Poverty in Africa: The North is forever responsible

ONCE, when travelling with a development expert we came across a community to whom the government was asking to contribute either money or labour to build classrooms for their children in order to attain universal primary education.
Millions of funds were poured into programmes ranging from advocacy to micro-finance, yet African got poorer and the NGOs executive was buying a new jaguar every other day.
Millions of funds were poured into programmes ranging from advocacy to micro-finance, yet African got poorer and the NGOs executive was buying a new jaguar every other day.

ONCE, when travelling with a development expert we came across a community to whom the government was asking to contribute either money or labour to build classrooms for their children in order to attain universal primary education.
This expert who happens to be my friend and colleague was astonished that the government should be asking poor people to contribute at all. At the end of our mission, while writing our report we had a serious argument on whether the government was right in asking people to contribute.

She thought the Government received taxes and should be paying for the building of a classroom, I agreed with her. However my reservations were that these were citizens who under normal circumstances would be taxpayers.

At that moment they were not paying any taxes and therefore the government was not getting whatever it should be getting in terms of taxes. Their contribution to building a school, therefore, amounted to paying taxes; in fact they were paying taxes with the only currency available; labour.

Twenty-something years ago when I was at the University, there was a book on the list of “banned” course books, for those who were unfortunate enough to have to study Government and International relations as part of their degree course.

The book’s title was “How Europe underdeveloped Africa.” Why was a book like that on the banned list in an African country at a time known as “the cold war era” when global politics were not dictated by democratic ideals, but by ideology? This was a time when the world’s citizens were not considered strange, as some youngsters are today; it was a world where human folly was permitted to come to the fore. It was a time when democracy meant something different depending on which side of the divide you happened to live in.

If you were an autocratic dictator like Mobutu in the then Zaire, but you were a “capitalist” (and this meant anything that you wanted it to mean), then you were a friend of the west, a capitalist, an advocate of free market even if you did not really understand what the word means since markets in your country had failed.

If, on the other hand, African leaders was so self centred and all-consumed by their own ideas about what is good for other people, were repressive and not known to tolerate other people’s views, then they were usually branded as  socialists or communists.

Their countries took on a socialist or communist label; bureaucrats changed their wardrobe, switching from western-style suits to something that one of my college mates would have considered reasonable had it been multipurpose, i.e., working clothes for pyjamas??.

All this was in the name of ideology just because a distraught German sociologist, who had lived a century earlier, with a not-so-good social standing himself had idealised about a society that would be forced to be equal rather than having to learn to be equal.  

Believe it or not, these seemingly minor differences were not so minor in my time. Regimes supported by the west such as Mobutu’s, Moi’s, Banda’s, Habyarimana’s and Pick Botha’s were funded and zealously supported by the US and her allies. On the other side of the divide, the USSR (which is no more, thank God) supported the famous Butcher of Addis Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia and other thugs across the continent.

If you are looking for Mister Clean in all this you will probably need to abandon your thesis; this is where the Russians and Americans were unscrupulous to the same measure.

One may be misled, thinking that all this support and creation of alliances was free-of-charge, in pursuit of ideological supremacy. Wrong! Where I come from, there is a saying, “every market has its madman and thieves”. We often focus on the antics of the madman while the thief goes about his business.

This market also had the madman and the thief. While our madmen in Africa were picking up the leftovers, the thieves in the west and the east were having a field day.  Our madmen were crazy about war toys; they bought more tanks than tractors and imported maize from the US and the USSR to feed their people. 

In some places the state took over all businesses as well as industrial activities. Mining and other similar activities became a state affair. Their motive: placing wealth in the hands of the citizens.

Did it happen? No, of course not! They placed inept managers at the helm. Their only credentials consisted of the fact that they were party faithful or were related to the ruling class. Technical cooperation came from China and Russia and the bulk of the produce was shipped back for a song.

If, on the other hand, it was free enterprise, concessions went to western companies leveraged by their government and corrupt intelligence agents.

Either way, the North benefited and the South sunk further into the abyss of poverty, remaining forever hopeful that the pie lodged somewhere in the sky would someday drop and one would at least have some crumbs to live on.

On the occasion of the disintegration of the Soviet Union (SU) and the consequent demise of the iron curtain as the Cold War period is known, the balance of power tilted towards the West.

What followed was the West’s endeavour to destroy the structures of the SU that existed in parts of Africa and beyond. At the same time the attention of the public in the West was no longer occupied with the cold war, Germans were now unified and the villain next door was long-gone and buried.

The rest of Europe no longer felt threatened and the Americans were basking in the glory of their new-found world domination as the premier military and economic power. So the Bretton Woods institutions woke up to a new era.

They begun to carry out debt collection, but had no police. Fortunately for them, Big Brother was there; all he had to do was flex his muscles a little and the weak would whimper.

They did not just call in the loans; they introduced new conditions as well, and the West was having a field day. Nobody cared to know whether these conditions were appropriate or fair. At the time, all things western were appropriate and nothing else mattered.

It did not matter whether there was market failure in rural Africa, people were malnourished and poor, what mattered was what the man in a pony tail with a brown leather bag wanted, they must pay for medicines, they must pay for schools. While this was being enforced, Europe where incomes were no where comparable with Africa was making their school system free, compulsory and accessible to all.  While in Africa human capital growth was curtailed by more than 80 percent in the late eighties and early nineties due to high cost of education at all levels including higher and tertiary education.

Multilateral and bilateral aid was tied to conditions that were anti-growth and anti-poor. Public investment in the productive sector became a taboo, despite the lack of capital, trade barriers and bottlenecks that resulted from conditionalities.

The gurus of economic doom privatised almost everything and the vultures of the business world came from all direction, took advantage of financial incentives, bought social enterprises, stripped them of their assets, packed their bags and run off home. Africa breathed its last economic breath and went under.

Socially, the north has denied Africa its right to develop. In the nineties (and this is directly related to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi) NGOs found themselves overwhelmed by the Rwandan Genocide and the ensuing complications. Most of them woke up to the stark reality of how unfit and unprepared they were to deal with BIG issues such as the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.

In fact, what woke them to this reality was not so much the scale of human suffering, but how much money they had to return to multilateral and bilateral donors who had responded to appeals.

Some of them received so much money that the smart ones are still spending it today; perhaps not in Rwanda but there are still some International NGOs still spending the ‘appeal for Rwanda’ money one and a half decades later.

This goes to show how colossal the amount involved was since most embarked on expensive corporate transformation processes they would not have otherwise afforded.

With such a huge resource base, the corporate vultures, especially those that used to be the underdogs of the corporate world found another way of making money. The customer was the NGO, the merchandise consisted of some jargon, while the soldier was the displaced, under-rated academic.

Numerous theories on development were proffered and millions of funds poured into programmes ranging from advocacy to micro-finance. Yet Africans got poorer and the NGO executive was buying a new jaguar every other day.

It just did not make sense! The packaging of the merchandise was changed; all of a sudden poverty appeared on the scene. How is it that they had never realised that it was not about development but poverty?

Contributing to the impoverishment of the already poor in Africa, are the so-called ‘Human Rights’ standards superimposed on the African development agenda. Today human rights organisations accuse some countries of using force in order to impose some government programmes on communities.

In some areas, this is because credit will be given if these programmes go through while in others, it is a worthwhile investment which communities will appreciate once the process has been completed.

This does not go down well with our friends in the Northern Hemisphere. Amid their privileged circumstances, they struggle to adopt the Euthanasia law while we struggle to get our loved ones to the hospital in the hope that they can live a little longer. 

Like they say in urban slang, ‘We are operating on different wavelengths. If they try to win us over, we may lose our path. If they let us be, we may converge someplace.’

Emmanuel Murangira is a Development Economist & Practitioner

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