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Wolfgang Schonecke {*}

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What Can the West contribute to Africa's Development?


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 9/2007, P. 458-462
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The picture of Africa drawn by the media is most contradictory. What can really further Africa? There is no clear answer to that question. In the end it is up to the Africans to use their possibilities. But first the west should less exploit Africa.


In the run-up to the G8-summit in Heiligendamm the media had a short-lived and unfortunately misleading interest in Africa. A "Spiegel"-series on Africa gave the impression that since independence almost everything went wrong in Africa. The "Bild"-newspaper edited by Bob Geldof with the bloody baby on the front page made believe that Africa's problems could easily be solved with money and a little more assistance. Neither of those is in accordance with reality.

The Ghana for example that as first African country became independent fifty years ago is not the Ghana of today. Out of a military dictatorship a respectable democracy with real freedom of the press has developed (see HK, December 2006, 641 ff.). The economy grows, at least in the statistics of the World Bank, even though the poor notice little of it. Internet cafés make the access to information possible; also from the last village grandmother talks on the telephone to her grandchild in England. A building boom makes cities astronomically grow. Something similar can with cuts be said of other countries of Africa. Wars, hunger and AIDS are the one side of the reality. The other side are genuine development leaps in education, communication, transportation and particularly in the thinking of people.

Those positive developments have however little to do with development policy. The equation "more assistance - more development" is wrong, sometimes the opposite seems to be the case. Tanzania under Julius Nyerere got more assistance than most other countries and at the end of its socialist "Ujamaa"-experiment stood at the brink of ruin. The rapid economic development of the Asian "Tiger States" is not a result of development aid. Positive developments are often unplanned by-products of other processes. Neither the Handy revolution nor the invention of plastic containers, which make it easier for millions of African women to get water, have anything to do with development projects.

The development of peoples is just such a complex process as that of human beings. There are no patent remedies. At best it can be found out from the positive and negative experiences of the past what promotes development or restrains it.


Just in Africa the intellectual approach of the modern age functions badly

The thinking about development co-operation needs a paradigm change. In practice it is still based on the modern age's faith in progress: the conviction that everything is feasible by science, technology and sufficient money. A mechanistic-materialistic view of world and man sees development primarily as transfer of know-how and capital. Religions, cultures and value systems of the peoples are then archaic relics or amusing folklore. One wants to solve the AIDS problem with information campaigns and condoms. Hunger is fought by genetic engineering and tractors, illness by inoculations and pills, ignorance by books and recently by 100-Dollar-Laptops.



As beneficial as all that can be, the recipients of those good deeds are unconsciously left out of account. Human beings, their characteristics, their history, their mental worlds become a footnote. The first American manager of Iraq when interviewed is said to have replied to the question what he thought of the tensions between Sunnis and Shiites he was in no way interested in religious squabbles, he was here to repair the water and power supply. The results of such ways of thinking are sufficiently known.

The most important insight is that one cannot develop human beings like machines, software or building plans. Human beings, individuals as well as communities and peoples, develop themselves out of their own dynamics. The only meaningful thing is to create conditions and incentives that make possible and promote development and eliminate impeding factors. The Catholic social teaching always stressed: "Origin, bearer and aim of all social institutions (of development too) is and must be the human person" (Gaudium et Spes 25).

Just in Africa the intellectual approach of the modern age functions badly. It overlooks that relations and community are important for Africans and ignores their values and goals. Only if today's objects (and sometimes victims) of our project planning become independent, responsible subjects of their development, our apparatus of experts, technology and money can be meaningful in a supporting way.

Those who take people and their values and needs as starting point of their thoughts will notice the enormous differences between countries and regions, cultures and traditions and recognize how naive it is to define theoretical development goals and strategies and then to apply them to all countries. The standard form for projects distorts the view on the complexity and diversity of reality.

Hence a first demand would be to see development co-operation not primarily as technical and financial task but as a Socratic "midwife function", by which existing potentials are to be carefully moved to the light. Where man is not the maker/person involved in its own development every aid, be it meant as well as possible, will lead to incapacitation, to alienation and to corruption - the exact opposite of development. That is nothing new. For a long time everybody has been talking about "help for self-help", but it is being practiced by extremely few.

Also fifty years after decolonization the colonial structures in Africa remain effective. Simplified said the colonial system served three goals: the political control with the help of local authorities, the exploitation of resources and workers, and the development of new markets. Initiators and main participants were usually commercial companies that then used the state machine to realize their interests.

But this colonial pattern is still essentially effective and prevents development: Since the eighties for example the western industrial nations have been determining the development and economic policy of nearly all developing countries by means of the "Strategic Adaptation Programs" (SAP) of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. That meant orientating the economy towards exports for debt repayment, opening the market for foreign goods by reducing the customs duties, and as a result often the bankruptcy of local industries. SAPs were perhaps necessary for the reorganization of the finances of the state, but they prevented an independent development of agriculture and the creation of jobs in new industries.

Something similar can be predicted for the Economy Partner Agreements (EPAs), which the European Union wants by all means to sign before the end of 2007 with 77 African-Caribbean-Pacific (ACP) states. These free-trade agreements will be of more use for Europe than for Africa. A study of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung summarizes: "The multilateral commercial system is in need of a radical change. To maintain the status quo condemns the poor countries to further de-industrialization, unequal growth and poverty" (Aileen Kwa, Dialogue on Globalisation, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Occasional Papers 32.4).

China's recent commitment in Africa pursues similar goals: Access to Africa's raw materials and to markets for Chinese cheap products. African producers and dealers with it drop out (see HK, February 2007, 10 ff.).

The intensified free-trade policy of the industrial nations is a continuation of the colonial pattern. It obstructs the development of native agriculture, small industry as well as enterprises, and at the same time it enables the multinational companies to take hold of the natural riches of the countries of the south, such as energy, mineral resources, land and sea, without the local population profiting by it. In Nigeria, the Niger, Ethiopia an increasing resistance by force is formed against this way of exploitation. The world economy is organized to be of use to the Global Players, but not to the advantage of the developing countries where the majority of mankind lives.

More than by development aid and projects Africa would profit by fair economic basic conditions. To it first a finer dosage of liberalisation belongs. Liberalisation between unequal partners favours the stronger one. Already 40 years ago Pope Paul's VI development encyclical "Populorum Progressio" precisely formulated that problem:



"In the trade between highly developed and underdeveloped economies the conditions are too different and the degree of real liberty too unequal. So that international trade is human and moral, social justice demands that first among partners a certain equality of opportunity is created" (No. 61).

It is the most important requirement to arrange trade agreements in such a way that they favour the developing countries and not the interests of multinational companies. All industrialized countries and all developing countries protected their industries, until they were competitive on the international market. Africa must have the same right.


To help unbureaucratically self-initiatives with small projects

In exactly the same way it belongs to fairer economic basic conditions to protect the agriculture against subsidized agrarian exports from the European Union and the USA: The dumping of subsidized agricultural products on the part of the European Union and the USA is a scandalous injustice and destroys the bases of existence of the small farms, on which 70 per cent of all Africans live. Therefore the demand for "nutrition sovereignty", which means that every country has the right to protect its food production, and to determine which agricultural products are imported. When the industrialized countries protect their agriculture by subsidies, the poor countries are allowed to protect their agriculture by appropriate import duties.

It is also necessary to restructure the debt management: Remissions of debts are welcome but do not solve the debt problem, which remains a development obstacle. New credits, above all from China, drive countries freed of debts very fast into a new debts crisis. For years the international debt campaign rightfully has been demanding an international insolvency law, in order to call both, debtors and creditors, to account.

A stronger regulation and taxation of financial transactions in the same way belongs to the indispensable basic conditions: By foreign exchange speculation speculators can drive whole national economies into ruin. Since the majority of all transactions has no productive but speculative goals, it would be meaningful to tax the international financial streams by a "foreign exchange transaction tax" and to use this tax for development aims, for example to cushion the negative effects of the climatic change in Africa. Likewise a sharper control of the international arms trade is necessary: As long as every warlord can unimpeded buy any quantity of weapons and ammunition, armed conflicts in Africa will prevent the realization of a national monopoly of power. But without peace and internal security all efforts of development remain precarious. An effective international armament export agreement is urgently needed.

Not least the international institutions must be conceived anew: World Bank, monetary funds and world trade organization failed in their actual task to be engines of a world-wide development and are in a crisis of their legitimacy. The world nevertheless urgently needs efficient global institutions to overcome the global problems. Those institutions to be at the service of development had to be reformed in the framework of the UN, democratized in their composition and oriented toward the millennium development goals and the global environmental protection. From it not only Africa would profit but also the rest of the world.

Our economic system favours the stronger to enforce their interests at the expense of the weaker. Only the "option for the poor" in the global basic conditions can create the free space, in which the people of the south can organize their own future.

There are disasters in which strong assistance is needed. There are surely meaningful structures and institutions that need larger sums for their work. Education and training are and remain the perhaps most important priority of development - and they are not cheap. But often it is the most effective assistance for Africa's poor to help small local initiatives started by their own efforts to get over the next hurdle:

One's own initiative as principle means to support only groups that have already by their own efforts taken concrete steps, and not the countless, often by clever politicians and unemployed university graduates created non-governmental organisations that - apart from themselves - do not develop much else. Unreliable NGOs can be recognized beside excessive salaries by the wide-spread bad habit "per diem", a daily rate for taking part in seminars and activities. People who have time for the community only against payment will hardly get development going.

"Small is beautiful" was the much quoted and seldom practiced development classic by Ernst Friedrich Schumacher of 1973. Many a project well begun has been spoiled by too much money. "Money is like dung. It stinks on a heap, but distributed on the field it causes growth", this saying applies also to development. Where large sums are given there the worm of corruption is not far away.

"To act locally, to think globally", another slogan reads. Projects that are locally not deeply rooted and not supported by communities on the spot generally have little effect. Here too the principle of subsidiarity would be appropriate: to invest as much as possible at the basis and only as much as necessary into higher structures.

Unbureaucratically: Development organizations suffocate in the mass of our cancer-like growing bureaucracies.



It becomes more and more expensive to make applications for projects. An EU application preoccupies a well qualified specialist at least one month. And to realize a project usually half a dozen requests have to be written. As physicians feed computers with data instead of examining patients, so it takes development organizations much time and energy to write applications, accounts and reports. It is rather questionable whether corruption and abuse are checked by that. For the employees in the development industry know very fast and exactly what their backers want to hear about the newest topics in vogue. Bureaucracy increases the discrepancy between application and reality of a project. Less would be more.

Outstanding example how people free themselves by their own efforts from the trap of poverty are the Grameen banks of the Nobel prize-winner Mohammed Yunus, who is convinced of the abilities of the poor, above all of women. With it the input from outside is small and the system uncomplicated. Success comes from the commitment of their own.

After religion was being ignored as development factor or despised as development obstacle for decades the awaking of the world religions enforces the re-discovery of the development potential of "faith communities". Church development aid is often more efficient than that of states, because common faith can become engine and motivation for communities to improve their living conditions.

Many a project has failed because of the arrogance and ignorance of western development experts, who often have little sense for the usually religiously moulded cultures of other continents. From meat factories for nomads, who sell their cows just as little as they would sell their children, up to the proverbial Russian snow ploughs for the tropical jungle Africa is full of "White Elephants": Projects that failed because experts did not see the necessity first to sit down with the natives at one table. Genuine development happens only when the local population formulates its needs and itself plans and accomplishes solutions. Expert opinion can help, but only as punctual contribution. "Ownership" has for years been a keyword of development policy. But extremely few people have the humility and the time to sit down on a mat for weeks and months with illiterates.

It is time that western development aid workers need most and have least. In our bureaucracies there are schedules for everything, what is when to happen.



But Africa's clocks tick differently. Above all rural populations have their own rhythms of time and life. They take their time before they put their trust in Europeans who up to now only came to take something away from them. And in Africa nothing at all goes without human relations of confidence. Projects must temporally be open and flexible to be efficient, for neither the building up of trust nor the processes of understanding can be fixed in advance.

What can Africa really bring forward? There is no clear answer to that question, no simple concept, rather a long list of inconsistencies that - gradually corrected - increase the chances for a jump ahead. There are signs for it. A young, better trained, better informed generation challenges the old crusted and corrupt elites of Africa. Terrorism and migration streams increase the pressure on the rich countries at last seriously to tackle the poverty gulf. High raw material prices let flow billions into the treasuries of many countries, which - invested in the country instead of deposited abroad - could cause a development thrust.

There are new chances. In the end it is the African's responsibility whether they use the possibilities. What the west can contribute is to exploit Africa less and to create conditions and incentives to organize the future independently and responsibly.


    {*} Wolfgang Schonecke (born in 1938) belongs to the Order of the Africa missionaries (White Fathers). From 1965 to 1982 he worked in the pastoral care in Uganda. From 1982 to 1992 he took over tasks of leadership for his Order. From 1994 to 2001 he led the pastoral department of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA). From 2001 he has been director of the Network Africa Germany in Bonn (


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