Finish your food, think of the starving children in Africa. It might be a bit of an off-colour throw-away line growing up, but it actually speaks to a deeper set of cultural beliefs. In the West, we popularly conceive of Africa in a couple ways. Beautiful, natural, innocent, lions and elephants but also poverty and conflict. When we think about genocide, Rwanda comes to mind. When we think about famines, it’s Ethiopia. When we think about corruption, it’s African politics. We have a deep historical legacy with the African continent from colonialism to imperialism to foreign aid. We’ve been very involved in affairs on the continent. Recently the Chinese have entered the arena, which has elucidated some strong responses from both Western and African thinkers.
After the controversy surrounding the Kony2012 campaign, a writer at The Atlantic coined a new term: The White Saviour Industrial Complex. The basic precept is that “Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can be conveniently projected – a nobody from America or Europe and go to Africa and become a godlike savior, or at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied.” I’m sure you’ve come across this in your newsfeed, with the ubiquitous profile pictures with African babies.
Consequently, in the West we are predisposed to think about Africa a certain way. We homogenize: Africa. Because obviously the Tswana, Xhosa, Giriama, Igbo, Ashanti, and Dinka are all the same people: black. We don’t realize that there’s actually more genetic diversity in Africa than anywhere else in the world. And we’ve been fed a narrative for generations, one of poverty and depredation. One that implies that we have the power, and if we’re good people, we’ll go and help. Because they need our help. Because they can’t help themselves.
These preconceptions frame the way we perceive Africa and feeds the White Saviour Industrial Complex. I’m not saying this underpins the Western Aid industry (I did my undergraduate degree in International Development – call me a cynic), but it certainly played a role in creating it.
This paternalistic approach to Africa has served to undermine African capacity. From the council of Berlin in 1884 until the early 1960s, the entire continent of Africa was a net exporter of raw materials, with scant attention paid to the actual inhabitants of the land. This was literally the logic of industrial capitalism and the impetus behind the second wave of imperialism.
The second wave of imperialism was in the second half of the 19th century. It was primarily motivated by commercial interests, both in terms of profits and new markets for goods. The global economic system set up by Britain was in the midst of a crisis. Some called it the first great depression. The continent of Africa was carved up by the European powers. Each new colony was constructed with a simple purpose: to funnel raw materials back to Europe and establish new markets for goods. In many of the cases, torture and forced labour were used to extract the raw materials. The European economies grew at an unprecedented rate from 1896-1914. Crisis averted.
Across the continent, from Mali to Namibia the band played out the same industrial capitalist tune. Exploit, extract and profit. The logic is simple. Source raw materials at the lowest possible cost, add value along the production chain that you control and repackage and sell back the finished product. Then with the profits ideally reinvest in a new venture. Ideally creating more value and opportunity. It’s something as simple as extracting raw rubber from trees in the Congo, shipping it back to Europe, then making tires and selling the tires for a huge return. Dependency and world-systems theorists dance a merry jig.
Once the Winds of Change blew through the lands in the 1960s, the Western powers had to find other avenues to ensure their relationships with Africa stayed intact. The most popular of which was foreign aid which was an approach championed by Canada and Lester B Pearson. In this context, foreign aid is the voluntary transfer of resources from one country to another.
Foreign Aid itself is an incredibly complex topic, and the motives underpinning it are multifarious. To qualify for foreign aid, two main criteria must be met: the flows of resources must be for development purposes, and they must be concessional (below market rate).
While initially, the primary motivations behind foreign aid were morally altruistic, the realpolitik of the era took sway. The cold war was in full swing, and the capitalist and communist worlds needed new adherents to their policies, markets for their goods and sources of cheap raw materials for their industries. So aid quickly became a tool of diplomacy and self-interest.
Take the French government and their stated policy of “Francafrique”. The French government has consistently backed and supported dictatorial regimes across West Africa to ensure favourable access to natural resources. To quote former Gabonese dictator Omar Bongo: “Gabon without France is like a car with no driver, France without Gabon is like a car without fuel.” Gabon has major oil reserves. This is what has been called neo-colonialism.
Nowadays, foreign aid is given for political, economic and humanitarian reasons. It’s not quite as brazen as it once was but Western Donors must be accountable to their own countries, so they have to justify spending public money on aid. Sometimes this means ensuring preferential access to resources. And sometimes it’s purely altruistic. As I said, foreign aid is very complicated.
Which brings me to the question of China’s role in Africa. Are the Chinese a panacea for well over a century of western abuse? Or are they going to continue along the well-trodden path of extraction and exploitation? Is Africa destined to be a net exporter of raw resources as long as we have a global industrial capitalist world order?
Stay tuned for part two, for an answer of sorts.
Note: there are other avenues for foreign aid: multilateral – transfers from an organization like the World Bank to a country; and NGOs – like say World Vision or Oxfam