New Internationalist

Keynote

Issue 139

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AFRICA [image, unknown] Patterns of poverty

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[image, unknown] Richard Swift
New Internationalist
[image, unknown] Editor: Richard Swift

Shadows of Doubt


At the time of independence a mood of optimism prevailed in Africa. Today there is a shadow of doubt. Famine, drought, refugees and civil war are the continent’s bitter harvest. Richard Swift explains the forces that are keeping Africa poor.

Copper sun sinking low
Scatterlings and fugitives
Hooded eyes and weary brows
Seek refuge in the night
They are the scatterlings of Africa.

The words are from the musical poetry of Juluka - a South African band that blends modern with traditional rhythms. The sense is one of uprootedness - a feeling of not belonging, of not fitting in. A comradeship of the dispossessed.

Juluka captures a sense of Africa today. Things don’t fit and things don’t work, at least in the way they are intended. Scatterlings are the poor of Africa, the consequence of this failure. The refugee family huddling around a fire in a transit camp on the Somalian border with Ethiopia. The migrant workers crowding into buses on their way from the drought-stricken Sahel to look for work in the plantations of the Ivory Coast. The Zambian peasant hitching to Lusaka to escape the stagnation and poverty of his village. Poverty is not passive - it involves a constant striving to find the means to survive.

A few statistics provide stark evidence that Africans are the poorest of the world’s poor. Three out of five are chronically malnourished. Twenty-two of the world’s 36 poorest countries are in Africa. For every 1,000 African children born. 120 will die before their first birthday. Eighty per cent of the continent’s population have no access to adequate health services and only one in four has safe water to drink. Africans die sooner (average age 49) and are less literate (only 36 per cent) than in any other part of the world.

In the 1970s the economies of 15 African countries actually shrank and the national debt of Africa as a whole (mostly to private banks and institutions like the International Monetary Fund) increased tenfold. Half of the world’s refugee population now lives on the continent. Five million Africans have been uproooted and scattered as a result of famine, war or political repression.

In many ways the situation seems to be getting worse. Most disturbing is Africa’s inability to feed itself. Food production has dropped by about ten per cent over the last decade while Africa has maintained the world’s highest birth rate.

In short Africa is caught in a net of poverty. Escape routes are blocked. Solutions don’t fit. Policies don’t work. Too often the effect of trying to make them work - through ‘big project’ economics and arbitrary politics - seems only to reinforce the old colonial habits that trapped Africa in poverty and underdevelopment in the first place.

The colonial powers - Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium - established the terms on which Africa would participate in the world economy. Kenya would plant coffee. Sudan should grow cotton and Ghana’s climate was perfect for cocoa plantations. Traditional African food crops (maize, cassava, or sorghum) were restricted to areas of low agricultural potential. Later it was Belgian mining interests who sensed a market for Congolese copper and proceeded to develop an industry based on plentiful resources and cheap labour. The pattern repeated itself all over the continent. Certain sectors of the African economy, like mineral mining and export agriculture, were encouraged to grow while the economy as a whole stagnated. Storage facilities were built, road and rail links pushed through and administrative centres like Nairobi and Abidjan established. But all these facilities were geared to the plundering of Africa’s resources. They were not designed to bind together African societies as a coherent whole or to create internal markets that could meet the needs of Africans.

The political legacy of colonialism has been no less damaging than the economic one. This year is the hundredth anniversary of the Berlin Convention when the European ‘statesmen’ sat down and parcelled out Africa amongst themselves. This ‘gentlemanly agreement’ bound together different - often antagonistic - tribal groups inside crudely drawn boundaries.

POPULATION... why Africa stays poor
Photo: ILO

Too little food for too many mouths. So the story goes: Africa stays poor because of its high rate of population growth. Both fact and fiction lurk hero.

Africa does have the highest birth rate in the world - each African woman (on average) gives birth to a robust 6.6 babies. Forty-seven African children are born for every thousand people. Far ahead of Asia with thirty or Latin American with thirty-two. At this rate Nigeria’s one hundred million people will double by the turn of the century. For the first time in the history of this continent Africa’s governments are beginning to worry that population may outstrip food supplies.

Yet most African countries have smaller populations than comparably sized countries in Europe and Asia. There are only 18 Africans per square kilometer compared to more than 50 Europeans and 87 in South Asia. Indeed, Africa has traditionally been regarded as one of the world’s most sparsely populated regions. Angola, for example, 15 twice as big as France with only a fifth the population. Angola is also rich in natural resources and needs many hands to help in their development.

While Africa may not be overpopulated it is certainly poor. And poverty can explain more about a high birth rate than the birth rate can about poverty. Poor people need children in order to help them survive - children to work in the fields, herd cattle, carry water and gather firewood. Children can also look after ageing parents for whom an old age pension isn’t even a dream. Children simply mean survival. But children born to poor families are often undernourished or susceptible to disease. In Africa 127 out of every thousand babies never live until their first birthday. So a mother may have to have several children in order to ensure the survival of one. Until African mothers can be a lot surer about their babies’ chances of living it is unlikely that they will be convinced by arguments in favour of family planning.

In 1966 the seeds of disunity, planted at Berlin, came to ugly fruition in a murderous civil war between the Ibos of Biafra and the rest of Nigeria. And the growth from these seeds has continued to strangle the continent in civil wars between north and south in Chad and the Sudan, and in the stubborn attempt by the Ethiopian military to keep the old Amhara empire intact. In imposing the arbitrary geography of the nation state on Africa, the European powers ignored smaller scale and more subtle African forms of community. For Africa the nation state has been a most uncomfortable fit.

It is not just the geography that has been a problem but the structure of government as well. The institutions that have persisted and flourished in Africa - the civil service, the military, the police - are those that the colonial powers counted on to keep Africans in line. By and large they continue to serve the same purpose - despite having been ‘Africanised’ since independence.

The trappings of colonialism - the school uniform, military gold braid and the judge’s wig - remain in Africa and indicate a lingering control from outside, a control that is often dubbed ‘neo-colonialism’. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah was the first African nationalist to popularize the idea of neo-colonialism as the source of African poverty. But a simple definition of white-run neo-colonialism is no longer adequate. An indigenous, African government class has now grown up whose affluent life style is supported by a Foreign Exchange Machine’ that runs on the export of cash crops and minerals.

In Nigeria, where widespread corruption provoked the 1983 New Year’s Eve coup. this class is known as the ‘gatekeepers: a group of government officers who charge a ‘toll’ on those who have almost any commercial dealings in Nigeria.

Farther south in Zaire this rot appears to have reached the very pinnacle of power. In 1980 the Belgian press released a list of the lavish European holdings of President Mobutu and his family: a $143 million Swiss bank account, Belgian holdings worth $100 million (two houses, a chateau, a park, stables). a $5.4 million chateau on Lake Geneva, villas in Paris and Nice and chateaux in Spain and Italy. Meanwhile the average income earned by someone in Zaire is $190 a year - one of the lowest in Africa.

President Mobutu is an extreme example of a widespread tendency among African leaders. But it would be wrong to see the problem of African government as simply one of honesty. The state is growing out of proportion to what poor African economies are able to support. Public administration and defense spending have grown far more quickly than national economic output in most African countries. A gap in both culture and income quickly develops between relatively privileged public employees and the poor peasantry who must support them through growing cash crops and paying taxes. Here again things don’t fit.

If foreign exchange is to be spent it has to be earned: and this is where Africa’s new ‘state bourgeoisie’ gets tangled up in the tentacles of oco-colonialism. Private banks fund massive development projects.

Companies like the Anglo-American Corporation in Zambia or Societe Generale de Belgique in Zaire control Africa’s mining industry. Agribusiness giants like Lonrho, Brooke Bond, Firestone and Unilever monopolize the best agricultural land for cash crop plantations.

Inevitably, the cost of imports (which consistently rise in price) outstrips the foreign exchange earned through exports (which fluctuate wildly according to world demand). The difference is made up by borrowing. The International Monetary Fund, for example, is playing an increasing role in Africa, not only as ‘the lender of last resort’ but also in disciplining African economies. And discipline usually means getting governments to cut back on social spending, opening them up to more foreign trade and investment and devaluing their currencies to make them more competitive. In other words increasing those economic tendencies that trapped them in dependency and poverty in the first place.

It is little wonder government and aid bureaucrats find peasants sullen, backward and unco-operative. Governments do not pay sufficiently high prices for peasant crops since their main allegiance is to their political bases in the towns. Instead governments rely on agribusiness schemes that ignore food crops and monopolize the best land. Peasant villages lack the storage facilities and transportation links to be a viable part of the national economy. So the food gap continues to grow.

As Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere says: ‘the countryside produces foreign exchange but the city spends it’. City and country simply don’t fit together. The major cities of Africa have the same high rise glitter and international flavour of cities anywhere in the world: magnets for wealth and power. But increasingly they are surrounded by slums as the countryside moves to the city. Rural society collapses from neglect - its economic poverty cemented by a political poverty or powerlessness.

These are the broad strokes that paint Africa’s poverty. But reality is more subtle and poverty does not mean the same thing everywhere. In agriculturally prosperous countries like Malawi and Cameroon there is massive inequality but comparatively little starvation. Those countries like Gabon, Nigeria and Angola blessed with plentiful natural resources, have more to work with than those without like Sierra Leone, Mozambique and Tanzania. The most important difference, however, is that some African governments have tried harder - much harder - than others to find a way out of the poverty trap. Political leaders like Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta and Senegal’s Leopald Senghor quite naively minsicked the Western model of growth and attempted to recreate it in Africa. Julius Nyerere tried to learn from their mistakes. He emphasized self-reliance and rural development and used the ill-fated Ujaama village programme in an attempt to build a humanistic socialism in Tanzania.

Since then the analysis of some African leaders and governments has become much tougher and more radical. The political movements led by Samora Machel in Mozambique, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Jerry Rawlings in Ghana have developed a thorough-going appreciation of the dangers of neo-colonialism. They have worked hard to develop grassroots programmes that can empower the poor.

Although their efforts have not brought instant results it would be wrong just to dismiss them as failures. There is a fad among some academics and aid agencies to invest hope in a single country as the shining example for Africa. First it was Nkrumah’s Ghana, then Tanzania; today Zimbabwe or Mozambique; tomorrow who knows - Ghana again or the new government in Upper Volta. As these stars fade they are abandoned or condemned. But change seems at best partial, progress ambiguous; what must he judged is intelligent effort and overall direction.

Broken wall, bicycle wheel
African song forging steel, singing
Magic machine cannot match
Human being human being
African idea - make the future clear.

The words again are from Juluka. The sense is one of people overcoming technology - a future on a human scale. In Africa the basic unit of human scale is the village and this must be the focus and source of change. Rene Dumont, in his latest book, Stranglehold on Africa: argues that greater self-reliance is the way out of the poverty trap, both regionally and nationally. ‘It would be helpful for the countries of Africa to cut back on their trade with the capitalist countries, so as to give them fewer opportunities for exploitation. . . this also applies to the villages since they are exploited twice over - by the outside world and by their country’s rulers’.

Dumont favours loosening the ties with the ‘Foreign Exchange Machine’ that dominates Africa’s economy. But this will take a tremendous act of political will which is unlikely to come solely from above. African governments - even ones who want change - are too enmeshed in the structures and schemes of neo-colonialism. Without an impulse from below to provide a counterweight to the external forces that shape Africa, a way out of the poverty trap seems unlikely. The poor must act for themselves. Only a peasant movement has the potential to fit politics to the real needs of Africa. avoiding the pitfalls of prestige projects and national pomp. The maize field rather than the coffee plantation. The water pump instead of the hydro dam.

Is it possible for Africa to have different kinds of ties with the outside world? Solidarity rather than domination? That depends on us. In a struggle to control our own lives and the direction of the industrial North we can weaken the Foreign Exchange Machine that holds Africa in its grip. More directly we may be able to challenge governments and corporate policies that are helping to keep Africa poor. A good model seems to be the movement against Western support for South African racism. But the basic impetus for change lies inside Africa. It’s plain what doesn’t fit. All we can do is insist that Africans have the space to figure out what does.


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