Structured Despair

We’re being asked to donate money to the present East African famine. Its a heart-breaking and very noble cause. I give money to a breast cancer charity after someone I knew with a genetic propensity to cancer ran a half-marathon for it last year. I only mentioned this as I only noticed the subscribed donation was still running (doh!). But I thought its a good cause and there is not much we can do about cancer still so its best to look into why.

But matters are different with regards to the access to food. Ask yourself why we are fat and have more food in the fridge and the capacity to buy even more whenever we want and then we can start answering questions about why Somalians and the rest of East Africa are dying. Something seem a-miss?

Of course there have been droughts and failed harvests and wars and issues of infrastructure. But after 50 years of independence and billions of Western money poured into Africa, Africa is now poorer than it ever was. Ask why?

Some of the blame does lie in its leaders who have siphoned off billions themselves. But then ask where they hide that money? Then ask why we allow that to happen? Well because its good for our economy. It allows us to lend and buy houses and maybe some extra food.

Then ask why we haven’t been better at directing our financial help. What about direct aid such as food and medical help? Well again yes, the food is needed and does a lot of good. It does saves millions of lives. However its more like putting a bandage on an open sore that festers. We could provide the drugs to heal it but that s not financially viable.

Development aid tends to follow two lines; infrastructure aid that build champagne projects we can put a plaque on and take a picture of. Inside the hospital will be stacked full of medical equipment or books which are part of our medical aid. But does a hospital without an eye unit in Kenya really need 22 books on ophthalmology? Probably not but that helps out our producer of medical books here no end. We get to sell our excess books.

The second strand of aid involves our modern piecemeal arrangement under the neo-liberal, human rights agenda. We try to empower people to read or take precautions. This is and could be very helpful. But asking a country to run before it can walk seems unfair. After all it took us centuries and a lot of spilt blood to get to our present rights and liberties. Now we refuse to give structured aid unless many conditions are met. Some like female empowerment is very useful for developing nations, education, equality and child health and should continue. But again these are small-fry. The real aid is only given on a reciprocal agreement.

And that is the main issue, the real nub of the problem. Aid is conditional on the opening of markets in African countries so that we can invest in their education, health, mining and businesses. We can then let the market, a very moral barometer because we freely enter into it decide what is needed. Demand decides supply usually. Or we use our capital advantages to flood markets, push out local producers and then later reduce supply and raise prices. Its called cannibalism and you’ll find Starbucks doing the same thing.

So in the end we own all that is valuable in poor states, improve efficiency (lower costs) and take our profits home. But yet we still still look puzzled when Africa descends into civil war over the valuable resources or revolts like in Madagascar when their land is sold to a South Korean corporation to grow rice for export. We become positively indignant if Africans fight back and demand some form of equitable arrangement like a reduction of European trade barriers on agriculture, a minority sector in Europe but with a comparative advantage in Africa. We laugh when Africans ask about compensation for the slave trade. I mean come on, that was before The Beatles.

But then we just step away, waiting for the next tragedy to fall and we’ll be there, patronising as ever, throw our arms in the despair at the terrible roads, the poorly stocked hospitals and the never-ending desperation of Africans. It seems like we can’t do enough for them. As if we ever started.

Allowing these structural inequalities to continue is demoralising to Africa’s dignity and our sense of humanity. If you want to really help Africa, question why when East Asia has risen from poverty, Africa continues to wallow. Ask why we are quick to reject refugees or boat people from West Africa who are willing to enslave themselves in doing the poorly-paid jobs we scoff at. Question those European trade laws that support a tiny minority of businesses.

Only once we see beyond the starving can you see there is continuing misery and stunted lives. Think more and feel less. Only then can we really help Africa.

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