Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Language bias, Live 8 and sustainable development

An intriguing story from the Inter Press Service (via Jan Egeland, the UN's undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs claims that language bias affects the way UN appeals are responded to.

Egeland said that both French and Portuguese-speaking countries "are systematically lower on our funding tables than many of the English-speaking countries."
"We urgently appealed for help to Niger (a French-speaking country). But we still have zero commitments," he added
, describing Niger as "the number-one forgotten and neglected emergency in the world."

Echoing a regular theme of my own, Egeland added "it's a tremendous dilemma that 90 percent of the attention is focused on 10 percent of the affected disasters and wars in the world."

Oxfam's Caroline Green suggested that lack of donor committment (or just as often, lack of donor follow through) also applies to English-speaking African countries.

"Yet the majority of rich donor countries continue to fund on the basis of news headlines, not need," she told IPS. She described the nightmarish situation in northern Uganda, where Christian (in name only) rebels have been terrorizing civilians for some two decades.

"Yet donor countries have given just 34 percent of the 54 million dollars the United Nations appealed for in November. Nations are shutting their eyes to what is going on in Northern Uganda, preferring to focus on high profile crises that are guaranteed public and media attention," Green said.

Green called for things such as increased development aid, African debt cancellation, increased and targeted funding of basic education, health systems, and reducing HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

These are noble ideas that really won't address the roots of Africa's problems. The biggest single flaw in these programs (save the anti-HIV/AIDS campaigns) is that they don't address the critical question of sustainability. Sustainability is only possible when the affected populations feel invested in the programs.

When I lived in Guinea, the German organization GTZ was very active in building roads, water pumps, health centers, schools, etc. But it was up to the locals the maintain that infrastructure. The government wasted its meager revenues on corruption. As a result, roads went unmaintained (a deteriotated paved road is worse than one that was never paved at all!), health centers were understaffed, many schools lacked sufficient teachers.

Roads were used mostly by merchants. Relying on medical professionals is not yet part of the Guinean culture. Guineans appreciate education because they know they are supposed to, but they don't see how it will benefit their children in any concrete way; corruption, cronyism and other un-meritocratic plagues don't help that perception.

Water pumps, on the other hand, WERE well maintained, for the most part. They were well-maintained because clean water is something tangible. If your kids get sick much less often than they did before the water pump, that's something you notice, something you appreciate, something you want to maintain. The people feel invested in this improvement so they are motivated to maintain it. As a result, water pumps represent sustainable development.

In my earlier essay A Marshall Plan For Africa?, I explained other barriers to sustainable development.

War and instability are obviously the two biggest ones. But also lack of democracy, human rights abuses, contempt for the rule of law, non-respect for private property and bad governance.

Yesterday, Bob Geldof, of Live Aid fame, disclosed plans for a series of Live 8 concerts to be held next month in Philadelphia, Paris, Rome and Berlin.

The purpose of the concert is not to raise money, but to raise awareness.

The aim will be to raise awareness of Make Poverty History, a campaign to get the richest nations to cancel debt and increase aid to developing countries, and to promote fair trade, notes the BBC.

'Fair trade' is a controversial topic which I will save for another time. I've already commented in my Marshall Plan... essay on the futility of increased aid without conditions.

I have no problem with the concept of debt cancellation. I consider it compensation for colonialism. However, anyone who believes that debt cancellation would seriously improve the lot of ordinary Africans is tragically naive. Often, you hear stats like "Cameroon spends more money servicing its debt than it does on education."

Jubliee USA is more dramatic: Debt costs lives.

These countries are paying debt service to wealthy nations and institutions at the expense of providing these basic services to their citizens. The lives of 19,000 children could be saved every day if the debt of these countries was cancelled and savings put to good use.

This is a very disingenuous way to portray the problem. Sure, lives could be save IF debt money was used for useful purposes. The problem is that merely cancelling the debt doesn't guarantee the money will be used for useful purposes.

A program of 'drop the debt' could translate into better education and health services. But it could just as easily translate into more money for high officials to siphon off. The simplistic mentality of blaming the bankers ignores the fact that the bankers aren't the problem: irresponsible, corrupt, unaccountable government officials are the problem.

I don't object to blanket debt cancellation for African governments. As I said, I consider it compensation for colonialism. However, future loans and aid MUST be conditioned upon a demonstrable record of money being used for its declared purposes. Failing to impose such conditions will only guarantee yet another cycle of crushing debt burden and aid dependency. Ordinary Africans are the most creative, ingeneous people on Earth; they have to be or else they die. They deserve better from their leaders. While the rest of the world shouldn't remove bad African leaders by force, we should under no circumstances be accomplices to or otherwise facilitate their malfeasence.

This column in the UK Independent notes some other barriers to sustainable development in Africa.

The author points out some of the things I've mentioned above.

He also notes the brain drain of educated Africans to Europe and North America. There are said to be more Malawian nurses in Birmingham than in Malawi, a country ravaged by Aids.

But can you blame the nurses? What are working conditions like in Malawian hospitals and health centers? Forget the AMOUNT of salary, are Malawian nurses even paid regularly? Are they properly trained?

As long as there is miniscule investment by African governments' in building or at least MAINTAINING domestic infrastructure, like health facilities and universities, the brain drain will only continue. I suspect many of those nurses would've stayed in Malawi near their families, even for lower wages, if they knew they would get regular paychecks and be afforded decent working conditions.

He also notes agricultural subsidies in Europe, America and Japan that keep world prices low and squeeze African commodities out the market. And end the export subsidies that allow cheap food to be dumped in Africa destroying African markets. High tariffs keeping out African goods need to be cut, but African countries need a bit of time before reciprocating the removal of trade barriers, as they have no safety nets to protect workers who lose their jobs.

The author echoes some of my comments on internal conditions on the continent. He derides the illusion that the hungry African child they [aid agencies] use in their fund-raising propaganda can be directly reached by your money. Give, and the child will receive. In this world there are no cynical rulers, no corrupt governments, no nasty armies. Instead there are governments whose only constraint are the funds which, if they did not have to spend them servicing debt, they would spend on food, medicine and school books for that child.

He underlines the damaging nature of the winner-take-all mentality of African politics. Many people in the US accuse President Bush of winning only 51% of the vote in the last election; in many African countries, it's much worse.

Africa's winner-takes-all politics lies at the heart of everything that has gone wrong with Africa. It is the reason why it has fallen behind the rest of the world economically, the reason for its wars and poverty. Its roots go back to the creation of African states themselves, the lines drawn on maps by the European powers at the end of the 19th century, that became 40-odd states overlaying some 10,000 societies and political entities... With a few exceptions African states have no common understanding or experience of nationhood. Their flags, their national anthems, their identities were created by outsiders. Patriotism in the good sense is in short supply.

The effect?

If you want power, you play the ethnic card or rubbish your religious rivals. And when you have power, you bring your own people into government, and - even more importantly - into the army. The state treasury increasingly becomes a private bank account and when you run for election the entire state structure and all its officials are at your disposal. If anyone inside the continent says anything, you accuse them of interfering in internal affairs. If anyone outside Africa criticises, you accuse them of racism and neo-colonialism. It's a simple formula that has worked brilliantly for Robert Mugabe and many others.

In no place on Earth can you find a greater contrast between the rules and the governed.

Those new to Africa are often struck by a paradox. Firstly how individualistic and cynical African politicians are. Secondly how communal and hopeful most Africans are. There seems to be little connection or even shared values between rulers and ruled.

Africa's a great place and its people are, for the most part, amazing. They deserve better. Westerners, especially progressive-minded westerners, need to think seriously about how their noble ideals fit into messy universe of African politics. Solutions can't work only in theory, they have to work in reality. Westerners shouldn't be shackled to a methodology fundamentally rooted in the western world to deal problems in a very different world.


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