Recently, there have been plenty of stories that had moved people to re-think some of the assumptions which often sustain international politics and the relationship between Africa and the West (or between the global North and South). Stories like the new round of financial panic and collapsing stock-markets or the ongoing debates about aid and development. On this last front for example, it was the #1millionshirt debate that occupied the (Twitter) headlines for most of last week and reached its climax last Friday. In many ways however, the aftershocks are still being felt. The frantic commenting from last week however, has given way to a time for more quiet thinking. Blogs like Texas in Africa and Wait…What? have continued to reflect about aid and development from different points of view.
Even myself –although I am not part of the aid/development community –have done so. My personal taking-point from all this talking has been an even stronger belief that the aid/development model is not working (at least to my eyes). For me the most interesting comments made on the live-talk last Friday were those suggested “pairing up with the private sector” and that “NGOs need an exit strategy from Africa”. I am not saying that all aid should be stopped radically, or that international cooperation is a bad thing – not to mention that humanitarian relief for a catastrophe or humanitarian disaster is a different matter altogether. The development and cooperation departments from different governments, the NGOs, and aid problems are not (and probably should not) going to disappear overnight. But energies, ideas and illusions cannot be continued to be poured into this model. A broken model which betrays two fundamental flaws – namely, that Africa needs to be helped, and that it falls upon the West to do this. Both these premises are wrong. Yes, parts of Africa lack infrastructures, segments of the population do not have access to basic services, and the continent’s economies are smaller than those in the West. But these are political problems. And require political solutions. Therefore, it is wrong to adopt a “technical” or “depoliticised” model to solve this. A model in which, furthermore, the West is somehow to provide the answers (and/or the money) – but, of course, with the “inputs” and “participation” from the “beneficiaries”…
This critique of development is obviously not new; it has been done by numerous people, including scholars like James Ferguson in his book “The Anti-Politics Machine”. And the broader parallelisms between some of the fundamental tenets of development models and those of late colonialism have also been highlighted – most brilliantly by Frederick Cooper and Randall Packard in the book “International development and the social sciences: essays on the history and politics ok knowledge”. Of course this may seem a too general a criticism, and therefore an unfair one. It can also be noted that things have changed a lot and that people working in development do it often not only with good will but also with much more knowledge that I have. They are probably right. All I am saying is that I, personally, no longer buy into this idea of “development”.
As well as for their “depoliticised” nature, development discourses are often also problematic because they imply, as I have noted, that somehow Western knowledge carries a premium; it has “extra” value. It is not necessary to go here deep into how this so: how knowledge is produced and reproduced by those with power and granted legitimacy (a critique made many times before by post-modern and post-structural thinkers). Nevertheless during these few days in which I have been thinking more than usual about this, I have also come across a number of examples which show how problematic – and hypocritical – is to assume that things or knowledge from the West, is somehow best. rnThese points have been raised and elaborated much better than I can ever do here by the Ghana Think Tank initiative (h/t A Bombastic Element), set up in 2006 and which takes problems from the US or the UK (Liverpool and Wales) were collected and sent to think-tanks in Ghana, Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico, Serbia, and Ethiopia. The solutions were then acted on back on these countries, in:
an attempt to transpose parts of one culture into another, to take a solution generated in one context and apply it elsewhere. The hope is that the friction caused by these misapplications would generate interesting results, and that we could learn something further about our own assumptions as well as those of our counterparts in the other countries. As such, the focus of the Ghana Think Tank is not the resolution of these problems per se, but on the gaps of translation that occur within the process as a way of uncovering our hidden assumptions.
This appears as an insightful initiative – that tellingly moves in the art circles, not on political ones – which tells us what should be obvious but unfortunately it is not: that international cooperation is desirable, but that this should not be one-way. Problems have often similar causes across the world and the more people think about them the more solutions people will come up with. At the same time, it is often the case that those with a fresh perspective come up with original solutions. So it is likely that these think-tanks can have original and valid answers to European problems. But turning these solutions into a reality is a political decision, judged by numerous other standards other than what is the best solution (in a technical sense). Could we imagine the UK government implementing a hypothetical briefing from a Ghanaian think tank on how to solve public transport deficiencies in Wales? Probably not; or at least the idea sounds striking. So why does the opposite happens – and often with plans and briefings that are far from ideal?
Another example, Commonwealth observers have been sent to monitor yesterday’s UK elections – the first time this happens. This appears as a curiosity, but these 11 observers from Asia and Africa have raised:
issues like voter apathy, party funding and the electoral system.
Similarly, people have been pulled away from polling stations, and people have often been allowed to vote without an adequate proof of ID. These are irregularities and deficiencies in the democratic process, but will the objections from these observers be taken seriously and addressed in the future? I doubt it. I am of course not trying to put the UK and Sudan elections at the same level; I know there although these are problems, there are different degrees of irregularities – it is not the same rigging an election than voter apathy. But I think there is a point on raising these issues, and reflect on what they tell us.
We know that at present Europe faces a crisis which – even if it is only half-as-bad as it can be – it could be extremely serious. Unemployment in Spain is over 20%, Greece as recently taken an IMF loan and has been forced to implement an austerity programme that has unleashed popular protest (which have left three people dead). Although nothing new –crises in capitalism occur regularly – this time the crisis is extremely serious. People compare it to the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the 1930s depression. This was too long ago, and most people have no memory of this. However, we can recur to another more recent example: the crises faced by African states after the 1973 oil-crisis. This was a devastating continent-wide crisis in which productivity crashed, unemployment went through the roof, whole industries (like Zambia’s copper mining) collapsed, numerous states were pushed into the arms of the IMF, whose infamous Structural Adjustment Programmes drastically reduced public services, political conflict and turmoil often followed…
Many African countrieshave lived through similar, and far worse, crises not too long ago. African people have experienced this during their adult lives and can tell us about it. So, why not seek their advice? Wouldn’t this be a real example of international cooperation? In the current international context, with such a severe economic crisis, and with European (and American) politicians lacking radical ideas, why not seek advice elsewhere? Perhaps not from African politicians, but from African citizens. Ghana Think Tank, what would you do about this European economic crisis? Nigerian friends, can you suggest us Spaniards how to cope with such high unemployment rates? Any advice from Tanzania on how to set-up successful informal economic enterprises that help bring income to the family (8% of families in Spain have all members unemployed)? Can any Zambian suggest the best course of action to face severe austerity measures like the ones Greece is about to go through?