Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Kisangani

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jul 03, 2005

I am watching Live 8 as I write this, rebroadcast on a Sunday morning on AOL, thankful to be able to witness this moment, and alternating between rage and hope.

"Africa has been the most exploited continent in the history of the world.... I am going to rise up and break the backbone of your power... if you rise up, know that you do not rise up alone.."

Get up, stand up, stand up for your right
Get up, stand up, don't give up the fight - Bob Marley

Yesterday's National Post ran a banner headline, "The Failure of Altruism", to lead an article which is not available online. The Post is very concerned about the Live 8 concerts and the Walk for Africa protests, concerned that it will detract from the G8's real agenda.

So it must minimize the impact of these movements, try to show that the approach they recommend has been tried, and has failed. To show that people do not really believe in Geldof's and Bono's cause, and that even if they did, it's misdirected and pointless.

Like this, from another article in the Post:
Marty Gradwell from Whitby, Ont., said he came to the Canadian gig "to rock out and enjoy the start of a warm summer." Asked what prompted the worldwide music extravaganza, he could only venture a guess. "For AIDS in Afghanistan, is it?"
Now let me ask you, of the tens of thousands of people in the audience, how many of them do you suppose were not aware of the point of the concert? A hundred? A dozen? One?

"We do dot accept that a child dies every 30 seconds... we are not satisfied that the place of your birth determines the outcome of your life... let us be outraged..."

The Post coverage is not only misleading, it is mean-spirited, destructive, wrong.

There is ignorance, but it is not about the problem. We know what the problem is. Thousands of children will die in Africa as I write this column. Millions more are undernourished, uneducated, homeless, jobless... desperate. That is the problem.

"The issues can no longer be ignored... this is a just and righteous cause..." - Annie Lennox

Take a moment and look at Africa. This is a city, Kisangani to be precise, a city of 500,000 people, the size of Mississagua. Where are the highways? Why is the airfield a single strip of dirt? Where are the public buildings, the schools, the universities? Where is the power plant? Where is the agriculture, the industry?

Kisangani was once called Stanleyville, named for Henry Morton Stanley, an American explorer famous for his search for David Livingstone. That, really, says everything we need to know.
Kisangani's history, however, is a recurring tragedy played by different actors. It has gone from Afro-Arab slaving center to Belgian colonial ivory outpost to independence killing ground. In 1965 rebels clad in monkey skins hacked and speared people to death here, and then ate them. It is the site of novelist Joseph Conrad's "Inner Station" - the outpost in deepest Africa where Kurtz, the protagonist of "Heart of Darkness," lost his sanity and his soul.

Today, cut off from the central government - marooned, in fact, from the 21st Century - Kisangani has seen at least four major battles in the last two years, all of them turf wars between the occupying armies of Uganda and Rwanda.

It is a weird, post-holocaust metropolis. Four hundred thousand people mill in streets that are virtually empty of motorized traffic. There are no working phones, water or steady power. In one building, men in snappy business suits sit in a second floor office that looks like performance art; the office walls are blown out. Hot winds carry off their paperwork. Though it is Congo's third-largest city, Kisangani runs on barter. In the market, vendors use the city archives to wrap peanuts.
This is today's Africa, a legacy of conquest, slave trades, colonial exploitation, cold-war dictators, and today, civil war and disease. And history continues to play out in Africa today much as it has over the last 200 years.
Downtown, however, flashes of fresh paint stand out: new diamond bourses with names like "American Ninja," "Mr. Cash" and "Christ Is Rich." The gems, sifted by hand from thousands of gravelly creeks that spill into the Congo River...

Only two Congolese commodities buck the trend. Diamond output has climbed from 14 million carats to 20 million. And beer: 1.7 million cases to 4.3 million. "These are the only two industries still functioning in town," says Ekopi Kane Mokeni, a half-Lebanese merchant whose fleet of 12 trucks has been stolen by rebel soldiers. "Diamonds and beer offer escape."
Diamonds. In the Sudan, oil. In other parts of Africa, copper and gold. The patern is familiar, and has repeated itself from generation to generation.
Diamonds have been at the centre of West Africa's nightmare for more than a decade. They helped to pay for former President Charles Taylor's 14-year rampage in Liberia and for his military adventures in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire. They were the engine of the Revolutionary United Front's horrific decade-long war in Sierra Leone. In the 1950s, Liberia became a major conduit for illicit diamonds from almost everywhere in Africa, and by the mid 1990s it had become the country of provenance for billions - not millions - of dollars worth of stolen gems.
Where there are resources to be exploited and sent to the west, there is civil conflict.
There [is a] remarkable similarity between the map of Africa's civil wars and the map of its precious resources: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (gold and diamonds), Angola (diamonds and oil), Sudan (oil), Sierra Leone (diamonds) and Liberia (diamond trafficking and timber) are the most obvious examples. External agents, attracted by the subterranean riches, intervene in all these conflicts, as diamond traffickers or oil companies, directly and indirectly feeding the conflict and poverty.
Even today, we leave them little hope of escape. Take the case of Djibouti, in east Africa. The Americans, in only the latest in a series of western interventions, have taken an interest in the country, most recently useful as a staging area for its operations in the Middle East. The U.S. troops arrived with millions in aid, support for the incumbent government, which welcomed them with open arms, and everything necessary to build an airbase.

For all that, it hasn't helped the country a bit.
Ninety-nine of every 1,000 Djiboutians die at birth and the maternal death rate is triple that of Rwanda - the result of bad diet, widespread maternal anemia and rampant female genital excision. About 60 per cent of Djiboutians are unemployed. Female rural illiteracy tops 85 per cent. And the average Djiboutian lives just 51 years...

So far, though, U.S. aid for Djibouti appears to be targeting America's most basic needs... The Agency for International Development (AID) offered just $4 million (all figures U.S.) in development aid for this nation of 600,000 people. Three-fourths of it was earmarked for upgrading security at Djibouti's international airport.
To make matters worse, U.S. aid has entrenched the position of Djibouti's president, Ismail Omar Guelleh. He won 100 percent of the vote in recent elections, a fraudulent vote boycotted by the opposition. "Guelleh's Union for Presidential Majority party won all 65 parliamentary seats in 2003's legislative election, amid opposition accusations of widespread rigging."

The president, meanwhile, has taken the opportunity to crack down on opposition forces, attacking press freedoms, forcibly expelling immigrants, abusing human rights, and in general pushing this country deeper into the quagmire of poverty, repression and brutality.

The National Post, meanwhile, as I mentioned, is stridently afraid that the Live 8 concerts and the Walk for Africa are detracting from the G8's more serious business. It quotes Aurel Braun, a University of Toronto political science professor who is a specialist in Russian and East European studies:
"This very great focus on this issue, as if there were no other issues, could only be justified if there was a truly viable plan, a kind of Africa Marshall plan. But there isn't one.... I think it is negligent not to address a variety of other issues such as high oil prices and a variety of trade disputes," Mr. Braun said.

"Therefore what I have concluded is the agenda of the G8 has been hijacked by the politically fashionable to the detriment of the politically realistic."

He said Bono and Bob Geldof, who are promoting Saturday's Live 8 concerts, should be pushing for democratic reform across the continent, and an end to corrupt dictatorships such as that of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

"Why are they not holding concerts for the people who are being butchered in Darfur and those who are suffering under Mr. Mugabe, and those who are being killed in Nigeria, and the three million who have died as a result of corrupt warlordism in the Congo? And why are they not demanding first of all clean governments, responsible governments, freedom of the press?" Mr. Braun said.

"But that would be just too difficult," he said. "It's much easier to hold these concerts, to make world leaders feel guilty, make them look bad ... and I think that ultimately these people are well-meaning individuals who are causing a lot of harm to everyone because what they are refusing to do is to address the real problems."
Perhaps Braun has recently become an expert in African affairs. But perhaps he is just being used as a compliant mouthpiece for a policy steeped in denial, misappropriation of blame, perpetuation of stereotypes, and vindictiveness.

It is also out-and-out fabrication. Even a superficial look at people like Bono and Geldof shows that , after decades of wrestling with the issues, they have come to have an appreciation for what are, in fact, the real problems. Bono, for example, argues on Oprah Winfrey:
Africa spends $40 million each day repaying old debts to rich countries. This massive debt prohibits African nations from developing the infrastructure and trade agreements they need to thrive.
  • Africa spends four times as much on debt repayment as it spends on health care.
  • For every one dollar sent to the poorest countries in aid, $1.30 is sent back to the leaders as debt repayment.
  • Africa spends over $14.5 billion dollars yearly repaying debts. It receives only $12.7 billion in aid.
If there is a criticism to be made, it is that Bono is too soft on those in power, too willing to overlook their role not just in the debt crisis but in the circumstances that led to the crisis.

What circumstances? Well, this, for example:
Yesterday, Day I, the odd couple visited ACS-BPS, a US computer company which now employs 800 people in Accra to process healthcare bills for millions of Americans. Ghana is the new India for the IT world - the workforce is paid piece rates and can earn up to $15 a week. This is about a fiftieth of what they could earn in the US, but twice the average in Accra and everyone there said they were happy.

They sat in stony silence behind their terminals, under a poster of five young, white go-getters mouthing: "Our favorite phrase is 'Can Do'!"

The irony that millions of Ghanaians lack access to the most basic health clinics, and that the company pays no taxes to their government, was lost on Mr O'Neill who saw only "beautifully dressed" people.

Bono tried to be polite. "I know there's discussion about corporate exploitation of low foreign wages, but as long as the government exploits the corporation, too, then I think it's OK."
It's not OK. And there is a danger that the problems will actually increase:
And the cynics like me on the sidelines will be saying it was just a huge PR exercise - massive "spin offensive" spearheaded by rock stars ... to mask the real intentions. The new scramble for Africa's ... Everyone knows that Africa is rich in resources, and has always - for minerals, wildlife, tourism and of course people (the brain drain, remember that with the worlds resources being rapidly drained elsewhere, that's why the G8 is turning again to Africa...
And it leads to sentiments like this, ammunition for the National Post:

Ian Vasquez, director of the Project on Global Economic Liberty, at the Cato Institute, a Washington think-tank, agreed the focus on debt relief is misguided.
"When you talk about debt relief, what you're really talking about is the failure of past foreign aid because the majority of the debt of heavily indebted countries is due to official loans from the World Bank, the IMF and other places," Mr. Vasquez said. "These agencies have lent hundreds of billions of dollars to Africa and they got debt rather than development. That to me is a damning indictment of foreign aid and I don't see how you get to more aid and more debt relief as a solution."
And it has led even to some bitter denunciations of Live 8 and similar efforts on the part of Africans themselves:
Meaningless concerts and laughable commissions are not going to fight any poverty. Even dubiously benevolent concessions like debt cancellation are meaningless in themselves. It is utterly meaningless to cancel my debt if you do not allow me to earn money. Let us both compete fairly on the International market.

No, I am not holding my breath. The solution will not come from Live Aid or from G8. It will come from Africans who will finally refuse to accept the nonsense they are subjected to by their asinine leadership and throw the lot of the useless cretins out.

It will come from Africans who will put their skills and abilities to use for their countries.

It will come from Africans who will refuse to acknowledge the empty gestures from Europe and America, whose only concern is how best to plunder the continent of its resources and people without ruffling too many feathers and upsetting too many of their taxpayers.
I think this is right, and I think it is right in just the way that Vasquez is wrong.

Let us not think for a moment that the billions of dollars in loans and other forms of 'assistance' from the IMF, World Bank and other groups, including the G8, constitute 'aid' in any way.

Let's begin with the IMF. This international lending organization has contributed billions of dollars in loans to African nations, but these loans - usually used to pay off interest on previous loans - come with strings attached.
The Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) is the IMF's concessional lending facility for the least developed countries... As a condition of receiving these loans, countries must agree to adopt IMF structural adjustment programs. Structural adjustment programs generally require countries to adopt policies such as:
  • Reductions in government spending;
  • Monetary tightening (high interest rates and/or reduced access to credit);
  • Elimination of government subsidies for food and other items of popular consumption;
  • Privatization of enterprises previously owned or operated by the government; and
  • Reductions in barriers to trade, as well as to foreign investment and ownership.
Critics have long argued against these conditions. They prevent countries from doing things like restrict imports in order to protect domestic economies from the dumping of goods from developed nations. They prevent these governments from enforcing taxes on corporations and tariffs on undervalued cash crops destined for the export market. It prevents the institution of measures designed tgo improve African economies, while all the while turning a blind eye while the western nations, with their freedom from IMF regulations, engage in just the sort of program denied to the Africans.
Even dubiously benevolent concessions like debt cancellation are meaningless in themselves. It is utterly meaningless to cancel my debt if you do not allow me to earn money. Let us both compete fairly on the International market. Your farmers are already enjoying considerable technological advantages -- they do not need subsidies. Don't wax lyrical about debt relief if without avenues for me earning my own money I shall promptly be in debt again.
And there is mounting evidence that such programs hinder, and do not help, the recipient nations.
  • Developing countries worldwide implementing ESAF programs have experienced lower economic growth than those who have been outside of these programs.
  • While African countries urgently need to increase spending on health care, education, and sanitation, IMF structural adjustment programs have forced these countries to reduce such spending.
  • Neither IMF-mandated macroeconomic policies nor debt relief under the IMF-sponsored HIPC Initiative have sufficiently reduced these countries' debt burdens. Poor countries continue to divert resources from expenditures on health care and education in order to service external debt.
Foreign aid has typically been subject to similar strings, again often to the detriment of African nations.
A considerable amount of foreign aid is tied aid. Here the grants or concessionary loans have conditions laid down by the donor country about how the money should be used. Tied aid by source means that the recipient country receiving the aid must spend it on the exports of the donor country. Tied aid by project means that the donor country requires the recipient country to spend it on a specific project such a road or a dam. Often this might be to the commercial or economic benefit of the firms in the donor country.
Sending money to an impoverished on condition that it purchase goods from a wealthy country, often on projects that benefit the wealthy country, does not in any sense constitute aid. It is a business proposition, pure and simple, and one in which one party is in no position to refuse, and in which the other party gains economically. It pushes the poorer country further down, and secures the advantage the wealthy country already enjoys.

For newspapers like the National Post to call this 'altruism' and for commentators like Ian Vasquez to suggest that " the main problem for Africa is the lack of economic freedom" is outrageous. To suggest that the problems of Africa have more to do with Africans' incompetence, and less to do with the western world's predation, is to grossly mis-state the problem.

For, in short, we are the problem.

I agree with the numerous African commentators who say that "Africa's problems will be solved by Africans." Our efforts, collectively, to 'fix' things have resulted in more and more poverty and chaos. Our responsibilities, as citizens of the wealthier western nations, lie elsewhere.

They lie - as Bono and Geldof have correctly surmised - in focusing our attentions on our own leaders and our own practices.

First things first, as the protesters at the G8 conference are arguing, the sham we call 'foreign debt' must be eliminated. Not eliminated so that it will suddenly start raining dollars on African nations. But eliminated so that these nations are at the same time liberated from punitive, unfair and regressive conditions attached to these loans. And eliminated in such a way as to allow Africans to create their own economic policies, without the intereference economists' dogma, without, for example, adding conditions that stipulate that expenditures on health and education be reduced.

We need also to call attention to the practises of our governments and industries in regions like Africa. Companies that act as Talisman did in Sudan or Shell did in Nigeria ought to face the most severe of criminal sanctions. Action must be taken against companies that pay no taxes, abuse employees and force them to work in substandard conditions. Companies cannot be allowed to simply walk away from environmental disasters and blight the way Union Carbide did.

World trade cannot be structured simply in a way that favours developed nations and industries. There must be recognition not only that developing countries need and have a right to protect themselves, but also that there must be some flexibility on things like patents, copyrights and other measures that enforce the existing ownership of, well, everything, by western nations. If world trade is to be restructured, let it be done in such a way that favours less developed nations rather than punishing them.

And we, the nations of the west, should begin repaying our debt to Africa now. This is not aid or assistance or support; it is a fair and honest payment for the wealth and resources we have extracted over the years. The call for 0.7 percent of GDP in foreign aid - a target our leaders are not willing to promise in their own political lifetime - is but a token payment.

Our governments, collectively, must stop propping up dictators and despots and other tyrants. It is easy to sit here and solemnly declare that African nations must develop into democracies. But we need to recognize the role that we have played in putting them there and that we are playing even at this moment in keeping them there. And it is a bit much for us to say to African nations that they must develop democracies when our current practices act against that ambition and when, through our own actions, the necessities of democratic governance - health, education, food, housing - have been denied to generation after generation.

This is us, the people of the west, speaking to our leaders. It must be done. What we have done and continue to to do to kill 30,000 people, 50,000 people, each and every day in Africa, must stop. We need to put our house in order. And when we do that, maybe - finally - Africa can begin to heal.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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