Friday, January 13, 2017

"So, What is the Real Africa Like?"

As predicted in the previous post, the author's time in Japan cannot possibly pass without having to answer some questions about Africa.  The questions are really as general as the title of this post suggests, and the inquiry usually comes with unusual solemnity incompatible with the rowdiness of restaurants filled with drunken salarymen.  A deep breath needs to be taken before an answer is given.  The inquirer is expecting some serious details, and with so much seen in Africa, it is difficult to select for which details that will most interest the inquirers within their short attention spans.

First, what not to talk about.  Yes, there are plenty of majestic animals roaming around the continent's many National Parks, and yes, plenty of foreigners go there, spend big money, and ogle those majestic animals, but talking about how amazing giraffes and elephants are in the wild add literally no value to the inquirers' comprehension of what Africa really is.  The African people, as much as some stereotypes mean point out otherwise, do not actually live next to those wild animals.  And just because they live next to National Parks does not mean many have ever been there.  Safaris are a foreign-currency earner, not part of African culture.

Also not productive is anything that goes directly in line with preset stereotypes about the poverty of the average African rural resident.  Certainly, there is no denying in that those UNICEF donation posters featuring half-starving black kids in broken rags for clothing are in fact based on reality, but there really is no point elaborating on that point.  Everyone already knows that life is difficult for the average African farmer, so there is really no point reemphasizing how they are short on food, money, or basic public services that enable themselves and their children to reach maximum economic potential.

What is more interesting to elaborate upon, instead, is the devious economic incentives that allow such poverty to persist in villages.  People out here often do not realize just how richly endowed the African continent is with various incredibly valuable, highly demanded resources, and because of such, there are plenty of money sloshing around the communities despite visual observations otherwise.  Government officials can afford and do live in nice houses, drive around in nice cars, and devote millions in budget to complete white elephant projects that do not directly benefit the majority.

What people have hard time understanding is simply why the enormous wealth does not trickle down to the individual level, leaving small farmers devoid of any reasonable government support and having to beg for help from foreign NGOs year after year, decade after decade.  The narrative needs to be about the irresponsibility of local governments escaping their duty to serve the people, often by citing how foreigners must take the lead to right their past colonial wrongs.  Brainwashing the citizenry with such belief allows the government to take credit for foreigners' works while blaming foreigners for developmental failures.

And of course, one must not forget the need to talk about the real failures of the foreigners themselves.  Their "saviors' complex," as expressed by the desire to help the local people themselves, without putting sufficient energy to create sustainable economic opportunities that can be harnessed by the locals themselves that does not involve any foreign human or financial capital, only leads to permanent dependency of the local economy on foreigners' presence.  Normal business activities are curtailed and disincentivized by the availability of cheap products, cheap knowledge/skills, and cheap loans provided by foreigners.

Because of such realities on the ground, it simply makes little economic sense for the local people to develop themselves, especially when it comes to brainstorming potential ways that they can achieve economic independence free from foreign influence.  Availability of cheap capital has reinforced an already deeply ingrained culture of "just-in-time" earning and spending.  The need for individual financial management becomes a moot point when one can simply beg harder for more help, more money, and more support.  Whatever vestige of a culture of self-reliance quickly dies in the process.

It has been next to impossible to explain these underlying socioeconomic forces at work to an audience that has never encountered such useless governments, such economically dominant NGOs, and such "illogical" consumers.  Even with real examples and stories, it all just does not add up in their minds, and the whole interaction makes very little sense.  The author needs to apologize to all those who live and work in Africa that he cannot speak about this topic as well as he can concisely summarize it here in writing.  So much is lost in translation, and often many points just end up backing up oversimplified negative stereotypes.

But at the very least, he hopes his audience, among laughters of ridicule and sorrows of empathy, can remember that Africa is not impoverished because of the people's laziness, the continent's lack of resources, or lack of systemic efforts for development.  Instead, a toxic combination of political inactivity, economic incentives, and slow-to-change social customs together inhibit the economy to take off in ways that was never a problem in developing Asia.  The real Africa, outside what nature endowed with it, is often not a beautiful place, but to put the blame squarely on the people as stereotypes would have it, is about as problematic as any narratives about Africa can be.

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