Africa: A Continent in Focus

We must look to the past if we are to understand Africa today. For five hundred years, foreigners (Arabs, Chinese and Europeans) exposed Africans to nothing but brutality, exploitation and subjugation. It is not surprising that in Harar, Ethiopia, they believe to this day that foreigners make Harar unsafe and unlucky” (4).

The Past

Chinese and Portuguese fleets first explored East Africa in the early fifteenth century. They were hunting for gold but soon their thoughts turned to slavery. Between 1450 and 1870, over nine million slaves were shipped across the Atlantic with another million or so dying en route. Slave labour in the Congo alone cost five million lives. In the seventeenth century, Europeans began to settle in Africa. The scramble for Africa began when diamonds and gold were discovered, fuelling fantasies of unimaginable wealth. At the Berlin Conference in 1884, without an African in sight, European leaders drew lines across a map and carved up a continent. With the arrival of independence fifty years later, dreams of peace in Africa were short lived. More than seventy coups took place in postcolonial Africa within the first thirty years of independence.

The Present

The Economy
What is most depressing about Africa is that it is worse off today than it was twenty years ago. Per capita income in 2000 was ten percent lower than it was in 1980. It gets worse. Africa’s growth is actually slowing. Africa’s economic performance is now worse than any other part of the world despite the fact that the world’s greatest mineral wealth is in Africa.

The international community have responded with the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to reduce the proportion of people in poverty by 50% by 2015. The World Bank and IMF have also developed the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC), which “…contemplates forgiving a fraction of [some] countries’ bilateral and multilateral debt” (5). But the fact remains that international trade tariffs on African exports make it virtually impossible for African countries to capitalize on their own mineral wealth.

We will be forced to carry dollar bills to offer as baksheesh (bribes) to corrupt officials throughout our trip. In the poorest parts of Africa, corruption is absolutely rife and often the only way to get things done. It is crippling socio-economic development and is hampering aid work. Up to two thirds of all development aid is ‘diverted’ before reaching its destination. Governing these inverted economies, where cash flows from bottom to top, are rulers like President Mobutu who single-handedly siphoned between $1 and $5 billion from his own people.

The Irish government has failed to meet a pledge made in 2000 to donate 0.7% of GNP to development but the Irish are known the world over for our generosity and Irish charities such as Trócaire and Bóthar have been very successful in Africa.

Nevertheless, there is growing evidence that foreign aid has been destructive in Africa – that it has actually caused harm. Many African countries are now over-reliant on aid: it accounts for 50% of Uganda’s budget, 60% of Rwanda’s and 70% of Mozambique’s (5). It is now generally recognised that aid eventually weakens a country’s economic performance, stifling entrepreneurial spirit and crowding out private investment, vital for economic growth.

Africa is in the middle of a health crisis. The number of people who died in the Tsunami disaster are lost every fortnight in Africa to disease and malnutrition. Of the seven million children worldwide who die before they reach the age of five, two thirds are in Africa. The three biggest threats to Africans today are HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis while other easily treated diseases such as cholera regularly claim lives.

In economic terms, these diseases are causing havoc. They “undermine productive capacity, overload health services, increase social distress and perpetuate poverty” and simultaneously “raise the risks and costs of doing business in Africa, destroying the twin rationale for globalization: cheap labour and fast-growing markets” (5).

At a human level, a whole generation is being wiped out in Africa today because of HIV/AIDS. 28.5m people are living with HIV/AIDS in Africa while 81% of the world’s AIDS-related deaths occur here. AIDS victims die every day because they simply cannot get the retroviral drugs they need to live with the disease. Children all over Africa, many of whom are HIV positive, are being orphaned and left to fend for themselves and their siblings.

Sources used: (1) Corruption and Development in Africa by KR Hope, (2)King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hoschild, (3)Africa by John Reader, (4)Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux and (5)the Economic Report for Africa 2003.

– Written by Niamh O Riordan and published in The Imokilly People

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