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Not So Dark

Colin Murphy

Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, by Richard Dowden, Portobello Books, 576 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1846271540



On April 7th, 1994, a plane carrying the Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was shot down. Over the next six weeks, 800,000 Rwandans were butchered in what has been called "the most rapid genocide in recorded history". The attention of the international media, however, was elsewhere in Africa at the time: in South Africa in fact, where Nelson Mandela’s ANC was contesting the first democratic election in South African history. Anticipating a bloodbath in a country with whose politics the media had at least some familiarity, they missed the politics of the bloodbath that was unfolding in Rwanda.

Much is now made of the culpability of the leading Western powers in allowing the Rwandan genocide to unfold to its full extent. The Americans and British tried to block the use of the word genocide in the security council because, under international law, its use would have compelled them to intervene. Kofi Annan, later an acclaimed UN secretary general, was then head of peacekeeping at the organisation and was warned repeatedly of what was developing. According to the chief peacekeeper in Rwanda, the Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, Annan ignored his requests for help.

As Richard Dowden records, "with hindsight, it is obvious that the world’s political leaders and opinion makers failed Rwanda… [but] before the Rwanda genocide it was different". The leaders were enabled to turn a blind eye because the press was blindsided. Distracted by South Africa and disoriented by the complex history of ethnic and political conflict in Rwanda, it failed to realise what was happening. Initial reports referred to renewed "civil war", and then to "tribal bloodletting" between Hutu and Tutsi. (News editors, Dowden writes, "giggled and spoke about Tutus and Whoopsies in news conferences".) The only references to genocide referred to past massacres. The first mention in the press of the Hutu militia that was organising and carrying out much of the genocide, the Interahamwe, came three weeks after the start, in a Reuters dispatch on April 30th.

Eventually, the world woke up, and among the responses was a massive inflow of aid to Goma in eastern Congo, where hundreds of thousands of Rwandans had fled. But these were not refugees from the genocide, they were refugees from the military campaign against the genocide. The Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front had swept down through the country, and the Hutu génocidaires had fled before them.

Through a combination of ignorance, insidious weaknesses in the aid system and hubris, western aid workers found themselves feeding the very people who had carried out the genocide. Dowden writes: "... the aid agencies piled into Goma in huge numbers. Their competition for media coverage turned to greed and lies." The Interahamwe controlled the refugee camps and used stolen aid to trade for arms. Dowden concludes: "The aid industry contributed to the continuation of the genocide."

Goma was cathartic for the aid business, and set in train a process of review and institutional reform designed to ensure that competition and rapid response did not so jeopardise the humanitarian mission again – lessons that have had to be relearned since, particularly in the wake of the 2004 Asian tsunami. Dowden’s conclusion, that aid fuels the very conflicts it seeks to ameliorate and often perpetuates poverty, runs through this book, and it is a view commonly expressed among journalists. As in Goma, there are many case studies that support it.

But while there were critical flaws in the humanitarian response in Goma, it is not obvious what individual agencies or decision-makers could have done about it at the time. There were huge humanitarian needs: a cholera outbreak killed 50,000. Not all of the people there were génocidaires; perhaps most were Hutus who had simply abandoned their homes fearing Tutsi reprisals. Those who fled brought their families with them; children were innocent of the crimes of their parents. It is outrageous, in retrospect, that so much aid descended on Goma while so little was directed to needs in Rwanda; outrageous that so many of those "helping" had no idea of the politics of the situation in which they were intervening; outrageous that competition between aid agencies led them to inflate needs, make rash decisions as to aid distributions and prioritise their media image over their response to victims. But it would have been outrageous to sit back and let cholera and starvation take hold; to damn an impoverished people because of the actions of some (even many) among them. Here, as elsewhere in Africa, the moral choices were not obvious.

That complexity is a feature of the geopolitics of Africa, despite the ubiquitous assumption that the colonial and postcolonial interest in Africa has been uniformly exploitative. How can one fit the situation of Angola with any straightforward theory of postcolonial Western exploitation, or so-called "realist" Cold War intervention? Here is Dowden’s description of Angola at the height of the civil war, in the 1980s: "a marxist regime armed by the Soviet Union and protected by Cuban troops is kept going by revenues from oil extracted by American oil companies whose operations are being attacked by American-backed socialist rebels". This was history as tragedy and farce at the same time.

By the early years of this century, the situation in Angola had changed radically. The US (and with it, the international community) changed sides, despairing at the return of Jonas Savimbi’s Unita to war after two peace accords. The Angolan government was effectively given carte blanche to pursue a devastating razed earth strategy in pursuit of the Unita leadership, while the United Nations and aid agencies provided humanitarian assistance to populations crudely (and sometimes violently) displaced by the army. Again, the moral dilemma for aid agencies was not clear-cut: intervene to save lives at the risk of providing tacit support for a military campaign that was in contravention of the laws of war, or withdraw in protest and leave civilians to die?

This moral dilemma was most clinically put in a recent series of articles on Africa in the Irish Independent newspaper, by columnist Kevin Myers. Myers described "almost an entire continent of sexually hyperactive indigents, with tens of millions of people who only survive because of help from the outside world". He asked: "How much morality is there in saving an Ethiopian child from starvation today, for it to survive to a life of brutal circumcision, poverty, hunger, violence and sexual abuse"

Though the moral purpose of this article was undermined by an inaccurate, inflammatory headline ("Africa is giving nothing to anyone – apart from AIDS"), and though he appropriated some of the tropes of racist discourse (such as laziness and sexual hyperactivity) to make his point in as provocative a manner as possible, Myers was drawing attention to a real dilemma, one largely ignored by an aid system that seeks to generalise Africa in a manner often similarly malign.

The dual mantras of aid over the past forty years – that Africans need aid, and that aid works – have been demonstrated to be false on many occasions. Bad aid has fuelled conflicts, undermined political systems, driven corruption, promoted inequality and destroyed indigenous markets. There is an attractive, apparent logic in Myers’s argument. At best, he suggests, Ethiopia has not been fixed by aid, therefore aid does not work. At worst, aid has made Ethiopia worse, therefore aid is wrong. The dilemma, then, is: would it be more moral to ignore cries for charity?

Two objections can be raised against this, and Myers acknowledges the first: that we can’t. It is no more complicated than that. Common humanity demands that when we can save lives we must. Take it or leave it: Myers leaves it. The second objection is that there is a fallacy in Myers’s own argument: though aid to Ethiopia has had unforeseen effects – dramatic population increases – which pose new problems, that does not inherently mean that that aid was a mistake, or that more aid cannot help. The alternative to the abstentionist/rejectionist argument is the pragmatic, incrementalist one: not to withdraw aid but to improve it. Ethiopia is a useful case study, here, because it is the setting for one of the most significant recent developments in aid.

For decades, the conventional response of international charities to famines was to set up feeding centres – field hospitals, staffed often by international volunteers wearing aid agency T-shirts, dispensing specially prepared food and medicine to very thin children, whose pictures would duly appear in the international media and in poster campaigns. Though these feeding centres were targeting a real problem - severe malnutrition – and though they were increasingly run according to agreed protocols and minimum standards and succeeded in saving many lives, they were also a part of the problem. Because they were inpatient facilities, they required a parent (usually the mother) to stay with her sick child, often meaning that other children, and work on the farm or in the market, were neglected. The centres brought large numbers of very sick people together in confined spaces, and so facilitated the spread of infectious diseases. And they perpetuated the relationship established by the colonisers and the missionaries, whereby the black man received alms according to the beneficence of the white man. This was aptly captured in the word that was commonly used to refer to those participating in feeding programmes: "beneficiaries".

In 1996, a British doctor called Steve Collins, regarded as an expert in the area, was in Liberia to set up just such a feeding centre. The centre was established in a hurry, with civil war literally raging around it, and quickly attracted more people to the area. Then the war came too close, and the staff had to evacuate, temporarily. When they returned, a few days later, they found eighteen patients dead. Cholera had broken out. When Collins had arrived to set up the centre, he had asked locals if there was any cholera, and they had said no, which was true, because the locals knew how to manage their water supply and had kept cholera at bay. But with the influx of refugees who didn’t know the local waters, cholera broke out. Collins was devastated, but the incident brought to a head feelings he had had about the negative aspects of feeding centres. Over the next few years, he worked on developing a new approach to emergency feeding, which became known as Community Therapeutic Feeding (the term "therapeutic" is a technical one, referring to the care of the most severely malnourished).

Because Ethiopia had had so much experience of conventional food aid, and had seen umpteen feeding centres set up in the throes of crisis only to be abandoned by the aid workers as soon as the crisis abated without thought of the longer-term impact, the Ethiopian government had banned such centres. So Collins had an opportunity to test his method there. Using a plastic-wrapped food called called Plumpy’nut, specially developed for famine relief by a French scientist, he taught mothers how to spot early signs of malnutrition in their children, and how to administer Plumpy’nut and other basic care to fight it. These mothers would teach other mothers, setting in train a kind of "community watch" early warning and preventive care system. It was a dramatic success. Despite being initially controversial – because other aid workers had honest fears that testing the method would involve experimenting on children and could ultimately lead to lives being lost – it gradually gained wide acceptance. It was found to be more effective than conventional feeding centres, and has been endorsed by the United Nations and the World Health Organisation. Now Collins is working on developing a network of Africa-based food production companies to make a Plumpy’nut equivalent for use in local feeding programmes.

This doesn’t answer Myers’s fears of overpopulation, though it goes some way to answering his critique of dependency. Overpopulation is most effectively fought by education: both education about family planning and, more particularly, the education of young girls. The longer girls stay in school, the less likely they are to start families early. This, admittedly, may not be as effective or efficient at reducing population growth as malaria ("one of the most efficacious forms of population control now operating", according to Myers). But the problem with the Malthusian logic of allowing sickness and famine to do the work of population control is that these do not simply cull population numbers, they drastically reduce the productivity of those who survive. Having children die does not make families richer, given the expense of caring for the sick and of funerals. Having parents die (from malaria, TB or Aids, for example) devastates families. The messy, difficult, two-steps-forward, one-step-back answer to the "problem" of Ethiopia is not withdrawal but engagement: better aid, better targeted at promoting education and building capacity in communities as well as in government. It is not a particularly attractive mantra; it lacks the appealing clarity and moral simplicity of the two poles of the aid debate: at one end Kevin Myers, arguing for withdrawal; at the other generic adverts showing sick children, raising money for fly-by-night aid agencies that have little or no sense of the longue durée. But, almost invisibly, incrementally, it works.

This brings us back to Dowden, and his epic survey of the state of Africa. He is very good on the blindness and self-serving hypocrisy often evident in the aid sector, and on its system-wide flaws and weaknesses. He points out how the cumulative effect of aid agency fundraising is to label the entire continent as a dysfunctional and aid-dependent black spot. The reality, instead, is that: "Most African families get by, meet their needs, eat well enough, have a radio, save for a TV, have time for family and friends, leisure and talk, go to church in a suit on Sundays or to the mosque on Fridays."

He reiterates the well-recorded ineptitude of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, whose "Washington Consensus"-style interventions in African economies in the 1970s and 1980s, designed on charts and spreadsheets in air-conditioned offices far from any encounter with African life, were disastrous. He points out that international charities have become effectively "mini-governments, responsible for everything from providing food aid to employing their own private armies". "There is no such thing as neutrality," he observes. "Intervention is interference. Whatever aid workers’ motives, their intervention has military and political effects." Ultimately, "aid from the outside cannot transform whole societies, whole countries".

These insights are valuable, and though they have been well documented for at least a decade in the literature on aid and Africa, they have yet to be commonly accepted among frontline aid agency staff or indeed donors in the street who put some coins in a bucket in response to a crisis somewhere in Africa. Yet there is a sense with Dowden, as often with journalistic critics of aid, that he would throw the baby out with the bathwater: he uses well-observed criticisms to reject an entire system. And indeed the clichés of aid are very obvious in Africa, particularly amid crises – there are starving children being given a chance to live, and there are Western expats in big, white jeeps driving around among them. But most aid is quieter, slower and less visible: development projects in villages; bilateral (government to government) debt relief or cash transfers; capacity-building work with media, parliamentary organisations, judiciaries, local councils; or working with mothers to radically restructure famine relief. Journalists rarely see these, because there is not much to see.

There are two truisms about the international media’s engagement with Africa: journalists’ encounters tend to be with crises, and they tend to be short. In these memoirs, Dowden flits about the continent and the decades, landing mostly in crisis zones (Somalia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Angola …), giving us vivid, eyewitness accounts of precise moments in history and then skipping back to whatever broad theme he happens to be discussing (corruption, culture, the spirit world). There is a haphazard feel to it, and a paradoxical quality to the juxtaposition of intimate detail with sweeping generalisations. His accounts of the Rwandan genocide and the doomed US incursion into Somalia are among the best I have read, but when he retreats to the broad themes he brings little new to the discussion, and the force of his argument can be undermined by reliance on data and reportage from ten and twenty years ago.

Suddenly, though, very late in the book, it is as if he has become aware of this lack. In a series of chapters (on Nigeria, on the influence of China in Africa and on the spread of mobile phones), he presents vivid new material that implicitly challenges much of what he has written earlier. The new Africa he describes here is still beset by problems but is dramatically less conflict-ridden than in the 1990s, is experiencing widespread economic growth (six to seven per cent is common), is no longer dependent on Western aid agencies and is aggressively, constantly, creatively communicating. (Dowden’s book was published late last year. According to the latest growth forecast for sub-Saharan Africa from the International Monetary Fund, the region will avoid the recession currently hitting the richer economies, but will experience lower growth rates than previously envisaged, down from six to seven per cent to between three and three and a half per cent.) Dowden meets a Ghanaian banker who has returned to Accra from a high-flying career in London (with Lehman Brothers, among others), and now runs his fund management business from there. "Three factors made it possible," he tells Dowden. "One, the internet; two, mobile phones; and three, satellite TV. Suddenly the world is flat and I can get the same info in Accra as I could in London. I guess I can operate here now at 70 to 80 per cent efficiency. Before, it was about 20 per cent."

In Zimbabwe, in the presidential election last year that saw Morgan Tsvangirai beat Robert Mugabe in the first round, local results were posted outside rural polling stations and transmitted by mobile phone, instantly, across the country: "At little cost mobiles made elections more transparent than all the monitoring by expensive international election observers in their four-wheeled drive vehicles." Dowden also raises here an intriguing, radical counterfactual: "Could it be that the Rwandan genocide would not have succeeded if mobile phones had been widely available at the time?" It is, indeed, difficult to see how the scale of the genocide could have been achieved in a society where warnings of violence could be made viral in moments. (Though mobile phones can clearly equally be used to transmit incitements to violence: in Kenya in late 2007, in the aftermath of the disputed election, "mobilse were swamped with hate messages urging people to rid the country of Kikuyus or warning Kikuyus that they were fighting a conspiracy to rob them of what was theirs".)

Mobile phones are now being used to distribute aid resources – cash can be given to crisis-struck populations via a type of phone "credit", at much less cost and without the postcolonial baggage of the shiny 4x4s and their equally shiny occupants, and thereby supporting local markets rather than undermining them with free food. And they can be used to disseminate crucial public health information, among other educational uses. None of this was predicted: it was thought that there would be neither the money nor the interest to support a mobile phone infrastructure throughout Africa.

Richard Dowden’s book is big, slightly chaotic and sloppily edited. (Unita’s leader, Jonas Savimbi, was killed, bringing the Angolan civil war to a close, in 2002, not 1998. "Batswana" might be an interesting place for a safari. Dowden’s regular gearshifts, from past-tense discussions of history to present-tense, eye-witness accounts of key historical events, are disorienting.) It is a sometimes awkward combination of general survey and intimate account; it is strongest in its moments of detailed intimacy, while its author’s Economist-style pithy pronouncements can be wearying. But it is driven by a passionate interest in the continent and its recent history, and by an equally passionate commitment to making that accessible and readable. The generalisation may be necessary in a book that is intended "chiefly for outsiders", but Dowden is perceptive enough to undermine it himself.

"Every time you say ‘Africa is …’’ he writes, "the words crumble and break. From every generalization you must exclude at least five countries. And just as you think you have nailed down a certainty, a defining characteristic, you find the opposite is true in other places. Africa is full of surprises."

That, perhaps, is the only generalisation it is safe to make.


Colin Murphy is a journalist in Dublin. His website is www.colinmurphy.info.

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