wasn’t Bono that got me reading about Africa. It wasn’t Angelina
Jolie or Madonna or Vanity Fair. It was a dear friend
of mine who took the plunge to travel to Burundi for six weeks
with a Quaker peace mission to build an AIDS clinic and help
with reconciliation work. Someone I loved was going somewhere
where some agencies hand out decks of cards with different
types of small arms on them so that aid workers, in the process
of playing cards, will get to know what they look like and
be able to report which ones they see in use if they witness
“hostilities.” Faced with that knowledge, I decided the least
I could do was spend a little while remedying my own ignorance
of the state of affairs in this one little country in a massive
continent I know little about.
So for the past two weeks, my Google news alert has been bringing
my inbox stories about Rwanda and Burundi joining the East
African Community and Tanzania trying to send 150,000 Burundian
refugees home to a country technically at peace, but where
the refugees’ land is often still occupied by whoever drove
them off it in the first place. I have skimmed through blog
arguments on allafrica.com, trying to grasp the barest outlines
of the shifting history of Hutu and Tutsi violence, and trying
to overlay that on my friend’s missives about her trip and
the unavoidable culture shock of going somewhere that poor
and with that recent a history of extreme violence.
I don’t have any great wisdom to offer on the subject of Burundi.
I remain only a hair’s breadth above completely ignorant.
Mostly it just feels right, if sad, to be looking squarely
at a topic I’ve been avoiding ever since I didn’t quite make
myself go see Hotel Rwanda.
I have, however, found myself following side-links to other
stories about other African countries, and especially stories
about the recent celebrity interest in the continent and the
resulting debates over what exactly Africa needs—aid, charity,
trade. And in some of these I have started to see patterns
that are familiar to me.
There was, for example, a Los Angeles Times op-ed last
Friday (July 6) by William Easterly, economics professor and
author of The White Man’s Burden, which is an analysis
of why the foreign aid going into Africa has seemed to make
so little difference. (Easterly’s argument: Top-down big-budget
aid programs are less effective than grassroots, market-tested
programs.) In his op-ed, Easterly takes on the Vanity Fair
Africa issue, saying that it paints an unnecessarily bleak
picture and points out that by various measures, Africa is
reducing poverty and increasing school enrollment at a clip
faster than most other countries have ever achieved. What
Africa needs from us is trade, not flashy fund-raisers, argues
It’s good to see someone willing to point out the positives,
and I am definitely sympathetic to the idea that buying African
fair-trade coffee and investing in a community-development
fund that makes affordable loans to small-business people
could be a better approach than, say, dropping the same amount
of money on Bono’s “Red” products.
And yet, there’s something in Easterly’s derisive use of the
phrases “aid handouts” and “begging bowl” that give me pause.
They sound like sound bites from a thousand domestic debates
over everything from welfare to affirmative action.
And they are as ahistorical as they are when used domestically.
Yes, the West needs to respect the humanity and capability
of Africans to solve their own problems, and use what aid
it decides to send wisely and effectively. But when it comes
to calling that aid “handouts,” it might also do us all some
good to remember that the West is not just a noble savior
in this story.
Our (recent) roles in getting Africa where it is today are
nearly always ignored in these conversations. Take, for example,
the coverage of Condoleezza Rice’s trip to the Democratic
Republic of Congo next week. “State Department spokesman Sean
McCormack said Washington viewed mineral-rich Congo as an
important country and wanted to show support to the former
Belgian colony following decades of conflict there,” reads
a July 9 Reuters article. “‘This is a country that is seeking
to emerge from a number of political perturbations . . .’
said McCormack.” It continues to talk about how the country
hasn’t had a democratically elected leader for decades.
Um, and why would that be? Perhaps because the CIA and President
Eisenhower had the first and only one (Patrice Lumumba) shot
for being hard to control. (CIA documents declassified this
June provide even more evidence of this, but it’s been known
for a while.) That’s a perturbation for you. Things like that
make me want to talk more in terms of reparations than aid.
Even aside from the money, I imagine it could make a significant
difference if the world at large and especially the people
struggling to create functional democracies on the ground
in Africa heard over and over that what they’ve been through
has not just been a result of their somehow being inherently
bad at self-governance.
I don’t think we need a guilt fest. Just a few honest history
lessons. And a few more people willing to kick the rest of
us into paying a little attention to the details.
Check out Miriam’s new blog, The Big Questions: The Path to
Albany’s First Comprehensive Plan, at: http://metroland.typepad.com/the_big_questions/