March 10, 2011
Conferences, in our experience, can be very boring, but one that we found ourselves at last month was really thought-provoking. The subject was that old ‘chestnut’ of how to get development aid to Africa. It could have been a mind-numbing experience, despite the continued urgency of the issue, but it was transformed by the vitality and commitment of the African participants.
In the course of two days, a number of significant realities emerged to illustrate the idiosyncrasies of sub-Saharan African society:
- Africans from la Francophonie are culturally and educationally different from their English-speaking neighbours. Britain gave her colonial subjects language and institutions, France gave her subjects language and culture.
- Africans are close to nature, a nature that has been so generous that there has been little reason to create or innovate. Also, African society being essentially communitarian, individual entrepreneurialism – implying the act of putting oneself first – is not that easy to come by. Just as in southern Europe, where many societies function on the principle of the extended family, the tribe is still the dominant social component in sub-Saharan African countries.
- Things tend to happen more slowly in sub-Saharan Africa, which encourages many Europeans to think that the people are simply too ‘laid back’, passive and lacking any sense of urgency. Also, lower down the socio-economic scale, it tends to be the womenfolk who take the initiative. But Africans, particularly the educated ones, are in many cases more motivated then Europeans.
- Colonial Africa has left its mark on the continent by providing relatively few effective transport links between countries. This hampers economic development.
- The introduction of the cellphone is stimulating activity, but there are large swathes of the continent’s interior that the technology still has to penetrate.
- Traditional sub-Saharan African ways of cooking with biomass are not only dangerous to human health (the WHO estimates 1.5 million deaths per year as a result of indoor pollution), it also means people pay much more for their energy than we do. A candle, or kerosene for a lamp, costs far more than electricity would do to achieve the same end.
- In many African countries land is the traditional property of the tribe. Less than 10 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s land is formally owned – there are often no title deeds, certainly not in terms of the land ownership of individual members of a tribe, and only one African in ten lives in a house with title deeds. The fact that people cannot use title deeds as security on bank loans, etc, puts a brake on economic development.
- The Chinese are helping build the transport links that the Europeans failed to provide but, in return, they are seeking access to natural and mineral resources: hardwoods, foodstuffs, copper, etc. Africa’s governments are selling concessions over the heads of their people – and the people are gradually being driven off their ancestral lands. In the Mayombe, the largest rainforest in the world after the Amazon, land is being appropriated at the rate of a football pitch a day…
- Despite problems, Africans – at least those that go on the conference circuit – laugh a lot, even when they don’t have a lot to laugh about.