Thursday, June 21, 2007

Festering Africa’s Wounds: Nicholas Kristof and his Africa Trips

In his column announcing the second ‘Win a trip’ contest in March of this year, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked “why the world continue[d] to allow 30,000 children [. . .] to die each day of poverty” (March 9, 2007). The two winners of Mr Kristof’s contest, high school teacher Will Okun, from Chicago, and recent Washington University medical school graduate, Leana Wen, have now spent one full week on the trip, and are blogging about their experience at (TimesSelect, requires paid subscription).

Will and Leana’s reflections on their time in the parts of Africa they will visit will definitely go some distance towards answering Mr. Kristof’s question, about “why the world continues to allow 30,000 children [. . .] to die each day of poverty.” But there is another question, much more malignant and often avoided in mainstream conventional thinking, that neither Mr Kristof nor his two Africa guests will be asking, let alone attempting to address. It’s a three-fold question: One, what are the deeper, underlying causes of poverty in Africa? Two, in trying to find lasting solutions to Africa’s problems, to what extent are persistent images of poverty and suffering, with no follow-up on what might the historical and global causes of those problems be, going to be of help in answering Mr. Kristof’s benign question? In other words, what effects might describing African poverty and suffering in this manner have on the kinds of solutions that get proposed to solve the said problems?

Mr Kristof deserves to be commended for the role he is playing to promote awareness about the Darfur crisis, HIV/AIDS, the devastation in the Congo, poverty and other ills ravaging parts of Africa. Equally remarkable is his idea last year to bring an American student, and this year a student, Leana, and a school teacher, Will, on his trips to African countries. In Mr. Kristof’s column announcing the contest, he was candidly forthright in his criticism of American indifference to the poverty and suffering of Africans: insularity, foreign policy that empowers the wrong people, and the failure by US universities to prepare students for what he termed global citizenship. As important as faulting American indifference might be, a focus on interventionist solutions can become a red herring, misdirecting attention from more grounded and analytically informed perspectives.

What is missing from such well meaning and considerably inspiring soul-searching exercises is the ability to bring in deeper analyses that address the legacies of past injustices and their ongoing unaddressed effects today. In addressing the problem Mr. Kristof identifies as American indifference, which seems perplexing indeed, it might be important to ask whether the image of a helpless, hopeless and ahistorical Africa might not be one of the explanations as to why Americans don’t seem to care, as an unintended consequence of the African continent that Mr. Kristof presents to his American readers.

These questions are relevant because when they are not asked, the solutions that end up being suggested and implemented are the same ones that have been tried over the decades, and have not brought any long-lasting, sustainable relief. Intervention from outside, per se, ought not to be a problem; it is in fact one important solution, but it is far from adequate, let alone sustainable. Intervention from well-wishing outsiders such as Americans and other wealthy societies is not necessarily undesirable, but at least it could take on a shape and form aimed more toward adequate and more sustainable solutions.

There are no easy, straightforward answers to the question of what causes African poverty, AIDS, and other types of suffering. Perspectives differ widely, even amongst Africans themselves. In fact there is no shortage of Africans who brook no criticism of the West, which they see as being a paragon of civilization, and above reproach. But what is always and routinely ignored is the larger picture of global, historical, political and economic contexts in which poverty, conflict and suffering occur not only in Africa but in many parts of the world, including some parts of the wealthiest countries such as the United States itself. One important cause is the perpetuation of images of pathology, hopelessness, death and destruction as endemic and innate to these places. It is as if poor and suffering people do nothing to find solutions to their problems. The dominance of the images of damnation blots out the histories, energies and solutions created by the people themselves. In the process, the only solutions deemed viable end up being intervention by well-wishing outsiders.

Yet precedents of African boldness and determination abound. This year Ghana is celebrating 50 years of independence, and for many African people worldwide, it has been an occasion to take stock of the courage and energy created by the desire for freedom and independence. The story of Ghana is a continuing inspiration for many African countries and peoples worldwide. Many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa achieved their own independence with the financial, moral as well as ideological support of Ghana and its first president Dr. Kwame Nkrumah.

To pessimists, Ghana is just another poor, African country, frequently compared with Malaysia said to have had the same levels of poverty when it also gained independence in the same year as Ghana. What’s not mentioned is that Nkrumah’s material, financial and ideological support for independence for all of Africa meant a huge sacrifice at the expense of Ghana itself. Dr. Nkrumah was overthrown eight years after Ghana’s independence, by circumstances strongly linked to US foreign policy. This process was repeated in other African countries, some of whom, including the Congo DRC where Kristof, Will and Leana are visiting this week, have never known peace and stability since. Yet events such as these are never linked to causes of African poverty and instability, since the question of deeper, historical causes is always and conveniently avoided.

There are success stories in many African countries, including peaceful transitions to new forms of democracy, economies growing at exponential rates, community care for HIV/AIDS orphans, to name just a few. To his credit, Mr. Kristof does write about some of these successes too, although the backdrop of the poverty, conflict and suffering is always dominant. Many African societies are rich in social networks, spirituality, art, music, and many other facets of life that no quantitative measurements can ever capture. But because the emphasis is on the death and destruction, poverty and misery, and on solutions from outside intervention, these aspects are never written about. This is not to dispute the presence of very difficult problems of poverty and instability that many African communities indeed face everyday. The daily reportage in the mainstream media overflows with these problems, which admittedly do make it harder to believe that there are alternative realities also happening on the same complex continent of Africa.

The failure to write more about Africa’s successes and what the Reverend Stewart Lane calls social and spiritual wealth are part of the reasons why after several decades of outside, well-wishing monetary and material interventions, the images of hopelessness and instability persist. Individual Americans going to and returning from Africa, like the previous winner Casey Parks and the current winners Leana and Will, might profess profound personal transformation, but it will always be in the juxtaposition of privilege and deprivation. For most others, the response is the indifference that Mr. Kristof is rightly concerned with.

It is important to re-emphasize that Mr. Kristof’s work is admirable and deserves the gratitude of many of us. The opportunities he is affording to the Americans he selects to accompany him on his trips are invaluable. But his efforts, and that of other well-wishing Westerners who go to Africa, could be equally transformative for African societies if they worked more to capture the hidden, suppressed histories, the successes and the social and spiritual riches of the various societies and countries that make up Africa.


Anonymous said...

You point out, in your wonderful column asking what the role of the description of Africa's poverty plays in how the rich address it, the importance of the unasked questions, suggesting that, because we have not changed our questions, we have not changed our approach. I wonder if you're aware of the book by James Ferguson, "The Anti-Politics Machine," which asks one of the usually unasked questions: Why do the rich continue to do 'development' the same way, despite so many failures in their own terms? Thanks for your work. I will be passing some of it on to a class I teach in African anthropology.

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