Saviour Blair makes African professionals wince

William Maclean
July 4, 2005

“No to Begging! No to Foreign Aid!”

The placards were the only signs at an African Union (AU) summit on Monday of African unease about Britain’s campaign to press rich nations later in the week to do more for Africa.

In the case of Libya, host of the gathering, the banners reflect leader Muammar Gaddafi’s longstanding ideological opposition to Western involvement of any kind in the continent.

His opinions are unlikely to set the tone of the summit, which is due to adopt a broadly favourable position on Prime Minister Tony Blair’s call for more aid and freer trade.

But Gaddafi’s views are only a more extreme version of the feelings of many middle-class African professionals who find the outpouring of Western concern condescending and misguided.

Some find Blair’s aid push, however well-intentioned, uncomfortably reminiscent of utterances about the alleged backwardness of Africa by European missionaries and explorers of 150 years ago, reflecting deep wells of prejudice.

“Africa’s image is that of a child. We are infantilised by this campaign,” said Nigerian analyst Tajudeen AbdulRaheem.

“There is no difference between Bob Geldof and the missionaries,” he said, referring to the musician who organised rock concerts for Africa around the world at the weekend.

At the heart of the discomfort felt by many African professionals is the belief that the language used by British leaders reinforces stereotypes that Africans are helpless and can be rescued only by giving more money to their governments.

“Blair sees himself as our saviour. He plays the Good Samaritan to Africa’s suffering,” said Kenyan analyst Michael Chege. “There is a condescending residue in the UK approach.”

What many business people want is not aid but the opportunity to invest and trade under fairer international rules of commerce and under cleaner African governments.

“A lot of people have told Blair ‘We don’t want to be ‘saved’. We want to trade,” a senior African diplomat in London said.

That irritation burst forth earlier this year at a meeting organised by development experts between a Western entertainer involved in Live 8 and African professionals living in London.

The African lawyers and financiers vented displeasure after listening to the entertainer tell them about African poverty – a condition many had spent their lives escaping, diplomats said.

African bankers, teachers, lawyers and engineers like to point out that Africa does not lack wealth – but that much of it has been siphoned off by leaders long coddled by the West.

A study by economists Leonce Ndikumana and James Boyce estimated that $187 billion left Africa between 1970 and 1996.

As far back as 1990 the National Concord newspaper estimated Nigerians held $32 billion in foreign bank accounts, a figure then equivalent to the country’s foreign debt.

African Business magazine estimated in September 2004 that Africa had 100,000 millionaires worth a total of about $600 billion.

Many Africans cringe at the unspoken assumptions of Western aid.

In his book “The End of Poverty”, U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs mentions a remark by a U.S. aid official who said in a newspaper interview it would be difficult to give anti-retroviral medication to Africans as they did not have a Western sense of time and would not stick to a daily regimen of taking pills.

“An argument in favour of Africa must scale a sheer mountain of doubt before finding acceptance,” he wrote.

“It is exasperating that in 2005 Western politicians need to be told that Africa is not a poor continent without hope outside continued charity and aid,” wrote Ian Taylor, who teaches international relations at St Andrews University.

“It is as if Africa is utterly poverty stricken and totally dependent on foreign aid.”

Many Africans ask why Britain’s plan is not aimed primarily at encouraging local investment and discouraging capital flight rather than focusing on aid.

The most prominent voice of African unease about the unspoken assumptions of Western policy on Africa is South African President Thabo Mbkei, who sees abiding stereotypes in the West’s approach to the continent.

“Those stereotypes include the projection of our country and continent as destined to experience ‘perpetual catastrophe and unnatural disasters’, given that we have now been deprived of benevolent and morally upright white rule!” he wrote.

Categories: Africa, Foreign Aid, Odious Debts

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