Monday, August 24, 2009

Fantasies of Africa

'The desolate, dusty town of Pibor on South Sudan's border with Ethiopia has no running water, no electricity and little but mud huts for the population to live in.
You would be hard put to find a poorer place anywhere on earth.
I went there as part of a journey across Africa to ask the question "Why is Africa poor?" for a BBC radio documentary series.

I was asked to investigate why it is that every single African country - with the exceptions of oil-rich Gabon and Algeria - is classified by the United Nations as having a "low" broadly defined Human Development Index - in other words an appalling standard of living for most of the people.

In Pibor, the answer to why the place is poor seems fairly obvious.'

Wow I thought to myself- finally somebody is going to reveal to British readers the truth about African poverty- that it is poverty of the mind, of the soul and of culture. But then I read on...

'...The people - most of whom are from the Murle ethnic group - are crippled by tribal conflicts related to disputes over cattle, the traditional store of wealth in South Sudan.'

Hmmmm. Bullshit. Nobody fought each other with such gay abandon as Europeans, generation after generation, and it didn't seem to result in African levels of poverty. Even if it did, within a few generations, the Europeans would have rebuilt everything and been wealthier than before. Vast areas of Germany were simple rubble in 1945. Been to Germany lately? If anything, the technological developments resulting from war made Europeans technological leaders of the whole world.

So obviously, war can't be the reason. I read on.

'...South Sudan is potentially rich.

"It's bigger than Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi combined," the South Sudan Regional Co-operation Minister Barnaba Benjamin, enthused.
"Tremendous land! Very fertile, enormous rainfall, tremendous agricultural resources. Minerals! We have oil and many other minerals - go name it!"
The paradox of rich resources and poor people hints at another layer of explanation about why Africa is poor.

It is not just that there is war. The question should, perhaps be: "Why is there so much war?"'

Oh my God, leave off about war already!!! That's not another layer you bozo!

'...And the headline question is in fact misleading; Africans as a people may be poor, but Africa as a place is fantastically rich - in minerals, land, labour and sunshine.
That is why outsiders have been coming here for hundreds of years - to invade, occupy, convert, plunder and trade.'

Translate the jaundiced lefty idiom, and here you find an important truth. The attitudes of many Europeans (and Chinese) is 'Well if you aren't going to use this bauxite/fantastic agricultural land/timber for anything yourselves, I guess we will'.

But then we get bogged down in the STANDARD EXPLANATION FOR ALL EVIL IN THE WORLD.

'...But the resources of South Sudan, for example, have never been properly developed. During colonial rule South Sudan was used as little more than a reservoir of labour and raw materials. Then independence was followed by 50 years of on-off war between the south and north - with northerners in Khartoum continuing the British tactic of divide and rule among the southern groups.

Some southerners believe this is still happening today.'

Marxist bilge in the pure. Despite the mountains of evidence that Africa was both desperately poor AND addicted to warfare before a white man set foot on the continent, somehow those two things are all a British invention. As analysis, its very very poor. And if used as a predictor of future events (get rid of the terrible British influence and everything will suddenly come right), truly useless.

'...Almost every African I met, who was not actually in government, blamed corrupt African leaders for their plight.
"The gap between the rich and the poor in Africa is still growing," said a fisherman on the shores of Lake Victoria.
"Our leaders, they just want to keep on being rich. And they don't want to pay taxes."'

And? This is neither ground-breaking information, nor of any possible help. Corruption is a game virtually every African plays. The rulers of African countries may be disproportionate beneficiaries of it, but corruption is present down to the lowliest policeman and public official, and in virtually all commercial transactions too. The culture of corruption inhabits the whole of African society; indeed, it is a cast-iron piece of bantu culture.

'...Even President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia came close to this when she told me she had underestimated the level of corruption in her country when she took office.
"Maybe I should have sacked the whole government when I came to power," she said.
"Africa is not poor," President Johnson-Sirleaf added, "it is poorly managed."'

I'm a bit of a fan of Johnson-Sirleaf, especially as she beat George Weah, international footballer and nincompoop in the general election. But her statement is completely wrong. If Africa was simply mis-managed, it would be vastly easier to fix its problems than is in reality the case.

'...Kenyan architect and town planner Mumo Museva took me to the bustling Eastleigh area of Nairobi, where traders have created a booming economy despite the place being almost completely abandoned by the government.

Eastleigh is a filthy part of the city where rubbish lies uncollected, the potholes in the roads are the size of swimming pools, and the drains have collapsed.

But one indication of the success of the traders, Mr Museva said, was the high per-square-foot rents there.
"You'll be surprised to note that Eastleigh is the most expensive real estate in Nairobi."
He added that if Eastleigh traders trusted the government they might pay some taxes in return for decent services, so creating a "virtuous circle".
"It would lift people out of poverty," he said.
"Remember, poverty is related to quality of life, and the quality of life here is appalling, despite the huge amount of wealth flowing through these areas."'

What do you suppose the odds are of ever getting that "virtuous circle" thing off the ground? So a few individual Africans get immensely wealthy, while surrounded on every side by extreme poverty. What is bizarre is going to Africa to ask Africans for solutions to African problems. Europeans are rich because of European culture. Africans are poor because of bantu culture. But of course no BBC correspondent is EVER going to say something like that. EVER.

'...Then the young Kenyan architect echoed the Liberian president, some 5,000km (3,000 miles) away on the other side of the continent.
"Africa is not poor," he also said.
"Africa is just poorly managed."'

Well, there we are then. That's that sorted out. Its simply an issue of managing stuff better, innit? Just the kind of answer a BBC correspondent wants!

It ignores history, economics and the vast range of material facts, but whatever- the Guardian-reading BBC editor will love it! And lets face it, we're not REALLY interested in Africans living well, and prospering.

Until Africans recognise the terrible effects that tribalism, ethnic hatred, a lack of respect for laws and public institutions, superstition, greed and macho callousness (all derived from bantu culture) have on African lives, nothing will change. Trying to blame white colonial invaders is a pathetic sop, and only distracts from the real solutions. Most of the things which work in Africa were built by white people; and as white people have been chased out of many African countries, those countries have slipped back into shambolic poverty and awfulness.

But don't let the truth get in the way of a good narrative, BBC!

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