Rewriting the book about African development

The recent global publicity of Bob Geldof’s Live 8 Concert which preceded the Gleneagles G8 Summit in Scotland may have made only a small dent in the huge problems confronting the poor world, and particularly sub-Saharan Africa. But it did succeed in raising greater awareness of the need for a greater solidarity with the developing world.

The problems of the developing world are many: poor levels of governance because of corruption and incompetence, lack of integration into the international economy, low investment, low levels of education, AIDS, environmental problems, tribal warfare, civil breakdown and unsustainable debt. And that’s only a few of them.

It is not too surprising, therefore, that some will sneer at glib clichés such as “making poverty history”. The positive effects of events like Live 8 in terms of nurturing the necessary political climate to help bring about change should not be underestimated, and the promotion of an idealistic view of humanity among the young pop-loving population is to be admired. The generosity of many missionaries, which has contributed hugely towards the education, healthcare and spiritual well-being of so many should also not be overlooked.

But fundamental changes are required in the way we relate to and evaluate the lives of people in sub-Saharan Africa. Although it is obscene to allow people to starve while Europeans and Americans grow more and more obese, the aid approach to development can only be a short-term measure. A much more radical approach to international justice is required, which does not accept an international political arrangement which excludes large populations in poor countries from the benefits of the world’s resources. The key resource is education, which will go a long way towards making a significant contribution to the lives of people in Africa.

One reason why past efforts have foundered is that many programs, particularly those which have sought to influence population growth, have been shaped by a rather arrogant approach which has sought to make choices on behalf of so-called “target” populations. As some of the wiser scholars have observed, what is often referred to as “desired family size” is usually a figure plucked out of the air by population planners rather a free decisions of parents.

A fundamental change in attitudes towards population in the developing world can only come about from a deeper philosophical approach towards development policy, which in turn must be based on a richer appreciation of the nature of the human person. We also need to commit ourselves to the principle that the goods of the earth are meant to benefit everyone. This challenges the historically dominant model of resource exploitation which stems from colonialism and laissez faire capitalism.

The insertion of such a principle within the political-economic system which to date has been based on giving appropriation rights to the powerful over the weak will not be an easy task. The presence of widespread corruption within governmental regimes in Africa makes this task even more daunting, since those who seek to exploit the wealth of countries often find willing partners within these regimes to prevent the general population from sharing in the benefits of economic development. Basic issues such as the security of families within their own homes and the right of families not to be terrorised and robbed are major prerequisites for allowing any form of stability necessary for economic development.

The issue of civil strife and social breakdown is so serious that many African countries are losing significant proportions of their educated elites through emigration, with growing numbers seeking asylum in the developed world to improve their families’ future prospects. In other cases anything up to 30 or 40 per cent of the medical workforce of some African countries are moving abroad for a better life. When the depletion of the educated population by the serious inroads being made by AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa is taken into consideration, one begins to understand why many of these countries are regressing rather than making progress.

A major challenge facing African countries in the coming decades is the increasing integration of their economies into the international economy, and also the challenge of making their countries more attractive locations for investment from outside. This can only happen with more widespread education which can create a large potentially skilful workforce -- as has already happened in India and China.

For too long the populations of developed countries have assuaged their consciences towards the poor world by means of charity and have continued to subsidise food production at home and exclude farmers in less developed countries from supplying agricultural products to their closed markets. This is changing and already the European Union allows duty-free access to imports from 50 least developed countries. In fact the main tariff barriers at present affecting poor countries are to be found in middle-income developing countries such as China and India. What is required, therefore, is a pragmatic approach to these practical problems which is influenced by a deep appreciation of our common humanity and interdependence.

Seamus Grimes is a professor of geography at the National University of Ireland in Galway.


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  • Seamus Grimes