Blame the natives

Former World Bank official Robert Calderisi throws p.c. rhetoric to the wind in his new book "The Trouble With Africa."

Published July 5, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

On my most recent trip to an African country, I avoided the far north because of a vicious and persistent civil war. In the ultra-safe capital, I was plagued by electricity outages, which usually lasted the entire day. I needed a massive Toyota Land Cruiser to survive the treacherous dirt roads required to reach the farming villages I'm currently studying. A national election had just been held, extending the rule of the countrys unpopular president -- in power since 1986 -- for another five years. Dissenters talked openly about mounting a violent uprising against him, should the results of the election stand. Britain, fed up with official corruption in the country, suspended its aid and was urging other donors to do the same. At the same time, the government arrested an American evangelical preacher for promoting an end to the violent conflict in the north.

This was the mess I found in one of Africa's best-run countries, Uganda -- long a darling of aid donors, blessed with fertile farms, excellent weather and talented, well-educated people. When Uganda is a success story, there is indeed trouble in Africa.

Africa's woes -- from interminable civil wars, poverty and economic stagnation to the persistence of AIDS, famines and the worst kinds of oppression against women -- have spawned a small army of saviors. They are a diverse bunch. Philanthropists -- Bill Gates is only the best known -- have plowed billions of dollars into the region. Rock stars Bono and Bob Geldof have put the fate of Africa on the media's front burner. Bible-thumpers have invaded, hoping to save the region by saving souls. Many individual governments, along with the United Nations and other international agencies, provide steady aid. Even the Bush administration, which won't win any humanitarian awards based on its Iraq misadventure, has sharply raised the official amount the U.S. gives to Africa.

Yet, however different their perspectives, the saviors of Africa do have a few things in common. For one, they all see sub-Saharan Africa -- black Africa -- as a patient in need of treatment. Yet diagnoses of Africa's "illness" differ. Some argue that the poverty plaguing the region can be cured by more money alone. Others bemoan the corruption of African elites, and promote ethics and old-fashioned patriotism as a remedy for the disorder and disappointment in Africa. The battle for control of Africa's ample natural resources -- also known as the "curse of oil" -- is another favorite malady. Or maybe what ails Africa is a lack of freedom and democracy, and an expansion of both will do more to end Africa's troubles than any manner of handouts. Some promote a single big idea, such as U.N. advisor Jeffrey Sachs, who is trying to rehabilitate 15 African villages as proof of the power of aid. Others, notably economist William Easterly, think that lots of small ideas will help Africa more, so long as they can be spread across the region.

But these are trying times. Africans are proving to be nettlesome patients for these would-be healers. They are not taking their medicine or following the doctor's orders. Perhaps worst of all, Africans are not grateful. The saviors are frustrated; they are neither appreciated nor effective. Talk to any of them about the task of saving Africans, and they quickly start complaining. Sooner or later, their complaints are directed at Africans themselves.

Most of the rough talk about the personal failings of Africans occurs in private, never traveling beyond the clubby expat bars and posh private offices that are ubiquitous in African capital cities. That's why Robert Calderisi deserves to be congratulated for his new book, "The Trouble With Africa." Calderisi, a former World Bank official and a veteran of many years of working on African issues, exposes the dirty little secret harbored by so many saviors of Africa. Indeed, Calderisi has written a book that is positively boiling over with resentment toward Africans. They are dishonest and unfeeling. They are greedy and materialistic. They lack the values, training and even the motives necessary to govern themselves. They are religious, superstitious and prone to brutality. Were it not for Africans themselves, the saviors might actually notch some successes.

Calderisi excoriates Africans for "looking for excuses," the title of his opening chapter, and hiding behind those they find. These excuses are, in his mind, predictable: colonialism and racism. Calderisi dismisses those who cite the history of European colonialism and the legacy of transatlantic slavery to defend Africans. Slavery wasn't so bad, he says; at least the peculiar institution delivered some Africans from living in Africa itself. And colonialism had a silver lining. Without contact with Europeans, Africans would be even worse off, he insists.

To be sure, Calderisi does not express himself quite like this. In fact, he is even more blunt and more simplistic in his ideas about the failings of Africans. He has identified an "African character" and claims, "There is a darker side to the African character."

Darker? Calderisi is deaf to the sound of his unintended pun.

Not to mention that he doesn't say just how dark he finds the African character, perhaps because he's impatient to make other sweeping generalizations. He finds, for instance, that "Africans are not savers." "They are also superstitious." "Most uneducated Africans are fatalistic," he adds. "They accept and submit." But they are not so accepting or submissive. Rather, "Africans can be brutal to each other, especially in groups."

Such generalizations might seem refreshing because, as Calderisi himself notes, "political correctness" has made any critical evaluations of African behavior off-limits. Indeed, Calderisi presents himself as a brave truth-teller, willing to break taboos and speak openly about what he thinks is said all too often in hushed tones about Africans, but rarely in public. And the essence of what is said in those secret conversations about Africans is that -- full stop -- they are what's wrong with Africa.

Different societies have different strengths and weakness, so it is not necessarily unfair to make generalizations about different groups. It is certainly true, for instance, that most Africans are intensely religious and that non-rational explanations of events and behaviors are common in Africa. Africans generally respect their elders, want children to be seen but not heard and have relatively strict norms on relations between the sexes. But Africans are not like Germans or Mexicans or even Indians or Chinese. Africans don't live in a single country, but populate an enormous area and possess a vast array of different religions, ethnicities and ways of life. A single region of Sudan -- troubled Darfur -- is about the same size as France. The entire U.S. can easily fit inside the continent of Africa -- and leave room to grow.

Different regions of Africa differ dramatically in their geography. Even the colonial experience differed greatly across the sub-Saharan. One of Calderisi's challenges is to make distinctions about Africans that show an awareness of the diversity that coexists with any presumed unity. But he fails to exhibit this necessary awareness. Instead, he is sloppy in his characterizations of "the African character" he claims to know. Moreover, he seems unaware that past generalizations about "the African character" were part of a systematic attempt to denigrate black people generally and Africans in particular. Any generalizations today must be made with great care.

Over and over, Calderisi shows his carelessness. He also contradicts himself, arguing at times that Africans aren't hard-wired to behave as they do but are creatures of their circumstances. At one point he admits, for instance, that "very few Westerners would behave differently from Africans in the same circumstances." This is pretty close to my own view of why Africans don't always do the right thing. They are responding, I think, to bad incentives. Presented with bad choices, they make bad decisions, but not because they are "bad" themselves. The fault does not lie with Africans, but with their circumstances. By ignoring this fundamental truth, Calderisi comes close to reviving the core canard of racism: that Africans are inherently inferior.

Of course, Calderisi does not write anything explicit about African inferiority, but he repeatedly downplays the effects of racist imagery and mass assumptions on the way African behavior is portrayed and evaluated. He defends racist attitudes from the colonial period, when Africans were relegated to subordinate roles. He exonerates iconic colonial figures, such as Albert Schweitzer, the French missionary doctor, who called Africans "my junior brothers." Schweitzer clearly meant that Africans were not the equal of white Europeans, though they nevertheless deserved compassion and equal opportunity. Calderisi claims that Schweitzer was merely "condescending" toward Africans, but was not guilty of racism. However, to most Africans -- and most denizens of the planet -- Calderisi is drawing a distinction without a difference.

To be sure, Africans and apologists for African failures have often invoked racism and colonialism as an excuse. In presenting a useful corrective to what Tom Wolfe, in another context, called "mau-mauing," Calderisi goes too far, laying nearly the full blame on Africans for the sorry conditions of their countries. He says that Africans seek to deflect responsibility by citing the histories of colonialism and the legacy of racism. Yet these factors are very much alive in contemporary experience. The largest single economy within sub-Saharan Africa, that of South Africa, remained dominated until 1994 -- only a dozen years ago -- by a relentless apartheid system. Colonial influences on Africans, far from ending suddenly with formal decolonization in the late 1950s and early 1960s, persisted for many years. More recently, colonial attitudes have violently reasserted themselves as Africans have sought refuge in the familiar and stable bosom of British-ness or French-ness as a respite from the instability of their own societies.

I am critical of much of the aid given to Africa, so I came to "The Trouble With Africa" expecting to find much to agree with. And to be sure, despite his mishandling of large questions, Calderisi does manage to offer some valuable insight into why foreign aid fails Africa. Too much of this aid gets stolen by corrupt officials. Aid reinforces the position of elites. It creates dependence. It fails to promote private economic and social activities, which are the foundation of successful countries elsewhere in the world. Finally, aid is bad for African self-esteem. "If aid is largely ineffective," he writes, "it is also demeaning."

Surprisingly, given his hostility to aid, Calderisi stops short of calling for an end to it, or even a reduction of it. He would prefer to see roughly the same amount of aid flow into Africa, but have it spent differently. The world, he writes, "must now radically change" how it aids Africans.

His call to arms sounds promising -- until Calderisi gets specific. Belying his radical rhetoric, he offers tepid -- even vapid -- proposals for reform. His "ten ways of changing Africa," bunched together in a final, brief chapter, are neither innovative nor compelling. Mostly, his prescriptions have been tried before with little effect and don't get to the heart of Africa's problems anyway. His first recommendation, for instance, is to help law-abiding Africans recover the public monies stolen by African dictators, bureaucrats and other corrupt elites. He also wants all African government officials to make their bank accounts open to public scrutiny. These are sensible recommendations, but they pack little punch. The real trouble with Africa is economic stagnation, unbalanced demographics (too many youth who lack both jobs and services) and frightfully low levels of private investment. Africans would certainly benefit from a reduction in official corruption, but even zero corruption would not be a panacea.

Probably the most daring of Calderisi's recommendations is his most wrongheaded. He wants foreigners to run Africa's elections, schools and public health programs. How this would happen, he does not say. He also is unpersuasive in making the case for why Africans would receive better services at the hands of foreigners than those of their own people. Running elections is extremely difficult, even in places like the United States, which has witnessed two disputed presidential elections in a row. But Calderisi is enamored of the notion of recolonizing Africa, the idea that through their own persistent incompetence, Africans have abdicated their rights to self-governance. He does concede, however, that it is politically impossible for outsiders to take over the running of African governments. So he is left instead with the less appealing option of invoking offbeat mechanisms such as sanctions against African governments that jail even a single journalist. Why he is partial to journalists yet does not threaten a similar cutoff for, say, jailing protesting farmers, he does not say.

I suspect part of Calderisi's lack of imagination stems from years of serving as part of Africa's aid elite. Having spent his entire adult life dispensing plums to Africans -- first for the Canadian government, then for the World Bank and now as a private advisor -- he has a vested interest in defending aid programs. He repeatedly describes them as well-designed, failing only because of sabotage by or stupidity of Africans themselves. He sees aid officials as personally talented, well-intended and highly motivated. He fails to recognize that fat-cat aid officials are as much (and probably more) to blame for aid failures than the character-flawed Africans he repeatedly encounters.

It is a testimony to the strength of the African character that, despite awful governments and ill-conceived and wasteful foreign aid programs, African societies, in every part of the sub-Saharan region, are experiencing notable gains. Calderisi ignores completely the positive role of technology in improving the quality of African life. Cellphones are revolutionizing Africa, giving vast numbers of people an easy and relatively inexpensive way of reaching relatives and gaining essential information. An explosion in radio stations has given voice to voiceless Africans in virtually every African country, changing the balance of political power and providing new sources of hope for even the poor. Finally, the spread of electronic money transfer services has meant that even those living in remote villages can receive remittances from their lucky relatives living in the U.S., Europe or the Middle East. These remittances, unlike aid, are transfers within extended African families and possess an authenticity that mere charity lacks.

Africans remain burdened by awful problems. That many of these problems are at least partly of their own making cannot be denied. African leaders must take more responsibility for solving their own problems, and ordinary Africans must invest in their own societies in a way they have not done for a very long time. But to urge Africans to stand on their own feet, and to stop blaming others for their problems, does not require us to pin most of the blame for Africas problems on Africans themselves. Those of us who are rooting for Africans to succeed in their own lands -- and I include myself and Calderisi among these people -- surely do not need to construct a phantom African character on which to project our brittle notions of what constitutes authentic African values, personalities, aspirations and even delusions. Images and assumptions about African talents and capabilities have been proved wrong in the past. History has mocked those who once saw limits and shortcomings in Africans that Africans did not see in themselves. Nothing about the current crisis in African affairs, however frustrating, should force us to revive old notions of African inferiority. Those who do surely will once more be mocked by future historians.

By G. Pascal Zachary

G. Pascal Zachary writes frequently about Africa and is a former foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. He is writing a memoir, to be published by Scribner's, about his marriage to an African, the Nigerian Chizo Okon.

MORE FROM G. Pascal Zachary

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Africa Books