Blame the natives | Salon Books

Blame the natives | Salon Books

In this review of Robert Calderisi’s recent book “The Trouble with Africa” Pascal Zachary does an excellent job of describing some of the serious problems Africa faces. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I haven’t read Calderisi’s book, but having spent 5 years living and working in sub-Saharan Africa, I do have experience with the issues being discussed both by Zachary and Calderisi.

I enjoyed the review, and I found myself nodding along to some of the descriptions Zachary uses in here. While I was in Nigeria, a full continent away from the Uganda he describes in the first paragraph, his description is chillingly familiar. That familiarity proves that the problems both he and Calderisi are talking about are real, and they do represent issues for the whole continent.

But like with many other attempts to analyse issues of Africa, Zachary does so from a western perspective, even as he is accusing Calderisi of the same sin. One point they both make that can’t be disputed is that the history of colonialism, racism, and ‘sociology’ makes it hard to ‘critique’ African issues without skating on thin ice. Simply addressing “Africa’s Problems” in any way runs the risk of charges of pandering or parochialism.

The problem with Zachary’s analysis of the issues he has seen in Africa, and by extension the parts of Calderisi’s book he discusses, is that they are unable to step outside their own prejudice, or so it seems. While both seem to skirt around the issue of foreign aid, neither takes on the significant issues of the way we tend to structure foreign aid.

One of the issues with the colonial period was that colonization was never for the best interests of Africans. Despite the published language and the public speeches, colonialism, in Africa and around the world, was designed as an economic benefit for the colonial power, NOT the colonized population. As all colonized peoples discovered, colonialism was always about securing labour, resources, and ‘culture’ for the colonizing power.

Foreign aid in today’s world is designed as the modern form of colonialism. The notion of “aid” typically means something given to help solve a problem, and while that may be the proximate cause of a lot of aid, its the unreported conditions that go along with aid that are the real reason it is offered. Nearly all aid from western governments comes with strings attached … strings that involved access to the resources, the business world, or the people of the country receiving the aid. In many cases, aid dollars given by the first world to the third world MUST be spent on businesses from the donating country … rather than being able to invest aid money in local solutions to local problems, instead aid money must be spent on foreign solution to local problems.

The corruption in African politics is a creation of the foreign aid system. The conditions placed on aid make corruption by officials receiving the aid far less of an issue. The money is only given on corrupt terms … buy our products with this money or you don’t get it … and so spending it in a corrupt way makes a lot of sense. Further, having a culture of corruption allows western leaders to ‘cluck cluck’ over problems without ever having to address them, or their own self-serving aid offers.

Foreign aid is something that Africa would benefit from, if it was given without any strings attached. Of course, the first argument people will make to me proves my previous paragraph … “How can we give money to corrupt officials with no conditions attached????” It is precisely the fact that we’ve always attached conditions that has allowed corruption to take hold … we can’t now use that circular argument to argue against conditions.

Self-serving foreign aid is no help to anyone. It is the reason that Africa is in the state it is in today. Colonialism never did end, in reality. Instead, its face changed into international aid, but the aims were and are still the same. Like colonialism, foreign aid isn’t about an honest attempt to try and help the third world. Instead, its an attempt by first world countries to further exploit the resources of the third world. Aid monies should always be available to build up local resources, to invest in local solutions, and aid local people. When they come with conditions attached about where, and how, to spend the money, it just reinforces the notion that the ‘aid’ is given to further your own cause, not to help others. If we truly want to help Africa and Africans, we will stop treating them like colonized nations, and we will stop attaching conditions to our aid. We should also be clear not to let our greed cause problems for local people … international oil, for instance, must be held liable for making financial deals with corrupt kleptocracies so that they can have access to cheap and easily extracted oil. As long as we let profit trump morality in these issues, as we do with foreign aid, as we do with foreign investment, we won’t solve ‘the problem of Africa.”

But, then again, I honestly don’t think western countries WANT to solve the problem of Africa. A stable, politically powerful, economic powerhouse of Africa would be a VERY big player on the world stage, completely shifting the balance of power from north to south.  It strikes me that a politically powerful Africa is actually a threat to the power of Europe and North America … and that’s one of the reasons that we have historically sought to subjugate Africa through colonialism and slavery, and in modern times through conditional foreign aid.


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