How Western efforts to remake Africa have changed from colonialism to international development assistance
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Last week, I was invited to speak on international development assistance (foreign aid) at the geopolitical conference at Makerere University organised by the French embassy and the Konrad Adenuar Foundation. My presentation caused uproar because I argued that the first large-scale attempt to use foreign aid to develop Africa was colonialism.
The promoters of colonialism claimed to pursue the three Cs – Christianity (to emancipate our souls from devil worship), Civilization (to end to tyranny of our customs and the despotism of our chiefs) and Commerce (to liberate us from poverty and misery). The reader may notice that for Europeans to perform their self-anointed role as saviors and civilizers of other peoples required a degradation of the intended beneficiaries. Thus our indigenous religious were called satanic, our traditional doctors called witches, etc. Colonialism was, therefore, presented as an altruistic mission by Europeans to save us from ourselves, just as “aid” today.
What we call democracy today was, under colonial rule, called Christianity. It was an attempt to have a universal faith and the only true faith for all. Today we see an attempt to create a universal form of government (liberal democracy) for every country regardless of history, culture, circumstances and context. What we call development today was under colonialism called “civilization.” It included introduction of modern administration, education and medicine. Again we are called upon to embrace everything European in origin as universal and meant for our own good – procurement rules, forms of government accountability, political and administrative structures etc. And what we call international trade was, under colonial parlance, called commerce. It involved the opening up of the local economy to international capital and stifling local innovations.
Thus the missionary and the trader were comrades in arms. Both needed the protection of their home state to achieve their goals – hence the entry of the administrator to complete the equation. The missionary did not only provide spiritual assistance but also provided earthly benefits like education and healthcare to the native. This helped him win hearts and minds thereby making it possible for the trader to do business. The administrator was always called upon to use force where siasa (indoctrination) by the missionary had failed.
In all cases, Europeans recruited local allies – the traditional ruler, the catechist, teacher and the headman. They ensured that the benefits of modernity – education, a salaried job or a business opportunity – went to those who collaborated with the colonial state and its agents. This way many Africans were won over ideologically through religion and education or through self-interest by giving them a stake in the colonial economy, and by bribery through land allocations. This is how colonialism entrenched itself.
Today’s missionary is a diplomat in an embassy or an international development agency. The local allies are NGO activists, politicians, academics, journalists and businesspersons whose career fortunes are largely promoted using scholarships, invitations to conferences and publicity. Anyone who positions him/herself as African intellectual who condemns the “dreadful” nature of governments in Africa; and defends democracy, free speech, free trade and investment gets a huge boost in Western media, think tanks, universities etc.
Those who give aid insist on a series of reforms that seek to turn the local state into a replica of the donor country and local elites into cadres of the new catechism of “good governance”. Here they demand recipient governments adopt particular institutions as in Western countries: separation of powers by having an independent judiciary and parliament; a multiparty system of government; certain procurement, trade and investment laws; a free press, etc. Today institutions have emerged that give scores on being a good student – the World Bank Doing Business Index, the World Economic Forum Competitiveness Index etc. But the aim and effect of these reforms is largely to displace existing, or stifle the development of, local capital in favour multinational capital.
Like under colonial rule, the aim of foreign aid is not so much to develop the local economy as to open it for takeover by multinational capital. The spokespersons of these foreign interests: presidents, legislators, NGO activists, local business interests (largely commission agents that make money connecting multinational firms to local business opportunities, Marxists used to call them compradors), bureaucrats, pundits and journalists etc. dominate public policy debates and are feted in western capitals.
This local coalition defends foreign financial assistance, foreign direct investment and other forms of intrusion into Africa’s sovereignty such as promotion of human rights, democracy, and the ICC as international justice the cures of our ills. They make these arguments even though none of them can quote a single country that developed through foreign aid or foreign direct investment.
The aid industry is backed by billions of dollars in development spending. Its international and local agents form the most powerful voice on public policy. This is what makes foreign aid a difficult movement to fight, but it is hardly the only one. The use of the word “aid” appeals to our human sentiment for charity – who would say helping feed a hungry village, vaccinating a vulnerable community or educating the poor is a bad thing?
True some of the things foreign aid does help individuals and communities. But such charity is not the stimulant of development. This issue was raised by one of the panelists who claimed that Germany today is developed because it was assisted by the United States through the Marshal Plan – a huge financial aid program by America to Western Europe after World War Two.
The Marshal Plan funds were not given for the development of Germany. By 1945, Germany was the most industrialised country in Europe manufacturing cars, planes, tanks etc. and leading in nuclear, missile and rockets research. Indeed, it had higher manufacturing per capita than the USA. Its people’s norms, values, habits and mentalities were of an advanced capitalist society. World War Two destroyed physical infrastructure, not the skills – technical and organisational – that were already embedded in its people. An injection of money in such a society would stimulate rapid recovery from the effects of war.
The African countries that receive international aid are still peasant societies with high levels of inter and intra community mistrust, low levels of the diffusion of technology and capitalist norms, values, habits and mentalities have not yet penetrated the social consciousness of the vast majority of people. Even if foreign aid was well intentioned – and it often is not – its effects cannot be like those of the Marshal Plan on Germany because of these differences.