By Andrew M. Mwenda
Most of this week has been consumed by the debate on the progress poor countries have made in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). I have never been an enthusiast of MDGs because I see them as part of the increasing efforts by the international community to disregard the sovereignty of African states. The inevitable outcome of this well intentioned effort is actually to undermine our democratic process.
On the face of it, MDGs are an important effort by the international community to mobilize global solidarity to improve the lives of the poor. Indeed, the main pillars of MDGs are to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty, reduce child and infant mortality, eliminate extreme hunger, promote gender equality, achieve universal primary education, improve maternal health etc. All these are important goals that poor countries should strive to achieve.
However, I believe that the destiny of a people cannot be the responsibility of the an abstract entity called the international community. The elements of that destiny (like MDGs) must evolve out of our own political struggles with our governments, not be an imposition by international institutions. Our governments would then account to us for realizing these goals, not to the United Nations. I do not believe that some international bureaucrats, detached from the day to day life experiences of our people, are the right persons to dictate the sequencing and prioritization of our needs.
Over the last two decades, the international community has progressively increased its role as ‘supervisor’ or ‘headman’ (in colonial speak ‘Nyampara’) in Africa. Many intellectuals in Africa support the evolving international norms and institutions that seek to place our destiny in the hands of the international community. Regardless of the subjective motivations of those who pursue these efforts, the objective outcome is to remove the voice of Africans from shaping their destiny.
It all began in the 19th century with colonialism, which was justified as an altruistic mission to bring Christianity and civilization to our people, end slave trade and to abolish the tyranny of local customs and the despotism of our chiefs. Many Europeans who supported the colonial project intellectually were genuinely driven by these lofty motives. But the objective outcome of colonialism was a regime of compulsions, discrimination and subjugation.
As I write this article, Africa is increasingly losing the institutional and ideological space for self determination. Our economic policies are dictated by World Bank and IMF. Our human development goals are decided by the UN. Our human rights issues are the responsibility of Human Rights Watch. Our press freedom is promoted and defended by Reporters without Borders. Our wars are ended by international peacekeepers. Those who kill our people during our civil conflicts are punished by the International Criminal Court.
To fight poverty does not require that our governments engage our citizens in programs to increase the productivity of our firms, farms, factories and harbors. It is the responsibility of rich countries to give us foreign aid. We are no longer active participants in our own economic and political emancipation; we are passive recipients of international charity.
Many of those who promoted colonialism genuinely believed that Africans were incapable of self management. ‘The African,’ said Gen. Ian Smuts, prime minister of South Africa, ‘has largely remained a child type, with a child psychology and outlook.’ Albert Schweitzer, a leading European intellectual who migrated to work in and for Africa, further opined: ‘The Negro is a child and with children, nothing can be done without authority.’ Although not bluntly presented these days, the arguments for doing things for us reinforce Western paternalism towards the continent.
Visit an aid project in Africa, and you will see how this image of Africa as a place lacking self initiative is played and replayed. There will be a twenty-something old white aid-worker with an army of middle aged African hands teaching them how to use a condom, how many babies to produce, how to plant rice or how to build a house ‘ as if they are children. In government offices will be an aid project where a twenty-five-year old college grad from the USA will be supervising an African PhD civil servant. The American kid will be paid twelve times what his African PhD counterpart earns.
I am not suggesting that the MDGs are bad or that we should discard international solidarity. But I feel that if Africa is to succeed, the drivers of change must be Africans themselves who should hold our leaders to account. For this to happen, we need to be active participants in processes shaping our destiny. This means we should be allowed sufficient autonomy in our affairs. We should be left free to make our own mistakes and learn from them. Babysitting us is not a formula for self reliance.
For many African enthusiasts of international norms to supervise our affairs, it is important to compare post Soviet Russia and post Mao Tse Tung China. In both countries, there were local problems that generated local demands for reform. The leaders sought to end communism and open their societies to the genius of the market. In China, through feats and starts, the process largely succeeded and led to increasing wealth and prosperity. In Russia, there was rapid economic collapse causing widespread poverty.
The main (but certainly not the only) reason for this divergence was that in China both the demands and the framework for designing the solutions ‘ how to sequence reform ‘ were locally driven and therefore took into serious consideration local circumstances and peculiarities. In Russia, although the demands were locally generated, the framework of designing the solution was not informed by the local context. Instead, it was drawn from textbook theories based on the context of other countries. The mismatch between demands and solutions was a major fact behind the Russian economic crisis of the 1990s.
Therefore, as we debate MDGs and many other problems facing Africa, we should remind ourselves that the primary drivers of change should be the people whom these initiatives are meant to serve. The only way Africans can meaningfully gain from international solidarity is to make them masters in their own countries. This demands that international efforts must be subjected to African decision makers to adjust them to meet local needs.