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The Africa Bandwagon


It 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, 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 Easterly.

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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Check out Miriam’s new blog, The Big Questions: The Path to Albany’s First Comprehensive Plan, at:

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