The African and his Dangerous Loins
May 11, 2005 4 Comments
The piece below was published in the East African in the Fall of 2004. It is about a London conference that featured all the hypocrisies that I have been ranting about for the past week. It will be followed by a return to the The Matrix Redux: The African Version – stuff that is a bit lighter once this rant on donors and the aid-consuming elites leaves me, to return soon no doubt.
You’ve been hoodwinked. You’ve been had. You’ve been took. You’ve been led astray, run amuck. You’ve been bamboozled. — Malcolm X
African loins are dangerous to their owners and to society at large, especially when they pair up. At a late 2004 UN conference on reproductive health held in London – with the ominous sounding title of Countdown 2015 – African sex came under the spotlight for its almost unmitigated dangers. Speakers held forth on its unfortunate tendency to transmit lethal infections and failing that, to result in numerous babies who, contrary to popular belief, are actually destructive beings that impoverish their parents and undermine national economic aspirations. Countdown 2015 ended with the unanimous recommendation that Africans should make capacity building efforts empowering them to sheath their weapons of mass destruction in latex. Outrage was expressed that while facing the twin dangers of disease and babies, Africans are faced with the disadvantages dealt them by a destructive colonial legacy and the continuing neo-colonial attentions of the West. It was thus confusing in the extreme when this august body of scholars, reproductive health professionals and officials from African governments and NGOs concluded that Africans had a right to free condoms and healthcare paid for by those same Western nations.
The overarching goal of the conference was how to provide free sexual healthcare to the world’s poor by 2015. Its various motions lived up to the worst stereotypes of NGO-speak: impenetrable, pedantic and cursed with a hopeless idealism. Participants argued that unless all women and men have access to free contraception of their choice, it would be impossible for hunger, war and pestilence to be eliminated in Africa. The pressure civil society, which many attendees claimed to belong to, exerted on local governments and donors would result in funding being made available for contraceptives that would then be delivered by NGOs. The small talk back at the delegates’ $300 per night hotels was all about empowerment and the possibility of getting invited to the next conference at some exotic locale. Uplifting stories of poor folks’ ability to cope with privation were shared by our learned friends who spoke in hushed tones accompanied by furious little nods acknowledging the dignity of ‘the people’. I wondered whether the irony-free demand that rich nations were obligated to pay for the care of poor Africans was made in cruel jest or was evidence of an astonishing naivety. It also made me curious about the wider role that donors and NGOs and the so-called civil society play in Kenya.
Most of those attending the conference were united in the opinion that the industrialized West has an obligation to provide contraception and health for the African poor. In numerous speeches, the recipients of this aid were tagged as partners or even clients – in the case of NGO service provision – but there was little doubt that they exist downstream from the expertise and the money. They were relegated to a helpless, but dignified victim-hood beyond their ability to relieve save when their capacity receives attention from the NGO-donor crowd. So it was that speaker after speaker asserted the right to free condoms to be as fundamental as that of free speech.
Of course the glaring difference between the two is that while you can fight your government for the license to vote or speak your mind, you cannot marshal much of an argument if faraway governments do not safeguard your loins. Can Africans really enjoy rights based on Western charity? Is it possible that donor states are generous enough to provide free health and contraception to billions outside their boundaries? Common sense would provide answers that are resoundingly negative. But such conferences are not exercises in common sense, they are attempts to de-politicize African poverty so that it can be managed by a section of the upper class sustained on donor patronage and with no popular mandate.
It calls itself civil society. Even when it employs political language, for instance in railing against what it asserts is neo-colonialism or the devastating legacy of colonialism, the higher aim is to engender guilt in the liberal West and ensure the continued flow of donor money. Sections of this civil society – many who were present at Countdown 2015 – periodically make headlines for holding lively demonstrations against multinationals, regarding them to be at the forefront of a homogenizing globalization of capital and Anglo-American culture. The language employed is that of a class war whose European frontlines have since been abandoned by its originators – the revolutionary left. The paradoxical result is that NGOs funded by pro-globalization agencies such as USAID and DFID end up lauding poor Africans for being the ‘resistors’ of an ‘evil’ capitalism. Some are clever enough to spot the irony in this arrangement and usually extol themselves for being transgressive: ‘we take their money and then work against them…’ being a typical argument. One of the major reasons for these tortured exercise, which I will return to later, is the need to argue the need for social welfare programs. By identifying the source of the deepest structural problems to be Western, and thus making the case for where responsibility lies, they ensure that monies to apply band-aids will be available. Concurrently, they (rightly) assail African governments for lacking the capacity to implement these programs thus opening the path to their taking the lead in administering aid.
Countdown 2015 was billed as a follow up to a similar effort in Cairo a decade ago. Before then, population control was the rage in development circles. Policymakers regarded the birth rate in Africa – rapid compared to that of industrialized nations – as a leading cause of poverty. Kenya, if you will cast your mind back to the 1980s, had the distinction of being the world’s leading baby factory. Aid experts and the organizations they supported locally made strident efforts to communicate the dangers of the birth rate outstripping economic growth, which they concluded would inevitably lead to national destitution. In the two decades prior to the Cairo meeting, a top priority of international development organizations was to drastically slow population growth.
But the connection, whether real or imagined, between such a Malthusian outlook and the policies of countries that pursue forced sterilizations and compulsory abortions to control population growth proved to be a public relations disaster. It required a shift in tack. After Cairo, and prominently so in London a few weeks ago, the old population control ideas have now been repositioned as a human rights issue. This is partly for PR value, but is also an acknowledgement of new possibilities for expanding their domain introduced by the willingness of the donors to now countenance democratization with the fall of the Berlin Wall. When the Cold War was underway – with Moi as a valued client of the West and thus above criticism on his human rights record – NGOs had been forced to steer clear of ‘political’ issues.
In the 1980s, the fight against KANU’s dictatorship democracy was mostly led by clandestine movements like Mwakenya together with a small scattering of individuals and aboveground groups such as the Law Society of Kenya. By the early 1990s, as Western patronage for the regime retreated, the political space available to the opposition broadened. It now stretched beyond covert efforts and developed into a broadbased pro-democracy movement that enjoyed the support of a majority. So much so that the American ambassador, Smith Hempstone, now became a proud member of an opposition that only a few years earlier he would have demanded to be dispersed violently if need be. With this momentous shift, donor money was soon funding the now-familiar civil society programs in democratization, voter education etc.
Considered in hindsight, it would seem that the focus on babies was only incidental just as the present one has little to do with creating a vibrant democracy. The problems addressed by the local development enterprise must accord to donor priorities just as its programs must take the shape of the available funding. Ideally, it keeps its language abreast of political developments to the extent that its aforementioned limitations allow. The more it succeeds in taking the rhetorical lead in solving or framing local problems, the greater the legitimacy won; this is valuable currency in the world of conferences and proposal writing. Possessing radical bona fides helps, especially when earned by stances that are no longer perceived as a threat to donor interests.
If they cannot get their hands on a hero, it suffices to reach for legitimacy with a garbled radicalism characterized by vague leftist terms and positions. Success in this exercise confers a two-fold advantage. First, it sells better to those remnants of the Western left who regularly staff donor agencies. Secondly, it accords the particular NGO or individual a good position from which to challenge the government’s adequacy thus ensuring that donor funds are increasingly directed away from it and to NGOs that are by leaps and bounds taking over the governance of the country.
Kenya’s self-identified civil society, like other sections of the country’s elite, has arrived at its lofty position by being a go-between. Its A-game is to scrap for the right to represent the public to foreign interests and vice versa. The public has problems – big ones, while the foreigners have a guilty conscience to assuage or geo-political goals to achieve by dishing out cash. That is why it is not surprising when civil society’s members join the Cabinet and effortlessly abandon the positions they fought for in the past. To either camp, ordinary Kenyans are the bait that provides a house in Lavington, cocktails in Westlands and air-tickets abroad for these bigwigs.
According to one of the reports handed out by the conference organizers, participants decided on a worldwide program to guide national-level policy making for the next 20 years in all countries that signed up. Given that many African governments have abdicated a substantial part of their mandates to NGOs and donors, after years of being browbeaten and allowed a sense of entitlement to foreign aid, they will surely sign up. Once they do, and with their policies ‘guided’ by external actors, will there be any need for democracy as citizens are relegated to passive charity recipients and not the ultimate guides of national policy?
But it is not only the paternalism evident at the conference that was so objectionable, it was also the poverty of the idea that reducing our birth rate is a necessary step to building a prosperous society. Once in a while, I inadvertently have a conversation with a Western layperson that imagines Africa is overpopulated, and that this is one of the causes of its extreme poverty. Their solution often goes something like this: if you have fewer babies, there will be better schools, a less burdened health system, more food to go around…etc. Save the Children adverts of starving children begging for a Westerner to ‘adopt’ them for $12 per month would then cease according to this view. I was surprised that the learned and supposedly informed health professionals at the conference shared this outlook.
The reason they ignore the growing body of statistical and anecdotal evidence that contradicts Malthusian policies toward the poor is that they must keep up a relentless drumbeat of negativity to keep their programs going. It does not matter that over a dozen studies, including one by Nobel prize-winning economist Simon Kuznets, oppose the overpopulation consensus so evident at the conference. Rarely do findings demonstrating that faster population growth is not associated with slower economic expansion make their way into conference speeches. Africa actually needs more people and a higher population density. For example, Hong Kong, though it has forty times the density of China, has still managed to build a vibrant enough economy to provide a comfortable existence for most of its citizens despite most of them having been dirt poor fifty years ago. This is repeated in all of the Asian Tiger economies. Even the NGO outcry about the growth of slums, brought on by rapid urbanization, rather than being a universal evil has been a crucial factor in the growth of capital and wealth in every industrialized country during the last century.
Limiting the number of babies, or having more capacity building conferences, will not make for more wealth or less misery. The solution lies in stopping government from its perpetual beggardom and from having its policies guided by donors and the civil society NGOs they fund. That the government is the biggest employer, spender and consumer of national resources, while it prostrates itself to the donors, means that its bankruptcy of ideas and lack of sovereign will is communicated to an inordinately large percentage of the social and economic life of the country. At present, this state of affairs faces little opposition. The very rich who it would be thought have an intrinsic interest in limiting the role of government in socio-economic affairs do no such thing despite such oversight usually resulting in higher business taxation and regulation. It is because that 50-year old guy with a Pajero is too often the one who, as part of the political elite, has made money on fraudulent deals in the ministries. Reducing the reach of government would reduce his ‘opportunities’. Thus his sense of relief now that donors are back to providing government with budget support after they had turned to the NGO sector as the preferred deliverer of services during the late 1990s. Alas, this state of affairs had even forced him to ponder dropping the businessman moniker and writing up a proposal to launch a charity. For their part NGOs welcome donor funding, but try and make the argument that government is too corrupt to take a lead in delivering aid.
The fight against corruption has only incidentally to do with its effects to these two groups, rhetoric notwithstanding. It is just another way that civil society haves wage war against the political elite have-mores. Both groups will deliver Kenyans to the bidders, and will continue doing so by fighting turf battles that the public assumes represent their interests – if these are served, it will only be incidentally.
What is not accounted for so far in this essay is the game on the donor side. Are the monies promised for condoms or commissions launched to investigate yet another African crisis motivated solely by liberal guilt or traditional geo-political goals such as that of expanding the donor country’s sphere of influence? Toward what are Kenyans being guided? The briefest answer is thus: to a world where democracy is good only for making limited service choices and the public has scant chance of fundamentally re-orienting its political sphere. Keenly awaited political goals such as most of those included under the human rights banner will, by virtue of the depoliticised approach to them and their spearheading by foreign funded bodies, replace an organic political dispensation with a global one. FGM will be eliminated, women freed from patriarchy and older people from ageism by agents drinking from the same fount, many who do not understand the grand vision that will be realised should their particular campaign reach fruition.
The result will be a legal and moral code that is everywhere similar, one characterised by its contempt and enmity to the political life of the multitude of publics around the world. The only difference between Missouri and Nyanza will in be their menus and traditional dances. Culture will be robbed of its animating power, robbed ultimately of the dynamism arising from difference and expressed as political opposition. An ostensibly neutral body of law which will be nothing but an enthronement of the powers that be will hold politics at bay for it is only in that domain that the public can express its will. But is it so bad to have this project succeed is the obvious challenge to the negative tone of this article. Would not a universal human rights regime and a technocratic management of social welfare be preferable to the deluge of crises that is our lot? Perhaps so, but this vision will never be realised.
We are caught in the march of history without being its beneficiaries. The donor monies from up north will always be too scant to fundamentally solve our poverty-induced problems. Funding will actually shrink with time, as it has been doing since the end of the Cold War. Yet our ability to generate entrepreneurial capital remains stunted by the statist instincts of civil society and the political elites whose hold on the levers of government – or their NGO alternates – are the key to their sustenance. What is being created is a new management system. The old one managed the war against communism. This one must cap the violence that may emanate from disparate and opposed political voices, which could threaten the security of the West – whether via increased illegal immigration or the creation of environments that generate anti-western terrorism. The system should appear to have all the working parts of a democratic polity: government, opposition and civil society. The rhetoric issuing from it will be stridently pro-people, while its proponents will wax lyrical about the universal goals and responsibilities of Humanity; anything to keep you engaged with the donor world and away from thinking or acting parochially, tribally, by sex.
Kenya, and countries like it, will remain in a state of suspension between implosion and sputtering progress, between crippling poverty and an over-taxed, over-managed petty capitalism. Being suspended in this miserly, degenerate state will be an invaluable benchmark for those other parts of the world whose production of capital is increasing rapidly. We shall comfort the despairing in those places for we are incalculably worse off. Our role is to be the other, except not a threatening other thanks to the management system. We will be pitied, provided with charity and used as the backdrop for societies whose nihilism has grown apace with its riches, and that is now in need of moral crusades that will not upset its applecart. We are consigned to be the blackspot that must be stopped from spoiling everyone else’s party and that allows for the modest appeasement of Western conscience.