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02 - 09 July 2008 
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The Mind: Africa's Ultimate Capital

There has been a lot of debate in the last year or so about the need for African developmental strategies to increasingly rely on trade than on what has become the traditional reliance on aid from abroad.


There are many examples of how Africans and people around the world, have been positively affected by foreign assistance of one type or another, especially during times of emergencies. Humanitarian aid is a noble idea and will continue to be an important way that the world’s most vulnerable people can be assisted in their time of need.


But there seems to be a growing feeling that in Africa, the concept of aid as a temporary measure has grown into a damaging kind of dependence. Instead of filling in a temporary gap or helping people get a leg up to a situation of helping themselves, many worry that donor aid has become an insidious concept that may be weakening us in the long term more than it assists us in the short term.


We have become used to the idea that there are ‘donor nations.’ There obviously must also be corresponding ‘recipient nations,’ and painfully and unfortunately, Africa is the region that has most come to be associated with the idea of helplessness and needing to be constantly propped up by handouts of one sort or another. Africa has become the ultimate ‘donor recipient.’


Will this uncomfortable situation change when we are ‘developed,’ however one defines that nebulous term? Or are there things we need to change and do first to in order to become ‘developed,’ or merely relatively self-sufficient in away we are not now? Which is the chicken and the egg, and which came first?


It is a question beyond my capacity to answer, but both amongst ‘donors’ abroad and an increasing number of people in Africa, there is recognition that this state of affairs is unhealthy and not sustainable. There are also many questions about whether the sums of money offered as ‘aid’ over the past 50 years or so have had proportional results. Except for clear-cut emergency situations where the starving are given emergency food aid or those dislocated in times of conflict are given sanctuary, why have the billions in aid we read about not brought about a greater improvement in our overall situation?


The various proffered reasons are many and complicated, and it is not my intention to enumerate them here.Next to my keyboard as I type is a propaganda sticker for The African Executive magazine with ‘Change Africa’ in large bold type written on it.


How can an online publication change anything? It can do so by contributing to changing thinking. Belief in the power of ideas to change thinking is what motivates occasional contributors like me, and I’m sure that it is a big part of what motivates the staff of The African Executive and what draws readers.     


If we are to ever change the reality and the perception of Africa being an utterly helpless giant that needs to be constantly “aided” for even its most basic needs, people who believe in the importance and power of ideas have an important role to play.


I have often pondered that the skills required for an official of an NGO to write a project proposal capable of winning donor funding are almost identical to those required to write a good business plan. The successful result of one is to get charitable, do-gooder funding based on what I call the “poor helpless African model.” The hoped for result of a business plan is to attract seed, capital, trade or operating funds on commercial terms to ultimately create wealth. Similar sort of document in either case, but the two are informed and separated by vastly different types of thinking to problem solving. More of us should be involved in the ups and downs, the risks and benefits of working on business plans than putting together documents that no matter how you sugar-coat it, are fundamentally premised on the idea that without charitable help from non-Africans, we are unable to solve problems.


I am pained when I read about some small rural poverty project in Nigeria that has to be financed by donor funds. Whatever its problems, potentially mighty Nigeria’s abundant wealth is immediately obvious within minutes of stepping off the plane at LagosMurtala Muhammed Airport. Unfortunately, the misallocation of the country’s resources is also obvious from the great poverty amidst conspicuous consumption, and systems and infrastructure that do not serve the average Nigerian.  This may just be more stark and obvious in Nigeria because of the scale of the contrasts, but it applies everywhere in Africa.


The existence of the problems is not entirely because the physical resources do not match the human needs. It is to a large extent also a matter of prioritization, or the approach to things; thinking. Clearly the external donor-funded project is not because the country/society/economy does not have the means to self-fund whatever project the donor has stepped in to do, but that the society has not chosen/organized itself to mobilize its own resources, whatever problem is in question.


I am disheartened when I go to international conferences at which the different regions of the world must advocate their positions to have resolutions that are favourable to them passed. Over and over I have seen how Africa cannot confidently and robustly express its interests, partly because it must always look back over its shoulder and worry if the powerful donors will approve of a certain position or not.


Donor-dependence manifests itself even in instances of success, where we have broken free and made a success of doing things that may be differently from those advised by the countless ‘experts’ in the West who make a living from ‘knowing’ the solutions to our problems.


In previous articles, and hopefully in future ones to come, I have dwelt on some of the lessons of Malawi’s recent maize bumper harvests and the fertilizer subsidy that helped bring them about. I will ask many critical questions, but my take off point is to congratulate Malawi on its success and to provide perspectives aimed at helping ensure the sustainability of that agricultural success. We do not want the effort to fail after some years because we have not strategized against the possible pitfalls of this particular subsidy model and then hear sniggers of “you see, the Africans just can’t get anything right.”


Malawi defied the advice of the powerful, allegedly all knowing IMF, World Bank and leading ‘donor nations’ to re-institute the subsidy that is being credited with its farming success. Whatever questions there are about the model, the symbolism of a poor African nation taking charge of its food security by relying in its own resources for its subsidy programme is positive, powerful and almost unprecedented.


After proving the advice of the donors to have been wrong, Malawi had to ruin its own success after two consecutive bumper maize harvests by then agreeing to have a large chunk of the subsidy funded by some of the same donor nations whose ‘experts’ had insisted subsidies only worked in their situations! And so an inspiring story of African agricultural self-reliance and success has now been reduced to a donor project! The result in terms of maize yields may be the same, but reverting to reliance on ‘donors’ ends the positive symbolism of an African nation biting the bullet and making the appropriate budgetary decisions and sacrifices for its own agricultural success. Doing it on their own was taking their destiny into their hands, while going back to donor dependence for the subsidy is a massive psychological step back.


If we are to change Africa, it will start by you and me changing our thinking right here, right now.








By Chido Makunike
Makunike is an Agricultural Consultant based in Dakar, Senegal

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