In an office teeming with books and covered in a thin layer of dust at the Society of African Studies, Dr Zoe Marriage starts to describe the wondrous route of Africa’s troubled past. Dr Marriage has travelled extensively throughout Africa; she has carefully examined the consequences of civil wars and internal conflicts that plague the continent.
“Amongst the evils that Africa suffered throughout the years there is three that tell the history of the continent: first, powerful nations decided to take the people from the continent and take them somewhere else, and that was slavery. But then they thought: oh, that’s not fair, let the people stay here but we will take the continent, and that was colonialism. Fair enough, we cannot do that either so we must find a way to exert some other form of power: and then development was born,” she says.
By the end of the nineteenth century Europeans had discovered the magnificence of the African continent, hazarding claims throughout its territories. In cities all around Europe the powerful and privileged argued hotly over divisions and all that could be gained from the vast, newly found terra incognita. Yet Europeans had a very poor knowledge of the vastness of the continent and the different people that inhabited it.
Some might say that the problems colonialism triggered can still be seen in the myriad of futile wars that still plague some countries to this day.
“When countries are doing dealings with each other they do not just go and do as they please in another country. That’s about sovereign territory and the right of the sovereign over their population. From the start there has been a substantial violation of that and that’s a key reason why countries in Africa today are not able to operate on an equal footing, everything was destabilized by foreign intervention,” says Dr Marriage.
Even though Africa has many different aspects and great diversity, African countries have a lot more in common than just their colonial history. Their states suffered most of the same problems and difficulties – it is striking to see that most African countries faced more or less the same hardships across the continent.
According to Dr Marriage, if you look at the whole world you can see where development has worked, and the only place is Europe: that’s the only place where aid has been successfully used, through the Marshall Plan. However, she says this was politically motivated to maintain European opposition to Communism during the cold war.
“Development has its own agenda; if you look at other countries like Korea, China, India, those countries developed. The ones that have grown weren’t dependent on aid and the ones that didn’t grow received large sums, and that’s the case of Africa,” she says.
Why is Africa still struggling after 50 years of aid?
In August 1999, two stowaway boys from West Africa were found dead in an Airbus in Brussels. According to reports, the boys sneaked into the undercarriage of the aircraft in Conakry, Guinea. The sight was a sad one, and it became even gloomier when a note was discovered in one of the dead boy’s cold little hands. The note was a plea for help; it complained of the inequities of public schools in Africa. It was addressed:
“Your Excellencies, the citizens and officials of Europe…
It is only in the private schools that people can enjoy good teaching and learning, but it requires quite a lot of money and our parents are poor… therefore, we African children and youth are asking you to set up an efficient organization to help with the development of Africa… if we are sacrificing ourselves and putting our lives in jeopardy it is because we need your help.”
What followed made the story worse than it already was – in the scramble to rid themselves of guilt, an EU ambassador said on TV that their fate was a sad one, but it only meant the African people wanted more aid and were eternal beggars. The mayor of Conakry, their hometown, ignored the message altogether and said that the airline’s security team was to blame for the incident, refusing to acknowledge the youths’ plea for a better educational system.
This single incident is only one amongst many in African history; these boys only wanted a better education – a simple human right – and the worst of it is that it could have been prevented. How many children die of preventable diseases in Africa? How many have to go without food, whilst in Europe we throw food away?
After fifty years of aid, money is still not being used in the right way or to its full extent. Worst of all, no one can say what the right way is.
As someone who has travelled extensively in the birthplace of humanity, Dr Marriage confesses that there are solutions, but the challenge is how to change perceptions in order to implement new practices.
“That’s how aid today works: there is a race at the bottom, who will have the most horrible visible disaster, how many children will die in the worst possible way to attract attention. People like emergency aid. Everyday problems become just that – everyday problems in a far away place with very few people interested in it,” says Dr Marriage.
Views vary from economist to economist, but those in power still hold tight to the old-fashioned ways. It has been more than four decades, and most African countries have failed to escape the poverty trap. Yet the blame still falls on the same outdated areas: slavery, colonialism, foreign intervention and manipulation during the cold war. Yes, these events have taken their toll, but how long will Africans hide behind the aftermath of things that happened long ago? According to Robert Calderisi, writer of The Trouble with Africa, Africans are partially to blame for their own misfortune.
In the chapter “Looking for Excuses” he discusses how some still blame the world economy for the problems encountered in Africa. It is clear that smaller farmers cannot compete or trade on equal terms with developed economies, yet Africa has not lost out to superpowers like the EU or the USA; in fact, according to Calderisi, African economies have offered their markets on a plate to other Third World countries in Asia and Latin America.
“Most African countries have let agriculture – their greatest wealth – decline steadily through over-taxation and other wrongheaded policies. African economies were certainly late starters, but instead of pumping them up with steroids, government has put shackles on their producers,” he says.
There are certainly differences between one place and the other, and Africa seems to have had more than its fair share of adversities, but if you compare it with other economies such as South Korea, India or Brazil, some of which started from a worse position than African countries, they still managed to grow and develop their economy instead of remaining shackled to their defective past.
The future of development
Most charities agree that education, health and basic infrastructure are the key to progress in Africa. Identifying what needs to be done is the easiest part; the most difficult is to transform these facts into a reality. If young Africans choose to remain in poverty because they cannot be bothered to work, or because there is too much corruption, how can I help them up?
According to Jeffrey Sachs in his book The End of Poverty, providential ineptitude is only a minor portion of the hard truth.
“I have noted repeatedly that in all corners of the world, the poor face structural challenges that keep them from getting even their first foot on the ladder of development… The world’s remaining challenge is not mainly to overcome laziness and corruption, but rather to take on geographic isolation, disease, vulnerability to climate shocks, and so on, with new systems of political responsibility that can get the job done,” he says.
In order for aid to work the way it should be working, both poor and rich countries have to make compromises. Africa must start dedicating its resources to helping the poor instead of funding internal conflicts and corruption. The developed world has to take its promise to help developing countries more seriously. For aid to start working, rich countries need to stop making development a business that requires payment in return.
According to Sachs, poor countries today only pretend aid is helping, and the nations of the developed world pretend they believe it and pretend to continue helping. NGOs do what they can, but even their projects can only help a small number of people, enough to give them publicity. Maybe it’s time to start being more ambitious if their goal is to end poverty.
For how much longer will relief be treated with exaggerated sensationalism? People should know better than that, or is it just easier to believe that things are working?
How to help?
Georgie Fienberg, the founder of AfriKids, thinks it’s time for people to start thinking differently. Pity donations belong to the eighties; in this day and age poor countries need more than short-term solutions.
“Guilt, shock and pity are the motivating impulses. But you have been donating to images like this since the 1980s. So why has nothing changed? And where did all the money go? These big questions demand answers. If good money follows bad, nothing will change. This type of fundraising is antiquated, delivers the wrong message and is actually a net negative for society at large – both for Western societies and those in developing countries,” Fienberg told the BBC.
Sally Vivyan, the director of Afrikids, agreed to talk to us and explain why their method of thinking should be the new way to donate.
“When someone thinks about donations all they see is horrible images of starving kids in appalling situations. Afrikids provide a different sort of approach, we want to provide businesses that help their economy and create independency.
“I know the concept of empowering the people we help is not a new one, but some charities claim they do the same when in truth they only stick to the short-term help, a much easier and ineffective sort of approach,” she says.
As mentioned before, Dambisa Moyo is not the biggest supporter of aid, but Afrikids have managed to put the two approaches together – aid directed at business enterprises to help economic growth and development.
The Blue Sky Lodge in Ghana is the latest ‘sustainability project’ started by Afrikids. The hotel, when completed, will provide not only jobs but also real economic growth. According to Vyvian, the Blue Sky Lodge will encourage tourism by providing affordable accommodation for people coming from other places, both within Ghana and internationally. It also has a community centre where people can develop skills in hostelry and tourism.
Projects like this are exactly what countries in Africa need – this way the money is accounted for, and the project respects and invests in local people, taking their experiences and local knowledge into account in order to develop their local economy. And we donors know that the money we provide is actually helping to change people lives forever.
However, according to Vyvian, perception and lack of knowledge of their programmes is still a problem.
“The challenge of fundraising for this business is that they are not traditional forms of aid, so it is a bit more difficult to get the money together. At the moment we are one third of the way there, and if funds continue to come in we will be able to start building in the next couple of months. The plans, the location, everything is already well ahead but we do need the money to continue,” she says.
Aid has changed over the years, as have other things around the world. Now is the time to start thinking differently and start spending wisely on projects like the Blue Sky Lodge that will make sure people in Africa will be independent of the bonds imposed by the wrong type of aid, and will be able to thrive for themselves.