, in our diverse world, beginning again in Africa, seek to build such a cooperative, caring and non-exploitative global civilisation. Let us make this century Africa’s Century, one which will see the continent become free from hunger, a shared continent in a global family, one based on the firm foundations of respect for each nation’s own institutions, traditions, experiences and wisdoms, founded on a recognition of the solidarity that binds us together as humans, and an acknowledgement of the responsibility we share for our vulnerable planet and the fundamental dignity of all those who dwell on it.

By Michael D. Higgins,

President of Ireland.


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