Savir's Corner: Africa

While there is indeed a growing awareness of the gaps between rich and poor, the situation has not really improved.

Lubuulo Primary School in eastern Uganda 370 (photo credit: Matthew Reber)
Lubuulo Primary School in eastern Uganda 370
(photo credit: Matthew Reber)
We Israelis – like most people, if not more so – are very self-centered.
History revolves around us, as does the present, with our vivid national debate. The rest of the world is no different, with every society centered on its own well-being, connected to the world by curiosity and competition, yet not in sharing wealth; a world with unprecedented wealth and poverty; a humankind with greater social awareness, protesting in relation to its own individual backyard, such as in Occupy Wall Street, the Tahrir and Jasmine revolutions, the Rothschild protest and Indignez-vous in Paris.
Yet there is no outcry for social justice and against the colossal gap between the world’s haves and have-nots. In today’s world, the poorest 40 percent enjoy only 5% of global income; the richest 20% enjoy 75% of it.
There is one continent that suffers most from global injustice – Africa.
With 1.2 billion citizens – almost 20% of the world’s population – its share of the global benefits are minimal and its share of poverty, disease and wars enormous. This is mainly true for sub-Saharan Africa.
The Irish music star Bono said some time ago that “every single day 7,000 children in Africa die from malnutrition and the world is mum. Therefore when it comes to Africa, it’s not about charity, but about justice.”
I was first really exposed to African injustice in the ’90s while deeply engaged in Middle Eastern peace-building. I heard, like everyone else, of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 where almost 1 million people, mostly Tutsi, were savagely murdered, hundreds of thousands of women raped and children maimed.
Except for the typical expression of momentary shock and almost shying away from the TV screen, I returned to my daily self-centered activities. A few years later I had the opportunity to meet the president of Rwanda, Dr. Paul Kagame, and became friends with the mayor of Rwanda’s capital city, Theoneste Mutsindashyaka, with whom I was working on the establishment of a small-child center in Kigali. From them, especially from the mayor, I heard the gruesome descriptions of mass assassinations between tribes and neighbors with machetes.
And even more, I heard about the shameful silence of the world, the former colonial powers of Belgium and France, the United States and the paralyzed United Nations. I felt ashamed for not having known more at the time of the genocide and for doing nothing – a feeling that has not left me since, after all we are all citizens of the world.
While there is indeed a growing awareness of the gaps between rich and poor, the situation has not really improved. We live in a dichotomy-filled world with opportunities on one side and injustice and suffering on the other – a world in which the wealth of 500 billionaires is bigger than the combined GDP of the 41 most-indebted countries; a world in which the seven richest people have more wealth than the 567 million poorest people! Twenty percent of the richest people in the world consume 76.6% of the global wealth while the 20% poorest consume only 5%. Almost 3 billion people have an income of less than $2 a day.
Children are the main victims – 1 out of 5 children in the world dies before reaching the age of six as the result of disease, malnutrition or war.
Hundreds of millions of children do not have basic education – 1 billion people in the world are illiterate. If only 1% of the amount spent on weapons production could be spent on education, every child in the world would be able to go to school.
These plagues are mainly true for sub-Saharan Africa. Some 250 million Africans suffer from malnutrition. Life expectancy ranges from 40 to 50 years, compared to over 80 years in the wealthy West. Africans in the millions are subjected to child labor and forced to be child soldiers.
Water is infected in great parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Basic health services and medication are not available to hundreds of millions, due in part to the West curtailing generic drug development in favor of its wealthy multinational drug companies.
While there is a rampant urbanization process in Africa, most of the population is still agrarian, yet it is not allowed to reach food security; the West curtails African agricultural production and export opportunities with heavy subsidies to its own agrarian sector and unfair trade policies.
The United States, for instance, spent $1 billion dollars in 2005 to subsidize its cotton farmers and to protect their export advantage over African cotton farmers. As a result, 25,000 American farmers gained and 10 million African cotton farmers remained poor.
The West is aiding Africa, with much money, but inefficiently and inadequately, mostly out of economic self-interest, unguided policies and guilt.
There is an urgent human and political need for African recovery, which, according to many leading Africans, should be based on fundamental policy changes. When it comes to African recovery and reform, we should listen to Africans. Such a new Africa policy should therefore be based on the following principles:
• The need to fully understand that the human and social potential that exists in Africa is similar to that of all other continents, including in the West. A different attitude and relationship with Africa first and foremost has to be based on total equality, free of colonial attitudes and prejudice. This is stating the obvious, but unfortunately it must be stated.
• The need to understand and appreciate the unique African culture, with its great diversity and its multitude of formidable and impressive expressions. No real dialogue with Africans is possible without it.
• The need to let Africa speak for itself rather than to preach to it.
• A key transition, which is gradually taking place, is in the nature of African regimes.
African leaders, as expressed by the 2001 African-initiated NEPAD Plan, call for greater democratization and an end to corrupt regimes that, to a large degree, were and are a result of preferences and policies of former colonial powers, corrupting aid policies and the exploitation of natural resources. African democracy is up to Africans and has to follow the cultural characteristics of the different countries. African governments can and should be assisted with the creation of credible, transparent, accountable and modern administrations that are able to reform economies, policies and international relations.
• For this, the young generation of Africa is critical. Sixty percent of Africans are under the age of 24 and there are many excellent universities on the continent. The hope and future of Africa lies in the continuous development of a new African leadership able to undertake the necessary reforms and aware of both self-interest and the need to create a new relationship with the world. Young women are and should be playing an important role in this transition.
• There is a need to move from aid-oriented policies toward investment-based policies, especially in the private sector and in relation to small and medium enterprises and entrepreneurship.
Investments in the many natural resources of Africa need to channel revenues to African economic and social development and growth.
• Aid policies and budgets should focus, aside from basic urgent needs, on infrastructure – transportation, water, energy – that facilitates the effectiveness of the private sector.
But aid policies must be revolutionized.
Aid must focus on capacity-building of Africans to run good administrations focused on health, food security, education and business development. Donor countries also need to set conditions of reforms to African governments toward greater political and social freedoms as well as respect for human rights.
Aid money needs to be controlled and accounted for as it must be utilized for the good of the people, not of the leaders.
Many current aid policies breed corruption on the side of the recipient and the donor.
Aid should not serve the interests of Western or Asian private sector companies seeking cheap labor. Simultaneously, it should not serve the exaggerated salaries for consultants – 38% of aid to sub-Saharan Africa remains with consultants from the donor countries.
Aid money therefore should be channeled by good and clear African policies to infrastructure development, capacity-building of new and young leadership and to basic urgent needs in the areas of health, nutrition and education.
• Food production is critical – the world produces sufficient food for all inhabitants of the globe. There must be fairer sharing as well as development of domestic food production, rich in protein and vitamins (especially for children), including through peri-urban (between the suburbs and the countryside) development. The world has to pay fairly for African agricultural products and stop riding on the backs of African children.
• Basic health services can save millions of lives every year, especially lives of children.
The greatest killers in Africa are malaria, measles and diarrhea, all relatively preventable diseases through basic services, tools and awareness, hygiene, clean water and affordable medication. Aid programs also have to focus on these urgent needs and be sensitive to local culture without imposing foreign value systems; it does not help when China donates medications with instructions in Chinese.
• Many of the reforms and policy changes can be facilitated by further introduction of new technologies to sub-Saharan Africa.
Internet penetration is steeply on the rise, up to 16%, and with time it can serve greater connectivity inside countries and across borders.
Technology can bring about innovative solutions to basic problems in the areas of health, irrigation, trade and education.
• For these reforms, African countries are in need of greater financial resources that can come about from necessary debt forgiveness and fairer trade. Current trade is low, subordinated to the interests of multinationals and wealthy countries and with low exports of African goods and products. While sub-Saharan Africa has more than 15% of the world’s population, it engages in less than 3% of world trade. Traditional aid policies have severely indebted African countries. Most African governments have to spend about 40% of their budget on repaying debts and only about 20% on urgent social and humanitarian needs. Debt forgiveness and better aid programs have to be on the international agenda. It is time for fair trade, fair aid and fair investments – indeed fair relations with Africa altogether.
• For these fundamental changes and reforms to happen, the image of Africa in Western eyes needs to change. The view of Africa is of a tragic, hopeless and helpless destiny.
Great suffering indeed occurs, yet Africa is much more than its current image – it is a vibrant continent, rich in culture, talent and capacity, with many success stories. Six of the fastest-growing economies in the world are African. The Economist defined Africa only a decade ago as the “hopeless continent,” but recently as the “continent of hope.”
These principles have to be translated into a radical change of the Africa policies of the international community, led by the United States and its first African-American president.
Above all, they must be driven by a fundamental change in attitudes – from blindness to care, from prejudice to equality, from pity to cooperation, from guilt to responsibility, from aid to investment, from preaching to mutual understanding, from charity to justice – we have much to learn from Africa and about Africa.
South Africa is a case in point. Only after the end of apartheid and racism did it grow and today it is one of the fastest-growing emerging markets, together with China, Russia, India and Brazil, known as the BRICS countries. We can and should all learn from Nelson Mandela. He knew how a majority could make peace with a minority, ensuring their rights despite their criminal past policies.
He knew what many or most in the West don’t – how to forgive, how to see the other as equal, how to care about suffering and how to seize opportunity. Inspired by this great African leader, we need to dramatically change attitudes and policies on Africa.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.