At the gathering of the Group of 20 (G20) in London on 2 April 2009, the world’s largest economies reiterated their commitment to helping Africa in the midst of the global financial crisis. As a result of the meeting, between $30 and $50 billion in additional grants and loans will be available to African nations through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. While I welcome the news that the world financial crisis hasn’t pushed Africa off the global agenda, I cannot help but worry whether this latest tranche of funds will be used effectively by recipient governments, or if these resources will truly improve the lives of most Africans.
Here’s why. Almost half the population of sub-Saharan Africa lives on less than $1 per day. But while this poverty is at the root of many of the pressing problems Africa faces, so is the powerlessness of the poor. During the course of the last forty to fifty years, most Africans, in large measure because of their leaders’ attitudes and policies, have come to believe that they cannot act on their own behalf. Self-determination and personal and collective uplift, values embraced by the great majority of Africans in the period just after independence, have been eroded.
Disempowerment – whether defined in terms of a lack of self-confidence, apathy, fear, or an inability to take charge of one’s own life – is perhaps the most unrecognised problem in Africa today. To the disempowered, it seems much easier or even more acceptable to leave one’s life in the hands of third parties (governments, aid agencies, and even God) than to try to alleviate one’s circumstances through one’s own effort.
This “syndrome” is a problem that of course affects far more than Africans, and far more than the poor. Nevertheless, I have found it to be as substantial a bottleneck to development in Africa as inadequate infrastructure or bad governance, and it has added an extra weight to the work of those who want to enable individuals and communities to better their circumstances.
The corruption and graft that have tainted so much of Africa’s leadership in the post-independence period are well-known; the misappropriation of funds, outright theft, incompetence, and cronyism that have characterised too many African governments for decades have been often catalogued. What perhaps is less well understood is how, because of a failure of leadership at the top of the social tree, the culture of corruption – and dependency – has too often eaten its way down to the roots. This theme is explored in my book The Challenge for Africa (Pantheon, 2009).
The roots of the problem
How much of a barrier this syndrome is to Africa’s development was brought home to me during the five years I served as a member of the Kenyan parliament (2002-07). A single example can make the case.
One day, I was approached by a group of rural farmers who harvested macadamia nuts. These particular farmers sold their nuts into the Japanese market through a Kenyan processor and exporter, who did not appear to be corrupt. The macadamia nuts’ wide variety of uses – as seed, food, and fuel – meant that they were receiving a good price in the market. If a Kenyan macadamia nut-farmer’s trees were already planted and producing nuts to harvest, there was no reason why he should not have succeeded and become wealthy by rural standards.
Nonetheless, the farmers were unhappy. When we met, they explained that, because there was so much money to be made in the macadamia nuts, their neighbours, also farmers, had begun to steal. Now, macadamia nuts need to be fully ripe to be ready for processing, and they are not fully ripe until they fall to the ground. But some people (the farmers told me) had started shaking the trees before the nuts were ripe, in order to make them fall; others had begun climbing the trees and picking the nuts even before they were ripe enough to be shaken from the tree. In the end, the greed had become so enormous that some individuals had simply crept onto the farmers’ land at night, cut down the trees, and hauled them away, so they could harvest every single nut for themselves.
Because the nuts were not ready, the thieves needed – to make best use of their haul – to find ways to make the nuts look ripe. They would, for example, boil them with tea-leaves to change their colour. But when the nuts arrived at a quality-control post in the market outside of Kenya, they were rejected as obviously rotten. The middleman, furious at this interruption in his export-chain and the potential damage done to his reputation by the rotten shipment, told the farmers he wouldn’t buy any more macadamia nuts from them in future.
By the time the farmers came to me with their story, they were desperate. The story of how and why they had lost their once lucrative market left me astonished at the avarice and shortsightedness of some members of the community. I indicated that I would try to find another market for their macadamia nuts, though I didn’t hold out much hope. “We can work on it”, I said, “but it looks as if the goose that was laying the golden eggs has been killed.” It was clear, I continued, that it was going to take much more effort to convince a new market (and a new middleman) of these farmers’ reliability.
The individuals who came to me were not farmers of the kind familiar in the west – armed with an understanding of agricultural inputs, international markets, and commodity prices. Indeed, these farmers were little different from their neighbours who stole the nuts, in the sense that nearly everyone who lives in rural areas in Africa grows one crop or another on their land yet often has scant or no information about the product he grows.
Such farmers may have little or no formal education, and may therefore be functionally or actually illiterate. Even if they are able to read or write, they lack access to written materials or the internet to inform themselves about the crops that are their primary source of income; and they may never use or even taste what they harvest at all since (as with macadamia nuts) these don’t process and add value to what they themselves produce. They get little help from the state; the Kenyan government, for example, has made few efforts to educate the farmer, encouraging him to become an advocate for his interests, or empower him in the international marketplace (for example, by forming cooperatives).
I advised the macadamia nut-farmers to form a cooperative and work together to get to the bottom of what had happened – find out who owned the macadamia trees; create a register; then determine who was selling macadamia nuts even though they had no trees growing on their own land. I also urged them to start again and this time to instill a discipline among the growers; in this way, they would produce nuts of sufficient quality so they might ultimately be able to find another vendor who would process the macadamia nuts in their own region. This would, in turn, add value to the nuts – and thus guarantee more earnings – before they were sold to the middleman, who would then sell them for export.
Unfortunately, I was voted out of parliament before I had a chance to help the macadamia farmers further. However, my tenure as an MP was long enough to understand what kept this community of farmers poor: in part the farmers’ ignorance about what they grew, in part their lack of education, in part the government’s failure to support them – but also its own failure to understand the consequences of its self-destructive actions. Instead of working together to further the common good of their communities, each person pursued his individual interests – and all lost.
It didn’t have to be this way. The macadamia nuts were already getting an excellent price on the market, so this group of farmers could in principle have pooled some of their earnings and made them available so that more people could buy trees through a low-interest loan. This would mean more macadamia trees for the community to share in the wealth. True, this would have had to be a long-term strategy, since macadamia trees require time to grow; but it would also have reaped dividends within a few years.
However, the thieves wanted the money, and they wanted it fast. So intoxicated were they with the prospect of selling the nuts, they were willing to ruin their prospects for further wealth by cutting down the trees; along the way, they thought nothing of impoverishing their neighbours by making sure that they could neither harvest another crop from a particular tree nor be able to make money again from macadamia nuts, even if they could access the market again. This is how the poor sometimes work against themselves.
An ethical revolution
What happened with the macadamia farmers is a form of corruption. It is no different from a minister demanding a kickback before issuing someone a license to harvest trees in a protected forest. It expresses the same willingness to cheat the system; it flies in the face of commonsense and collective will, and it helps to create a stubborn stereotype of Africa that discourages those who are genuine and compassionate in committing their funds or expertise to helping Africa’s peoples. The result is that communities often end up dealing with governments or companies interested mainly in taking advantage of the vacuum created by the culture of corruption to extract as many resources as possible at as low a price as they can.
I’m not so naïve as to believe that personal and collective corruption can ever be wholly eliminated; it will exist as long as there are selfish people and money to be made. But there are concrete measures that governments could take to bring about the needed revolution in ethics, if they were committed to it.
It could start, for example, with an African president or prime minister saying: “We have a problem in our country and as a people. We are cheating and undermining ourselves, and we need to change. For whether it is a policeman bribing a bus driver, or a government minister receiving a kickback to license a business, or someone stealing someone else’s crops to make a quick penny – we are failing ourselves, our country, those who came before us, and indeed future generations. I want us as a country to work on it. And it will start with me, and I will do my best to value honesty in whatever I do.”
This revolution cannot be confined to those at the top of African societies. Even the poorest and least empowered of Africa’s citizens need to work to end a culture that tolerates systemic corruption and inefficiency. A critical step is ensuring that poor people are engaged in their own development, and, by extension, in expanding the democratic space that many African societies desperately need. Just as communities ought to mobilise to combat malaria, or HIV/Aids, for instance, so they must work together to fight the scourges of failed leadership, corruption, and moral blindness.
Such communities could ask themselves: “Do we feel marginalised? Are we capable of acting in concert to make sure that our resources are used equitably? Do we recognise the value of belonging to a state? When we are entrusted to positions of leadership, are we committed to enhancing the welfare of our fellow citizens?” These are the questions that are necessary if a society is to function properly. If they are answered honestly and proactively they can form a system of governance that can evolve and change to meet the needs of the people over time.
Because poor people are more likely to be illiterate, ignored, and feel powerless to act on their own behalf, addressing these questions requires political and economic commitment, as well as patience and persistence – from local, national, and international stakeholders – since change does not occur overnight.
While Africans cannot alter the mistakes and missteps of the past, they can at least try to avoid them in the future. One measure to which I would give priority is for children throughout Africa, from the first grade of primary school through the last year of secondary school, to be taught the values of justice, fairness, and accountability as part of the normal curriculum, so they might grow into the leaders and citizens that Africa needs. Just as new technologies expand the potential for breakthroughs in computer science and engineering through technical colleges, so advances in leadership and the application of values must receive similar impetus.
I don’t believe that the peoples of Africa are more accepting of corruption than those in other nations. Africans can – as history shows many have – rise up and demand an end to inappropriate behavior. However, they want to know that if they stand up or speak out, then many others will do the same – especially their leaders, who should be in the forefront of this revolution in ethics. This is one of the most crucial challenges Africa faces. Meeting it could secure a value far beyond the dollar amount of any current or future development assistance.
Wangari Maathai is a pioneering environmentalist and founder of the Green Belt Movement. She was a member of the Kenyan parliament, 2002-07. In 2003, she was appointed the country’s assistant minister for environment, natural resources and wildlife; in 2004, she became the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel peace prize. This article has been reproduced from openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence.