African development – inside out, upside down

Last month, postgraduate students at The School of Oriental and African Studies London (SOAS) organised their 2nd African Development Forum. A free event, I had never been to before, so I went along to see what it was all about. Rushing from work, I turned up late and missed the first half. The panel in the second half consisted of Marieme Jamme (voted one of Africa’s top women), Edward Watkins (Farm Africa Charity Head of Operations) and Rahma Ahmed (Manager of Somali Relief & Development Forum). I was actually able to speak with Marieme Jamme after the event and I must say her zeal is inspiring! All panellists have experience of working in different parts of the continent with local people to raise socio-economic standards. You can Google them to find out about their work.

The flyer given at the event
The flyer given at the event

They all gave inspiring anecdotes including Marieme’s passionate speech, challenging the audience to be fearless; leaving our preconceptions on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, if we want to go to Africa and make a difference. That includes the worry that Africans born on the continent may not welcome westernised Africans who now seem to have found their roots, with open arms.

During an entertaining discussion, it wasn’t the poignant stories told that were the take home message for me, but the consensus that aid is definitely not a catalyst for development and  undermines it. I agree, but at the same time feel a bit hypocritical because I’m one of the many thousands of people who donated during Red Nose Day in the UK, as I was instantly moved by the abysmal conditions of healthcare clinics in parts of Ghana and Uganda. I’m one of those people who have championed aid and helping those who are less fortunate, because I thought it would help. I felt a sense of guilt because I just went with the flow; when a developed country or charity used to say they were giving aid to an African country, I used to think, ‘wow that’s nice’. I realise that the problem with aid is that is doesn’t ‘teach people how to fish’ and that’s why it undermines entrepreneurship and development. I still believe that in the short-term aid does save lives but chronic dependency, is a life of bondage.

From the audience. Photo: From my phone
From the audience. Photo: From my phone

What does development mean?

I’ve heard a lot about various African economies booming in the midst of Europe crumbling, but I think African development is the wrong way round, which is obvious but I feel it’s being ignored. Maybe it’s because images of Africa have always been negative so it’s natural to promote something that is positive, even if it’s not the full picture, I get it. However, I can’t really jump for joy about African development, when South African vineyard workers allegedly get paid around £9 a day (Watch the BBC documentary South Africa: The Massacre That Changed a Nation), across the continent women still die during child birth from preventable complications, there are frequent power cuts, open sewage gutters, no running water in some fast-food restaurants and hospitals!

According to this Bloomberg article, Ghana has a $35 billion economy with a predicted growth of 8% this year, but part of her water pipe system dates back to 1914. The toughest place to be a fisherman, is one episode in a series on the BBC, where an English fisherman went to a fishing village in Sierra Leone struggling to feed itself, because companies with large trawler boats where fishing in their waters illegally. There is no way that the villagers in their little canoe could compete and during confrontations with the trespassers and they lost more than some snappers and mackerels… some lost their lives. Why was this allowed to happen? You may ask. In a nutshell, due to poor governance, but after the BBC exposed the truth the government of Sierra Leone tried to put some laws in place, which seemed to benefit the villagers for now; but they still go fishing in their little canoe, not lucky enough to have a high-tech fishing trawler like the criminals stealing their livelihoods or the English fisherman Andy, who came to help them. In the UK, trawler men such as Andy can earn between £10,000 and £100,000 per year, but his African friends earn around £215 a year.

Fishing for a whole village. Photo credit: BBC News
Fishing for a whole village. Photo credit: BBC News.

Last year the Guardian newspaper revealed that West African fishermen pleaded with the UK to prevent EU laws proposed by Spain which would allow European fisherman to over fish in African waters. According to the article legal and illegal European fishing companies, receive subsidies of more than €1bn per year (£83m). This does not seem to be enough and exploitation of African waters has been happening for decades forcing fisherman from Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal and other countries to give up their livelihoods and live a life of poverty. Some points from last year’s article:

Nearly all the fish caught in African waters is re-exported or sold in Europe.

Most fishing stocks in West African coastal waters are now fully or over-exploited.

According to Greenpeace 34 European vessels now catch about 235,000 tonnes of fish a year from Moroccan and Mauritanian waters alone.

The Senegalese government claim that catches fell from about 95,000 tons a year to 45,000 tons between 1994 and 2005. At the time of the article member states led by France and Spain were said to have conspired to prevent some of the UK’s proposals and keep overfishing African waters  because UK proposals were “unrealistic and too prescriptive”.

This article was written last year so things may have changed, but after reading it I felt disheartened and could not be bothered to check whether the situation has improved; because I think I already know the answer, but if you can prove me wrong please let me know!

More exploitation of the continent is seen in the gold mines of Ghana – watch this shocking video of Chinese immigrants taking what they want.

Who is to blame though? In the cases mentioned above I think there is too much corruption in governments which is hindering development. Of course there is corruption all over the world; it’s not just an African disease but I am really bored of watching the continent going one step forward and then two steps back. Also a certain mentality which seems to be endemic on the continent does not help.

In the mire of corruption, Africa still marches on with her development though. In June of this year the construction of Hope City, a $10 billion technology hub is due to start in Ghana and the 30,000 square metre West Hills Shopping Mall, is due to open in October 2014. In 1994 the world watched one of the worst genocides in living memory, tear Rwanda to pieces but according the recent reports 98% of Rwandans have health insurance with a good proportion of preventive care, such as immunisation and mosquito nets being free and since the beginning of the millennium the maternal mortality rate has decreased by 60%. International health analysts believe that the Rwandan health care system could the blueprint for Africa! There are other success stories across the continent, it’s not all gloom and doom.

I realise that things take time even after decades of independence across the continent but Africa has the potential to be great! The foundations need to be set well; it’s all good building fancy technology hubs and pretty shopping centres but what African countries need first is to develop sound healthcare systems, transport infrastructure and good educations establishments like Ashesi University (watch the video here) i.e. the basics. Build your house on a rock!

Will true development  manifest in the Motherland; or will it just be a mirage in the Sahara desert? In the words of the Rwandan Health Minister Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, ‘Owning Our Country, Our History, Our Destiny and Putting Everybody Around Our Own Plan’, should be part of the ethos of all countries on the continent.

double*a*ad : ADelinA

Featured image of Africa map, photo credit: Wikipedia


2 thoughts on “African development – inside out, upside down”

  1. Hmmm… this is why Africans both of the diaspora and within the continent itself must wake up. Those of us in the diaspora must either go home or assume positions of influence in the West in order to usher through proposals and policies that will bring change. Easier said than done, but let’s at least make our time here (in the West) meaningful while those of us who do go home (especially with our Western ‘experience’) must also pursue change – celebrate progress and highlight areas for improvement and most importantly recognise that nothing will change unless we as Africans are united.

    1. Agreed. Things are always more productive when people are united.. It’s just getting there which is hard. Especially as we still vote on tribal lines.

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