Our relationship with Africa has gone from pillage to guilt. Now is the time for honesty on both sides
OK, it was only a speech. Actions must speak before it can be seen as a pivot of history. Yet President Obama’s address in Ghana lifted my heart, as rhetoric rarely does in these cynical days.
It felt important: the main speech, curiously, more important than the emotional visit to the slave fort. What he said there was fine, but has been said before.
The earlier speech, on the other hand, was refreshingly new and direct: a message no pink-faced Western leader could have delivered without arousing resentment in Africa and politically correct abuse from hand-wringers at home.
But Mr Obama? Yes, he could. “For after all, I have the blood of Africa within me, and my family’s history reflects the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story.”
Baldly, he told Africans not only that they matter in the world, but that success is largely in their hands. “Development depends upon good governance . . . and that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.”
He talked of strong institutions not strongmen, incorruptible police, independent judges, a free press.
“No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to brutality and bribery. . . you have the power to hold your leaders accountable.”
He acknowledged the scale of the challenge — who could do otherwise, thinking of leaders like Robert Mugabe and pockets of leaderless chaos like Somalia? But he kept coming back to the power of African people to determine their own future.
And — here is the bit that no white leader would dare enunciate so flatly — he said that blaming the West for everything wouldn’t wash. Not any more.
“Yes, a colonial map that made little sense bred conflict, and the West has often approached Africa as a patron, rather than a partner.
But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants.
”Kleptocrats, autocrats, brutes and mindless tribalism had done such things. Now, he said, the wider world must “support those who act responsibly and isolate those who don’t . . . Africa’s future is up to Africans.”
There were few numbers or pledges, but he did promise to cut down on funding American consultants and administrators and instead to put resources and training into the hands of those who need them.
“Our $3.5 billion (£2.16 billion) food security initiative is focused on new methods and technologies for farmers — not simply sending American producers or goods.
Aid is not an end in itself. The purpose of foreign assistance must be creating the conditions where it is no longer needed.”
Say that to anyone who works really effectively in Africa and you will hear a resounding cheer: it is when local farmers and traders are given power that things begin to change.
Put technologies or livestock systems into local hands — as small charities do, like Pump Aid or Send a Cow — and societies improve. Give tiny loans to matriarchs to start businesses — as the microcredit charities do — and communities blossom.
Strikingly, these charities demand professional behaviour (livestock owners must pass on benefit with the first calf or kid; microcredit charities insist on contracts and structured repayment, to reward responsibility and protect the borrower from having her less motivated relatives run off with the money).
These initiatives work. And they are more respected, frankly, than all the shiny new 4WD vehicles in UN livery that roar past farms and market stalls, conveying consultants and panjandrums of the Overseas Aidocracy from their air-conditioned hotels.
Obviously, this kind of empowering aid takes understanding and a willingness to trust, to be let down and to trust again more wisely.
It is easier for big Western governments to dump big sums of colonialist guilt-money on African autocracies, who promptly cream it off for palaces and cronies and to win kickbacks from favoured multinationals.
It is also easier to wait for disaster, then throw up your hands in horror and demand Westernised democracy at the barrel of a helicopter gunship. The West’s dealings with Africa have passed from pillage to patronage with little between.
Mr Obama’s word, partnership, is more than welcome.
For historically Africa was seen by the West first as a source of wealth — land, minerals, oil, game — and of impenetrable mystery and romance: a dark continent, a Prester John theme park for adventurous youth. Some went for the money; others as missionaries.
Some missioners sought to understand life on their patch; others were blindly determined to impose Western rules and beliefs. It is not long since the “black godchild” fundraising gimmick encouraged us convent girls to “name” African village children after Christian saints.
But as modern sensibilities grew and independences were gained, an equally toxic attitude of guilty patronage grew up. Africa came to be seen as a huge, hopeless, shambling relative of low intelligence, a tiresome and irritating responsibility. From “Africa: land of opportunity!” we moved smoothly to an idea of “Africa: insoluble problem”.
Some of the old rhetoric is openly insulting — think of Waugh’s Black Mischief — some is well-meant but cringeworthy, like Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? or Tony Blair’s airy promise to “heal the wounds of Africa”.
Even some of our enjoyable “world music” enthusiasm is patronising, particularly when purist Western aficionados get upset about African choirs having fun with crossover pop. But Africans are not special: they are just more of us, bits of the human jigsaw.
Mr Obama cut across a lot of nonsense in averring that Africans are no more or less capable than anyone else of good, evil, venality, heroism and patient nation-building.
Yes, they have a harder struggle than many, because of wars and wrongs.
Yes, they have some terrible leaders (but they overthrew apartheid and gave the world Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu). Yes, they are made up of tribes with ancient grudges — but so is Northern Ireland and much of Europe.
What Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan father, has done is to change the rhetoric. He rejects both patronising mystery-mongers and fruitless breast-beating colonial guilt.
OK, so far it’s only words. But it felt like a new start, and I am inclined to honour it. And on a purely selfish British level, after recent events it is good to hear someone who believes that political institutions are the answer, not the problem.