Monday, March 11, 2013

On balance, Africa is doing a lot better

On balance, Africa is doing a lot better than what the layman believes or commonplace imagination would suggest—particularly within the external world. External perceptions and images of Africa have tended to be dominated by doomsday scenarios, disease epidemia, endless turmoil, mass sexual orgies, and a sense of a general human incapacity that inevitably calls for Western “benevolent” intervention.  Day in, day out, television screens are punctuated with pity-evoking backdrop images of starving and anemic children clutching at the feet of a humanitarian org spokesperson with a microphone in hand, beckoning the world for succor for the needy kids. These are all parts of a “save Africa” syndrome that has become almost an industry of its own, particularly in the Western part of the world. 

Recently, I encountered a real life example of this “save Africa” phenomenon or racket when I went to a local grocery store to buy some food stuff. A young white man (a self-described college student) was standing outside of the store, holding out “a help Africa” sign post in his hands. He was beckoning for donations from incoming shoppers towards a fund which he said he was raising for a trip to an African country where he intended to render some sort of medical help to the down-trodden Africans down there. As I was about to enter the store, I stopped, accepted a brochure from him containing information about his proclaimed charity-mission. It’s probably intriguing to recall that this incident occurred on a fairly cold day—certainly cold enough to cause any human being to want to take refuge inside the comfort of a heated domain. Instead, this guy was outside exposing himself to cold—all for the good of Africa! I must confess that more than anything else, this guy’s defiance of this chilly outside temperature helped to draw me close to him. As I stood looking at him and also glancing quickly through the brochure that he handed to me, I felt strongly like reaching into my wallet for some cash to drop into his donation basket. Silently, I asked myself if I could do what this student was out there doing. I asked if I could brave the cold weather and put my health at risk, as this guy was doing, for the sake of mother Africa. I can’t recall that I found immediate answers to those questions. In any case, I made a decision to contribute to his mission, but unfortunately, there was no cash in my wallet.  I went inside and did my shopping, thanks to the plastic currency. Till this day, however, this incident has not evaporated from my mind. It has continued to provoke additional questions in my mind, one of which is: “Is Africa such a pitiable image in the uninitiated Western mind that a young man can place his health at risk in order to solicit donations from the public for a fund that would enable him to embark upon a rescue voyage to the continent?”

While the average African country is one that manifests class stratification like other contemporary societies of the world—that is, it has upper income, middle income and lower-income classes--there is no question that Africa, as a whole, has a disproportionate share of the downtrodden population of the universe. However, there is also no question that across Africa, governments and non-governmental entities, including external and internal organizations and individuals, have had and have continued to develop various types of public and private sector poverty-alleviating programs and initiatives. 

Whatever may be the case, the idea of a static, hapless and insolvent Africa appears to constitute a perverse and permanent fixture in the Western psyche. By and large, the 54 countries of Africa manifest varying degrees of social development, not unlike other parts of the world.  In sum, I would characterize these nations as struggling societies. Nations of the world are like human families which come in various sizes and reflect various levels of socioeconomic capacities. Some are poor, some are rich, some are super-rich, etc.  It may come as a surprise to some people though that in 2010, out of the 15 fastest growing economies of the world, 10 were African--according to the 2012 edition of the "Economic Report on Africa," annually published by the United Nations' Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). During a recent six-year period, 2002-2008, Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP) recorded an average growth of 5.6%, and this performance made the continent the second fastest in economic growth—second to Asia.

In the opinion of close and expert watchers of African affairs, Africa is currently going through a period of renewal marked by the establishment and institutionalization of political and economic reforms.  With exceptions like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, and to some extent Somalia, there has been a substantial decrease in armed conflicts on the continent, and consequently, on balance, the continent is experiencing an era of expanded peace, social stability and tranquility—vital pre-requisites for planning and implementation of a social development agenda.

It must not be forgotten that African countries operate in the context of a global geopolitical and economic system, which was set up and which still operates, to predominantly benefit the metro pole.  Apart from the constricting nature of that hegemonic global system, the legacies of colonial re-orientation of the psyche of African societies are still with us. The imperial worldview that was imposed through the colonial educational system, the colonial religious system, the colonial legal system, etc. is still with us. The continuing impact of that worldview can be discerned through the lifestyles and preferences of the contemporary African elite. 

I don’t mean to create an impression that the leaders of ex-colonial societies are necessarily powerless in the face of the constrictive twin global geopolitical factors that I identified in the foregoing passages, namely an imperial worldview that still holds sway over the psyche of the previously-colonized and a global economic system that is biased in favor of the metro pole. Those leaders can mitigate the unfavorable dimensions of the afore-mentioned global economic system through Southern hemispheric initiatives, alliances and coalitions. They can also engineer or lay the ground work for a new educational order within their ex-colonies in order to enthrone an educational system and content that will serve their own societies' needs and suit their own peculiar circumstances. The best system of education is one that is grounded upon the cultural values, socioeconomic, political and technological needs and goals of the society in question. Those leaders can bring bureaucratic corruption under control within their respective borders. Those leaders can mobilize available resources within their respective countries in order to provide safe drinking water for their populations, including the rich and the poor. Those leaders can build an effective police force that can help protect life and property to a humanly possible extent. I recognize though that in most of these places, significant efforts are being made towards attainment of such afore-mentioned goals.

As dependency theorists would argue, it must be said that the deeper an ex-colonial society is drawn into the web of a global economic system that's deliberately constructed to primarily advance the national and material interests of the metro pole, the further that society will contribute towards its own exploitation. For instance, we are all living witnesses to how an original $5 billion that Nigeria borrowed in the 1980s from a group of international creditors, collectively known as the Paris Club, later ballooned into thirty-two billion dollars even though Nigeria had completely paid 16 billion dollars to the club, including the original loan of 5 billion dollars and accruing interests up to a point. But changes in Nigeria’s governing personnel and some disagreements with the creditors meant that the loan stayed alive and continued to accumulate interests and penalties that eventually resulted in Nigeria’s indebtedness to the Paris Club of thirty-two billion dollars. Remember, the original loan from the club members to Nigeria was merely $5 billion! A few years back during the time of Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidency, the exploiters later "benevolently" granted Nigeria a debt relief which resulted in Nigeria paying an additional $12.4 billion to the creditors collectively known as the "Paris Club." Nigeria's leadership settled for this dubious debt relief at a time that international NGOs and even the New York Times were advocating that what Nigeria deserved was an outright debt cancelation. 

Here is another example of an avoidable self-destructive path that some of African leaders have chosen. I call this one a dance of deceit that some African governments have been engaging in regarding a long-established goal of bringing about regional and eventually continental economic integration of Africa. Wise counsel from African intelligentsia advised that in order not to interrupt the momentum of regional economic integration, African governments should avoid counterproductive external bilateral and multilateral economic treaties, such as the European Union-engineered Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with individual or blocs of African countries. African economic expertise determined that such external economic partnership agreements would undermine the continent's goal of achieving internal regional economic integration. Well, guess what? Some of your African governments have not heeded that warning.