Calls for 'the West' to 'act' against perceived horrors elsewhere can sometimes make things worse.

Western observers often look at Africa with a mix of horror and disbelief.  Wars waged by the religious sectarian armies of Joseph Kony, Al Shabaab and Boko Haram; violent border disputes like the one currently in South Sudan;  child marriage, female circumcision, mass migration, corruption and the acts of dictators evoke outrage, disgust and the occasional charity campaign from the more ‘comfortable’ parts of the world. Except when cynicism takes over; then the media note ‘fatigue’, surveys declare that ‘people don’t want to hear anything about Africa anymore’ and Western-nationalist politicians proclaim that all development aid should stop ‘because it is wasted anyway’.

Those who refuse to become cynical – bless the souls of the dear activists and aid workers – keep asking the world to pay attention to the plight of the victims of all the above phenomena. When two child soldiers were beheaded in the Central African Republic recently, social media sizzled with understandably upset comments about how the skiing accident of Michael Schumacher made all the front pages, whilst the atrocities in the CAR did not.

Such heartfelt comments are made every time ‘the West’ appears to go on about the business its own citizens are interested in: their pensions, their Euro crises, their local debates about immigrants and immigration, their old people and their old age diseases, without seeming to care about innocent citizens who died in a drone strike or an Al Shabaab attack far, far away.

Outrage and cynicism

The outrage of committed global justice activists vis-à-vis the perceived ‘cynicism’ in the societies they hail from is understandable. It is, however, problematic if all that is said is that ‘the West’ should pay attention to something, or even ‘do’ something about it; because that doesn’t automatically help. It can make things much, much, worse.

Look at South Sudan. Thanks to George Clooney and other Hollywood celebrities, a lot of attention indeed was paid to the evil reign of Khartoum’s Al Bashir. The International Criminal Court went after him (so far, alas, without success) and a massive army of development aid consultants and projects ‘helped’ South Sudan towards ‘independence’. The global celebrations didn’t last long before it turned out that the dragon of the Khartoum regime had not been reigned in, but duplicated. There were now two evil reigns: Khartoum and Juba.

This is what happens when context, historical development and the expertise of local people who know their business are not taken into account. South Sudanese intellectuals and activists warned even then that Al Bashir was not the only problem. That there was something weird about the narrative that simplistically divided Sudan into an (evil) Arab north and a (much nicer) black peasant south. That great care should be taken to avoid creating a new state machinery, fortified with projects and development dollars, which would eat up all these dollars as well as the new country’s oil income. That, if that would happen, long time exploited communities (many of them already armed) would rise up and also, quite understandably, want their share. And then ‘Juba’ would feel pressured to oppress these.

This is exactly what happened.

South Sudan illustrates in great detail how Western ‘recipes’ fail, simply because they are – most often – not based on the history, or within the context, of the places where they are applied.  It often seems as if the prescribers of these recipes pick a problem (there is ‘corruption’ somewhere, or ‘rape’, or deforestation, or trafficked women, or child labour) and then proceed to think up a solution.  Trafficked women and child labourers must be stopped (by law and boycotts) from working, people must be told not to cook on wood, and to build a state you simply hold elections, bring in the donors and make sure there is also an anti-corruption commission.  And when the ‘solutions’ fail, when ‘they’ won’t stop fighting and smuggling and being corrupt, well there must surely be something wrong with ‘them’. They are too traditional, or un-educated, or tribal, and the answer must lie in some more training, some more education, some more awareness, some more wisdom from the ‘more developed’ part of the world, i.e. the West.

The pirates of the West

The belief that there is a ‘Western’ way of doing things that is better, and that people can be trained or helped to do their own things in this ‘better’ way, is however devoid of evidence. Until the massive social struggles waged by unions and socialist movements in the 19th and early 20th centuries, ‘the West’ itself was ruled by wealthy and ruthless elites, the same ones that exploited the so-called ‘Third World’. That the lower social classes in the West are better off now than they were in 1930 is not thanks to any superior knowledge that this part of the world could now simply extend to ‘slower’ nations, but to civil unrest, very similar to the massive fuel subsidy protests in Nigeria of last year, the teachers’ protest marches in Kinshasa and the recent South African township revolts.

Interestingly, Western elites’ self-enrichment, nepotism and Western states’ lack of equitable delivery of either public services or justice have never been called ‘corruption’. This term seems to have been coined exclusively for developing nations. Similarly, African piracy is seen as a major global security problem, whilst British and Dutch primary school children still sing fondly of pirates of earlier centuries, who sunk ships of enemy nations and had their own royals share in the spoils. On the topic of children: international campaigns nowadays aim to save these from early marriage in developing communities, whilst it seems forgotten that Western nations (and empires) were built on strategic cross-border distribution of royal child brides.

The list of stuff that ‘the West’ did, or went through, before it reached its ‘comfortable’ state of the late 20th century is practically identical to the issues many countries in the developing world are dealing with today. Environmental damage? Western industrial success and wealth were partly achieved because of unlimited free pollution opportunities. Child labour? Children working in the coal mines, workers living in mud huts, were to be found in the Netherlands, the UK and Scotland well into the 20th century.

Anti-psychotic drugs

Europe also had its fair share of child soldiers: from Joan of Arc (who, guided by God Himself, led her own religious army) to the children who operated as saboteurs and couriers in Europe’s resistance against the Nazis. It could be argued, with reason, that these cases were different from those of the kids who are forcibly recruited by the likes of Joseph Kony and forced to kill their relatives and behead other children.  But there are also plenty willing teenagers in wars in Africa, simply because fighting is what you do when a band of soldiers led by a rival tycoon comes to burn your village and kill your mum: you then go and hop on a truck collecting fighters for your own side.

Brave Saint Joan, who soldiered from age 16, would have chopped off quite a few heads in her day as well. If she had been saved (and treated with anti-psychotic drugs, as a learned writer suggested the other day, because well, she was hearing voices), France would never have been liberated from the English. I don’t know if that would have been a bad or a good thing.

Voodoo, radars and mobile banking

But all that was ages ago and surely we don’t want to say that Africa is backward? Well, yes, in some aspects it is. Who wouldn’t be ‘backward’ after a foreign power had basically taken over their home and had imposed their rule and machineries and systems that only worked to take stuff out?  And created parasitical elites that would do its bidding, as long it would keep the money bags coming? Development aid, anyone?

But backward is not the word. Rather, the situation is one of different timeframes intersecting and operating simultaneously. Border and civil wars à la the German Thirty Year War, but fought with modern age weapons. Voodoo doctors using the internet to market their magic cures for diseases (in the absence of proper medicines and medicines distribution, they still have a large market to supply). Fishermen with radars and mobile phones. Prophets who argue for modernity and against female circumcision and child marriage. Politicians who speak ‘western’ when dealing with the rich and powerful nations of the world, but say very different things to their own constituencies as soon as ‘the whites’ don’t listen. Journalists and activists using advanced data mining and crowd sourcing to check on service delivery and unearth injustice. Even the future intersects: in Kenya, mobile phone banking is way more developed than in the West.

But the main difference between the developed, industrialised part of the world and Africa is that the West had six hundred years to urbanise, industrialise, build state institutions, work through its own conflicts and fight its own wars, without a third party with more powerful weapons, industries, transport and technologies coming in and imposing its agenda.

Africa never had that luxury. From the time the continent was ready to move on from a purely agricultural stage, it was forced into a course set by other, mightier powers: be they colonialists, settlers, international financial institutions, multinational enterprise or development workers.  After decolonisation, a mere sixty years ago, the ‘Western ways’ were firmly cemented as ‘the ways’, and development aid work ensured that these ways continued to be translated into scripts to be enforced, always for people’s own good.

One only needs to imagine Martians landing in the vicinity of the UK coal mines of the early 20th century, and telling starving mineworkers that they should do without the income added by their working teenage sons, to understand how Ivory Coast’s cocoa farming families feel when they see the ‘child labour inspectors’ approaching.

Nigerian activists and Somali fishermen

It’s not that people in war and hunger zones should be abandoned.  International solidarity is a great good: a worldwide struggle beat the Apartheid system in South Africa, after all. Congolese village women want support that will help stop the war that hurts them and kills their husbands and children. They need help to fight plunderers and rapists; they want the supporters and donors of the present rapacious elite – commanders of the rapists, shareholders of the mining companies – to realise exactly what they are funding with their development budgets.  Nigerian social justice activists want the world’s sympathy for their protests against corrupt police structures. Somali fishermen would like some fish in their waters. We are talking solidarity here, which is support for a social justice struggle waged by people as drivers of change in their own context and history – not a ready-made foreign solution.

But in order to build this type of solidarity, one must adopt a historical perspective and realise that there is no ‘alien’ horror that the rest of the world hasn’t experienced or isn’t still experiencing. That the ‘evils’ to be fought are not alien products of a ‘bad’ culture, but often familiar aspects of a certain societal development or conflict. The gaping and the outrage, the tearful TV shows and the bizarre T-shirts that seem to suggest that the wearer is stopping Joseph Kony, can stop already. (If that is what you are going to do, then please revert back to the latest updates on Michael Schumacher.)

Safe sex lectures

If one would compare Congolese war rapes to the Bosnian ones of the nineties (or any other situation where regional warlords occupied one another’s towns and raped the local women), one would probably start to see patterns. Though situations differ, lessons could be drawn from historical examples of peace building, which, in turn, might lead to a move away from knee-jerk consumer boycotts or advocacy campaigns.  Reflecting on the wave of syphilis that went all over Europe during the Napoleonic wars, for example, could lead one to imagine a reality around HIV/AIDS in Africa that has less to do with ignorance and more with marauding men: gangsters, militias, uprooted migrants and traumatised individuals.  This wider scope would broaden the thinking on how to fight the scourge differently from incessantly repeated ‘safe sex’ lectures.

Understanding poverty and migration would very likely also counter dominant narratives around human traffic, since lumping all poor female migrants together as ‘human traffic victims’ and proceeding to ‘saving’ them is as unfair as it is ahistorical. (It is rather conservative-religious-fundamentalist too). Let’s rather face the reality that considerable numbers of poor women everywhere will turn to prostitution, and that women and men will migrate, illegally if need be, to seek greener pastures. And then base assistance to penniless and abused women in sex work on that understanding.

Money from whites

Scripts provided by development aid experts should also henceforth be labelled with a conflict-of-interest warning, since these experts are usually paid by the development aid industry.  The same goes for spokespersons of local NGOs. They may well be from the very place that the global citizen is interested in ‘helping’, but their proposals, without exception, always concern projects that their own NGO receives money for from donors.  Centuries of dependency on ‘money from whites’ have created, in practically all African countries, a privileged class of NGO-workers, who have learned to speak ‘project language’ and who will always follow the new themes and key words in the development aid industry. (Whereas they were still ‘gender sensitive’ and ‘HIV/Aids aware’ ten years ago, today they are fully into ‘climate change’ and ‘human traffic’.)

The same dependency on ‘money from whites’ applies to those African rulers who line one pocket with development aid and the other with the proceeds from sales of their country’s natural resources – often to the very places where the donor aid comes from.  These rulers (South Sudan’s Salva Kiir is a recent case in point) are not likely to reject Western developmental projects, whether these emanate from institutions, governments or private enterprise. To them, any business is good business.  So to say ‘but the African leaders (or the NGOs) themselves agreed that this was a good idea’ is probably not a good argument to defend any specific intervention. A Nigerian researcher recently pointed out that many African leaders in charge of state institutions still seem to believe that they are merely administrating for the ‘white man’ who pays them and that indeed the word for ‘public service’ still translates in several African languages as ‘the white man’s job’ (Africans need to stop listening to the colonial voices in their heads).

New solidarity

Rather, therefore, than to adopt scripts proposed, or embraced, by those who stand to gain from the projects involved, the global citizen would do better to listen to more unbiased voices. Social justice fighters, experts, historians, scooter couriers and market women will have vastly different views from one another, but, jointly, they will paint pictures of context, of society, history and forces at work. From among these, local drivers of change will emerge, just like the social justice movements of the early 20th century in Europe, the independence struggles in former colonies and the African National Congress came into being.  It is such local forces of change, led by people who own their own context, that have driven historical progress everywhere. They must therefore be supported, rather than undermined by foreign interventions.  (And just to say it again: an NGO, however well-meaning, that only came into being because of a foreign programme and foreign money is also a foreign intervention and not a local driver of change.)

To dig into context, identify causes of injustice and search for home-grown forces of change in Africa is what the investigative journalists in the ZAM Network do. Their goal, besides producing great stories, is to unearth truths, however unpalatable or unexpected, that will help inform those who work globally for more social justice and a better life for humanity. Their and our hope is that joint questioning and thinking will build new practical forms of engagement and solidarity.

We may not immediately arrive at all the answers. Chances are we will continue seeking and stumbling, but at least we will be seeking and stumbling together. And that is infinitely better than one party forcing ready-made campaigns and solutions through other people’s throats.

Evelyn Groenink is Investigations Editor of ZAM Chronicle.