Saturday, October 14, 2006

My mildy amusing blog is taking a sharp turn in another direction today. I just don’t feel all that amused. In fact I’m completely disgusted. So, today’s topic is: “Why Does Africa Suck and Who Are the REAL Racists?” . Quite a change from “My Adventures with Lizard Poop”, but there you go. Just call me thrillingly unpredictable.
Africa is mostly poor. Burkina is extremely poor. I went into that a few weeks ago in a blog entry. It’s the third worst place in the world: Public schools here so crowded that there are sometimes 300 kids in a single classroom. Most people have no access to health care and live on less than 1$ per day. 30% of all children under age 4 are clinically malnourished…..
The West sends aid. There are hundreds of NGO’s in Ouaga alone. You can’t cross the street without nearly getting hit by a big shiny Toyota Landcruiser full of “experts”. The money pours in. Where does it go? Well, but the truth is that the aid doesn’t all go where it’s supposed to. .You know, as far as I can tell, sub-Saharan Africa is the only region of the world that has been left out of the worldwide rise in prosperity over the past few decades. And smarter folks than me (like this guy)have homed in on the problem: state failure in general, and the failure of African leadership in particular. It’s the African elite. The best and brightest that were supposed to lead everybody OUT of this goddamned mess.
Let me give a couple of examples, so nobody thinks I'm ranting with no basis in fact. When I first arrived in Burkina, I had a friend who was a doctor for the US government, working on the polio immunization campaign here. High government officials told him that the project “needed” to have T-SHIRTS printed up. This work would be done at a high price by a business owned by the wife of one of the ministers: all to be paid for by project money intended to buy vaccines for Burkinabé children and get the vaccines out to the isolated villages. My friend is an upright guy and wouldn’t bend to the pressure. His tires were slashed. He received threats. The Burkinabé government complained that he was “hard to work with”. He was not supported by the USA. The elites wanted somebody who would “get along” with the local power structure. My friend was sent back to the US.
Another story: I spent a lot of time working with malnourished children at Yalgado National Hospital. The pediatric unit is a series of low, metal-roofed sheds where the children lie on cracked vinyl mattresses. The lucky ones are in there. The others sleep outside on plastic mats on the cement. Shade and protection from rain is provided by sheets of metal set up on poles. So, when I say “hospital”, it’s probably not the kind of hospital you are thinking of…Now, in a Burkinabé hospital, food is not included. If you want to eat during your stay, you have to have someone bring it to you from outside. Fortunately, at Yalgado, they do have a CREN unit- it’s a center that makes and gives food to malnourished children staying in the hospital. I got to be good friends with the head nurse of the CREN. As I watched their work, I couldn’t help but ask why there was not often oil in the food for the children. Fat is the main nutrient missing in their diets. I was told that groups like USAID send oil, but it is siphoned off by people in some Ministry and sold to line pockets.
So, right here we have: 1. Rich people that want to obtain money meant to buy polio vaccine for poor children and 2. Rich people that steal food meant for starving babies. These are the people in charge. Think about it.
I OFTEN think about this sickening, destructive African elite behaviour. Through more than seven years of observation, I have come to this conclusion: in a world of massive global inequalities the elites have (I’m going to generalize like mad from here on out. Of course there are exceptions, just not many) been much more concerned with getting hyper-luxurious western material standards of living and consumption for themselves than with undertaking the difficult and frustrating long term task of effectively overseeing the development of their countries. What gets called 'corruption' (which usually means looting the public founding in one way or another) is just a quick short cut to providing for a few what would otherwise take decades, or even centuries, to even approximate for the many. This short-cut seems perfectly legit to the elites: the colonial past and trashy tv have exposed African people to "capitalism as a mode of consumption" but not as a mode of production". They ended up learning tons about the consumer goodies of capitalist enterprise ( bring on the Hummers!) and not so much about the organizational requirements and the hard work involved.
The answer SO obvious, right? Just kick them out! And get the donors to stop pumping in the money! Get the donors to supervise more closely the uses the money is put to. But none of this will happen. Why? Racism.
Just yesterday, I was complaining to someone about the Burkinabé elite- how the President and his cronies live in luxury while the vast majority of people here lack clean water, electricity, and health care. The man I was speaking to is the spouse of a woman prominent in some Bretton Woods institution. This will blow your mind: He was defending the Burkinabé elites! They are all fine people doing a great job! Why, they spend LOTS of money on education. If there are 300 kids in a class, well, that just means that these darn people have too many kids (I SWEAR he said that! I am NOT making this up!!!) I mildly pointed out that the President just built himself an extravagant new palace outside of town. Maybe the head of such a desperately poor country should be less ostentatious? He told me that the Burkinabé people need to have pride in their President! He is a symbol of their country and he needs to have a nice house!!!. ( Right. I have noticed all those groups of starving beggars touring the elite neighbourhoods with smiles on their faces, because they are so darn happy that the government big-shots all have REALLY nice three-story homes to live in. Too bad they don’t let the folks in to have a good look at the pool and watch some satellite TV. At any rate, it sure seems to cheer them up. They may be hungry, but they are chock-full of national pride.) I tried to tell this guy what I’ve seen in my many years here working with the average (read: poor) Burkinabé. But he’s been here two years, going to elegant dinner parties with the rich and famous, and knows it all. The elites TELL him they are nice people and have the best interests of the poor at heart. And he believes them. Because they said so. Hmmmm ….He likes these folks because they are nice to him (VERY nice, his wife is a bigshot in the cooperation world remember?) and they have very good champagne from France. What’s not to like? And don’t forget, they are convincing. Above all, they are politicians at heart. Facts mean nothing and they will say anything to convince you that they are in the right.
And you know what? You can find plenty of (I’m gonna say it) white donors that swallow all the crap. Why? Racism.
Think about this: When I complain to Mr Bretton Woods about President Bush, that’s fine. And I’ll tell you, I am viscous about the man and his fat-cat cronies. I’ll say even meaner things about them than I do about the Burkinabé government. I don’t think Bush gives a damn about poor Americans…..and if I go on about what I think of him, this blog entry will NEVER end! The point is, you can complain that US or European elites have no care for the general welfare of the people, and that’s perfectly OK. But the minute you criticize African elites, you get a bunch of people jumping down your throat, saying that they are saints. White people are corrupt and evil, but never black ones. It’s crazy and completely racist. What is racism? When you judge people outside of your own group using different (usually lower) standards, right? Well, that seems like exactly what many of the donors from the developed world do. They do not hold these people up to the same standards as they would white leaders. Racism.

4 comments:

zenobia13 said...

"what you have beyond what you need is stolen from the poor" -- I can't even figure out who said that.

Leena said...

AMEN Sister!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! i'll have to check out that "Unchaining Africa" article- when i finish reading Durkheim, Morgan, Mauss, Spencer and and and that is.
(and good quote Zenobia13)

Ali la Loca said...

I do agree with many of the points you raise about the African elite.

I also think a large part of the problem of why most of Africa remains poor while the elite continue to get richer is due to the very presence of foreign NGOs in these countries. Not only do the NGOs provide endless streams of funding with shoddy accountability and questionable results many of the time (from which the elite is able to siphon off their part), they also make it possible for the local government to not take care of its population's needs.

Example:

Here in Mozambique there is a program run by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) that provides lunches to children in school and teaches them to grow crops/gardens. As a result, the government here stopped all school lunch programs. Why? Because someone else is providing it on their dime.

Another significant problem is the presence of trade barriers against African producers by, for example, the EU. Not to mention the fact that instead of trading with their African neighbors, many countries still have their former colonial masters as the principal trading partners. Instead of Burkina Faso looking to Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Senegal most of the trade is with France and Lebanon.

I can rant on this topic forever. I think you are definitely right on with the problem of local elite. I also think that it goes much deeper...

BurkinaMom said...

Thanks for all the input! Glad to know all my pals are out there reading this stuff.
Ali-ITA that Africa's problems are super-complex. In fact, I had even started writing about the colonial "legacy" and the very mixed blessings of NGO's, but the blog entry was getting HUGE, so I abandoned it.
Thanks for adding nuance!