What's wrong with Africa

When I left the continent in 1998, I told people "I love Africa, but it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better." Score one for me. I didn't really understand why, though. Now I think I do.

(Long, political, may piss you off.)

Go for a long walk through rural Kenya, or a town in Rwanda, or downtown Lusaka, or just about anywhere in poor Africa, and at some point one or more of a group of children will approach you to say "Give me money," "Donnes-moi d'argent." Not beggars, I hasten to add; they're not there on the street looking for rich people; they're just hanging out, playing, and when they see you, they rush to make their appeal.

It's easy, and wrong, to generalize from that to Africa-looking-for-a-handout. The famous "culture of dependency," the notion that white people screwed up the place, so white people should throw money around to fix it. That culture of dependency certainly does exist; and Western governments and aid agencies do nothing but amplify it; but it's just a symptom of a larger problem.

The fundamental problem with Africa is the omnipresent notion that good things do not come from striving, but only from Providence. That the key to success and happiness is "seize opportunity when it comes," not "fight to make what you want happen." Oh, you get the same lottery mentality in much of the West, but it's far more widespread here - virtually universal.

Ever heard of attribution theory? It's the enormously successful psychological theory that how people perceive the causes of what happens to them - internal vs. external, and ongoing vs. fluke - is a major determinant of their happiness. Happy people view good things as the result of internal ongoing sources, and bad things as caused by external flukes. Depressed people see the exact reverse.

Well, if there's such a thing as cultural attribution, Africa has a strange and pathological condition; its inhabitants tend to see *everything* as the result of external chance. "Striving doesn't work" is just the flip side of exactly the same fatalism that helps Africans get by (and is infectious, believe me, after just a couple of months in-continent.)

Why do Africans believe this? Because it's true. Fortune is so fickle here that striving is rarely rewarded. So many things can and do torpedo attempts to get ahead: disease, drought, natural disaster, tribal politics, corruption, bad tourist PR, power cuts, Mugabe-esque leaders, etc. etc. etc. No maintenance of engines and pumps and power stations? Its root cause: this same fatalism. Que sera, sera, and there ain't nothin' you can do about it.

Even if you *do* somehow get ahead, you're hamstrung by Big Man syndrome. An enormously powerful cultural imperative requires you must provide - food, shelter, upbringing, all manner of support - for your extended family, dozens of cousins and aunts and nieces. This is the social safety net that keeps many Africans alive. It is also a massive disincentive. Ryszard Kapuscinski tells a story of a man who gave up a store in Dar es Salaam to sell oranges in a different Tanzanian town, just to get away from his rapacious family; he was happier and wealthier selling oranges on the street than running a business.

Is there hope? Of course there's hope. The hope is a middle class that grows up with the notions of opportunity, striving for success, taking risks. It's a very slow hope. Even in poster-child Uganda, 20 years on from Museveni's relatively enlightened takeover, there's only a miniscule (but promising) middle class. They, plus the diaspora, plus GSM and the Internet, equal hope.

Western aid does not give me hope. NGOs do not give me hope. I'm with Paul Theroux, and Graham Hancock, and Michael Maren, and to be honest just about everybody I met in Africa who is not involved with the aid industry: most development aid is actively harmful. Even when it's not a horrible clusterfuck, which it usually is, its side-effect costs usually far exceed its benefits. I'll make an exception for genuine disaster relief, and for environmental aid (I think paying to maintain rainforests is an eminently sensible idea). I accept that aid has gotten better in the last decade - it could hardly have gotten worse - with microprojects, microfinance, co-ops, community efforts instead of big honking dams. There might even be a few projects that are actually worth the time and effort poured into them. But overall? I say kill it all. You want to do Africa a favour? End all development aid, right now.

The horror stories are legion. Vast amounts of donated clothes destroyed the entire West African textile industry. An MSF relief mission entered a troubled area and gave away drugs for free, just long enough that all the local pharmacies were forced to close, and then declared the disaster over and packed up. Food convoys into Sudan regularly lost 90% of their cargo to the warring forces in exchange for safe passage, perpetuating the very conflict they were trying to alleviate. Shells of buildings, silted dams, and "pilot projects" dot the African landscape, going nowhere. Young white people on what amount to paid exotic vacations drive fleets of NGO Assault Vehicles - brand-new 4WDs with big radio antennas - to hundred-dollar-a-night hotels for feasts of steak and lobster. "Administrative costs" eat up two-thirds of donations before anyone even thinks about getting some into Africa. Food aid must be purchased from America and shipped around the world, via the incredibly bureaucratic UN process, in some infamous cases a year after all its intended recipients had starved. Peace Corps yahoos bomb around on their famous mountain bikes, trained for months and flown to remote villages at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars, so they can teach people how to give Western haircuts, or dig wells that the villagers will never use.

And that's without going into the soft side effects. The horrifying culture of dependency that results; I am reminded of a project in Zimbabwe, before Mugabe went mad, when local people deliberately allowed water to build up and destroy a dam built at great cost by Norwegians, because they knew then the Norwegians would have to come back to fix it, and would start spending money there again. The self-perpetuation; there is always a great need for more aid, just ask any aid worker. The fact that an NGO job is the best job you can get, so the most capable Africans try to work for them rather than build something themselves. The doctors and teachers that leave the country to find work because NGO volunteers at home have replaced them for free. And most of all the continuation, the amplification, of the notion that change must always come from outside. A South African friend once called it, accurately, "the recolonization of Africa through aid."

Is aid salvageable? Maybe. If it was less scattershot, more concentrated; if, say, Canada decided to focus all of its international aid on just three or four countries for five or ten years, and made it very clear it would then move on to other countries; that kind of qualitatively different approach, with a single donor, run efficiently, with low corruption tolerance, temporary presence, a long-term plan and deep resources, might make a difference. But the aid industry doesn't work that way, and doesn't want to work that way. It lives on, and is a, waste.

It would be good to cancel all Africa's foreign debt. It would be good to open up international markets to genuine free trade. But eliminating all development aid, tomorrow, might be an even better thing to do for the continent. No joke. You want to do something for Africa? For God's sake don't give anything to CARE or World Vision or Save The Children. (Amnesty International, Transparency International, even MSF, whose disaster relief probably outweighs their bad ideas - OK.) Buy something that was made there. Or better yet, go travel there awhile, and spend your money personally.

Anyway. Back to what's really wrong with the place - because while aid is a net negative, it's also basically ineffectual and irrelevant - back to the fatalism and its causes. Governments are largely at fault, of course. You could argue that the whole point of government is to create an environment where striving for success is a realistic option. African governments, by and large, fail spectacularly. Tribal, incompetent and inefficient, unbelievably bureaucratic, jawdroppingly corrupt, often viewed as a way to milk the people rather than help them.

Again you need the middle class. They'll help stabilize politics, through personal/economic influence, if they're part of the same ethnic group as the government. (As opposed to the way things are now; Asians run most of the businesses in East Africa, and Lebanese in the west, but not being black, they'll never play a major role in politics.)

How do you get a middle class? Education, clearly, is important - witness India's legendary IIT and its role as gateway to the IT boom there - but it isn't enough. A pretty-smart kid with time, tools, and a full belly will outperform a genius kid who comes in hungry from fieldwork ten times out of ten. (And yes, education is exactly where aid should help. And doesn't.) No, to get a middle class, first you do what every smart African who can does, and you get the hell out of the place.

Africa's hope lies in technology and the double diaspora. Let's look at the latter first. All the businesses I saw in Africa that were actually run by Africans had some family connection to someone overseas. Maybe they send money; maybe they come back and divide their time. They're connected, that's the important thing, thanks to phone cards and the Internet, and there's a lot to draw them there. Africa is rarely a place you run away from and stay away from; despite media coverage, Africa is life, not war and death.

The second diaspora, just as important, is rural to urban. Gargantuan shantytowns grow around every big city in Africa, anarchic, filthy, often violent places, populated by young people who have given up on their rural hometown and come to the city. I used to wonder why such places existed - I'd far rather live in a rural village than a shantytown - but now I understand, and I salute them. These are the people who come to look for a job, a career, a new life. Who, in short, take a chance, risk life in the shantytown, for success. Most of them will fail. But even if they wind up going home with nothing but dire tales from the big city, they're important. Because they're what connects the cities to the villages; Like the overseas diaspora, if they get work, they too send remittances home; they support others from their family or village who want to come and try their luck; they're how ideas, money, and education flow from town to mud hut.

Them plus the revolution.

Don't look now, but there is an actual, genuine revolution sweeping across the Dark Continent. The GSM revolution. Hop in a matatu, walk down a road, stop in a remote village for a Coke, and what do you see? Mobile phones. Thousands of them. Worn on lanyards by individuals, or rented by the minute at colourfully painted roadside stalls. It's quite incredible. In 1998, when I spent six months in Africa, I didn't see a single one. Now they're ubiquitous. High in the Virunga volcano range, a guide's phone beeps. "They come out of a bush out of walking half a day just to reach a road, and then they pull out a mobile," marvels a friend of mine who lives there. Much of the continent has jumped straight to mobile phones without ever having had a land line. For the first time in Africa's history, people can talk to their family and friends across the country. Yes, it's still too expensive; but it's a revolution nonetheless.

Then there's the Internet. Seven years ago, finding a Net cafe was cause for celebration. Now they're in towns everywhere. All the smart kids are playing online. They're not in villages, yet, and to be honest there's no point in putting them there; I mean, whenever you read about "wired villages" someone always winds up defending their existence with "they can use them to check crop prices," which is both bizarre and insulting - they do that already, thank you very much, via text message. No, what matters is that education, technical and non, is seeping into the towns, into all the wired kids who work and hang around in the Internet cafes. Is it casual, shallow, informal? You bet. Is it a whole lot better than what came before? Absolutely. And it's how the overseas diaspora stays connected. The better the communication links, the tighter the bonds, the more good the diaspora will do; the more the extended families of overseas Africans will get pulled up into the middle class; and the more that their extended families in rural villages will get drawn into position for their next generation to do the same. That's the great hope.

Will it happen? God knows. AIDS alone may destroy that hope entirely. (There's another example of the same horrific fatalism; its prevalence, despite massive public education, is another artifact of the que-sera-sera mindset.) Corruption, tribalism, or sheer brutal dictatorship might destroy it, as in Zimbabwe. But it's hope, at least, and it's real and tangible. The important thing to remember is that it lies within Africa. We can do our bit to help, by buying African, spending tourist dollars, and helping with natural disasters; but real hope doesn't come from outside, and never will.


prettygurrly said…
Thanks for that fascinating blog. I find it particularly interesting after just watching a news programme we have in Ireland called Primetime which focussed recently on a documentary about environmental activists striving to keep poor people poor. Here's the link if you'd like to watch the programme and it has an excerpt from the documentary as well.


I just finished my bachelors degree in Environmental Science so I'm always interested in Global, National and Local problems. I've always had a huge problem with helping NGO's but I've never been able to put it into words. It may sound crass but I feel that Africa could possibly pull itself up if the aid that it received was more streamlined, relevant and non detrimental to the local economies especially encorporating sustainable development.

There was an admission by the BBC news reporter Michael Burke, just recently, that Bandaid (which was set up to provide aid to Somalia (i think)) provided something like less than 5% of the total aid given to Somalia that year...however this was not made known till about 2005 and unfortunately there is now some sort of celebrity status associated with giving aid...i find that very disconcerting as well.

Anyway I really enjoyed "The Blood Price"...I found it on my friend's book shelf. So, as a result, your first novel and the latest one are on my wishlist!
scoutmus said…
Fascinating stuff - really is!
There is a solution - and we are a couple of people working hard to make it possible - check out the page for it - its bad right now, though the info is correct, in a few weeks time there will be a new,better version.
And we would welcome a dialogue - please feel free to email!
PR representative for
Industries of Africa Foundation
Anonymous said…
Brutal but I suspect fair.

What of the concepts of empowerment and participatory development? Mostly just fine words? What of projects such as Community-led total sanitation, a no-subsidy approach developed by Indian consultant Kamal Kar? Looks very good to me, and I suspect it's at least "OK," but I'd hope for more than OK.

What of knowledge-sharing? This is my own passion, and why I strongly agree with your statement of the importance of mobile phones and internet. Knowledge sharing centered on the user (not a teacher, and certainly not a foreign teacher) seems fundamental.

(I sent out a couple of snippets from this post via Appropedia on Twitter.)
Tord Steiro said…
1. I disagree with you about aid. Transfers of aid dollars screw up more often than not, but there is hope, also for aid, at least in my opinion.

2. I perfectly agree with you about internal vs external sources for salvation. Only Africans can develop Africa, and they will do exactly that.

3. Which brings me to the next issue: The Revolution. In the West Internet and GSM is a small issue, yet we lie to think about it as huge, since it has, after all, transformed our lives a great deal. But we had libraries, we had fixed telephone lines - and the telegraph prior to that - we had newspapers, and we had independent radio and television. We had a functioning postal system. All long before the arrival of GSM and the Web. We all know this new technology transformed our lives here, and then, imagine, the potential in less developed places...

4. We see the revolution not only in Africa. It's taking place all over the world, and perhaps most prominently in the Arab world, with Africa as a good second. And it's going to have a huge impact. After all, without the genius of Guthenberg, the Reformation may never have happened in North-Western Europe. This is definitely a far greater leap than the printing press, and the consequences are hardly imaginable.
Darrell said…
this echoes many of the opinions of my friends and mine as well, very insightful. it has allways been my beleif that there was something wrong with aid to africa but as a westerner i have never been able to put a finger on it. i have friends who have been on missions trips to africa but their experiance has allways been verry local and small scale. i allways saw that as problematic because poverty is a symptom of a multitude of other problems.

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