Windows on the world


The African Giraffe

A few years ago I was in a game reserve in Botswana with a small party of Europeans. We came across a giraffe, almost lame with a severely swollen leg. One member of our party wanted to know what we should do about it. Could we notify a ranger, a vet, for it was obvious that something had to be done? Our guide patiently explained the difference between a reserve and a zoo. If all the injured animals were treated and protected the food chain would be broken. It stands out in my memory; a simple example of ingrained western attitudes being inappropriate in Africa.

"Something Must be Done"

On a larger scale, the west has struggled recently to identify its responsibilities and responses to the floods in Mozambique, the cult murders in Uganda, the violence and intimidation in Zimbabwe and the famine in Ethiopia. We start with the basic premise that 'something must be done' knowing that we in the west have the resources to 'do something'. The seed of compassion within each of us seeks the light by the relief of suffering. And so we respond with cash, food, seeds, vehicles, solar energy panels, peace-keeping troops, or whatever seems appropriate at the time.

Not stopping at practical assistance, we also try to tell the African leaders how to run their countries. Understandably, for although in general we enjoy more affluence every western country needs more schools, hospital beds, policemen, etc. Overseas aid comes at a cost and we do not want it to be mis-used or wasted. But President Mugabe tells us not to interfere with his affairs: "Zimbabwe is not an extension of the United Kingdom'. And Gadaffi says: "Africa needs food and medicine. It does not need lessons on democracy."

Legacy of the Past

The position is complicated by the legacy of European colonial rule in Africa. We abused our power, as invaders always do, and so it is fitting that we have now relinquished (or been stripped of) our power. And it is not surprising that African leaders are suspicious of western motives. There is a further complication, in that many white descendants of earlier settlers regard Africa as their home and make a valuable contribution to the culture and economy. In some cases, of course, the economic power those whites now enjoy stems from land seized or claimed in questionable circumstances.

Those involved can be divided into three basic groups: black Africans, with political power; white Africans, with disproportionate economic power; and outsiders with cheque books and consciences. The starting point for any long-term solution has to be the recognition that all three groups have a role to play.

The Forest Fire Approach

Since the end of colonialism African problems have been treated like forest fires: problems are identified, there are cries for help from the victims and the aid agencies, and with varying levels of efficiency and effectiveness some aid is eventually provided. But when the fires are not blazing insufficient attention is paid to the underlying problems that will result in more fires breaking out. This approach has not resolved any of the major problems. The grinding cycle of drought, famine, flood, disease and poverty continues, exacerbated by civil war and violence. Nature and Man conspire merely to prolong the suffering, and where aid has been replaced by loans nations sink under the debt burden. The Ivory Coast's annual cost of servicing its IMF loans is 146% of GNP; Sudan's is 205%; Angola's is 298%.

To observe the downward spiral the visitor in Zimbabwe has only to cross the bridge at Victoria Falls. Entering Zambia the road suddenly deteriorates, the pot holes merely the first indication of the failing infrastructure, neglected since independence, that becomes more and more apparent with every mile. Zambia broke up the prosperous farms of the whites and redistributed land more fairly. The economy has never recovered. Now, it seems, Mugabe is determined to do the same for Zimbabwe.

An African Union

It is time the African leaders accepted their continental responsibilities. A confederation or union of African states needs to provide a forum to start looking for long-term solutions. Those solutions should be aimed at economic survival and then growth rather than with attempting to redress the wrongs of other centuries. With growth it is natural that white farmers and business-men will be less powerful in a hundred years time, but meanwhile they have a vital role to play. And westerners have a tremendous history of skill and ingenuity; their advice should be sought rather than spurned. But all must recognise that Africans have to decide what to do with the lame giraffe.

Harvey Tordoff
April 2000