africa still remains the land of disease, not investment

I am a fan of Business Week magazine. I like the magazine’s short but informative pieces on the state of the world’s economy, especially in these harsh economic times. However, being an ardent Africanist, I am often disappointed by how little coverage there is of the Continent in the magazine. This week’s piece had articles mostly from the US, Europe and Asia – with a few mentions of Latin America, notably Brazil. Africa was nowhere to be seen in terms of investment or economic performance. And this is not just the case with BW. Africa is still largely irrelevant when it comes to global economics – irrelevant in the sense that, with the exception of South Africa, it remains a passive player, being a mere source of raw materials for other regions of the world.

I wonder if anyone in the Continent’s state houses reads any of these international publications. I wonder how many of them look at The Economist’s Middle East and Africa section and hit their heads against the wall thereafter. May be they do, but just don’t give a rat’s behind or don’t know how to begin tackling their nations’ many problems. These are the same clowns who oftentimes complain about the Continent’s negative press. While I agree with them to a point, I think most of the negative press that the Continent gets is well deserved. It is true that way too many African children die before they are five. It is true that most of Africa is still in the 16th century. It is also true that most African leaders are visionless kleptocrats. And most importantly, it is true that Africa remains poor and, objectively speaking, backward not because of her people’s shortcomings but because of poor leadership. Where there is good leadership – like in Botswana and more recently in Mozambique and Tanzanaia – we have seen good things happen.

The Continent has to stop being a spectator in global politico-economic issues. But this will only happen if its leaders take their jobs more seriously. Less sleaze and arbitrary government will definitely help.

South Africa’s liberal streak…

South Africa is the only country in Africa (and one of only five in the world) to legalize gay marriage – It did so in November of 2006. And now if some progressive politicians have it their way prostitution will become legal too in the country. The advocates of the move are arguing that if the oldest profession is made legal in South Africa, it will enable the government to regulate it, tax it and curb the spread of HIV/AIDS through better provision of health services and sex-ed to the commercial sex workers. On the other side of the argument are those concerned with morals and the effect this may have on South African family values.

I must say I am impressed by the boldness of those advocating for legalization of prostitution in South Africa. The country has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world – perhaps an indicator of a thriving albeit life-sucking sex industry – and it would make sense for the government to be able to provide healthcare to registered sex workers. The Mbeki administration was grossly incompetent in addressing South Africa’s AIDS problem. It is my hope that the Zuma administration will steer clear of Mbeki’s bizarre AIDS policies, and what better way to start than by making sure that sex workers are not spreading the disease.

As for those concerned with morals, the high HIV infection rates in South Africa should be a wake up call. Yes we should preach abstinence as the ideal and try as much as possible to instill proper family values in young men and women. But at the same time we should acknowledge the simple truth that people will always have sex, period. Pretending otherwise will only lead to more deaths, more orphans, lost productivity and a whole lot of misery for those left behind.

explaining the silence…

To my dear readers,

Many apologies for my silence over the last few days. Yours truly was a senior this year and graduation festivities took up all my time. That explains why I haven’t blogged in quite some time. Expect to hear a lot from me this summer. I will be in my home town Nairobi working with Pact-Kenya. After that I head out West (of the US) to Palo Alto for grad school at Stanford. Total excitement!

On a different note, have you heard of clowns without borders? When I first heard about them I thought Blattman was just clowning but a few links later found out that this was an actual NGO-type group. I don’t know what I think about their work though. I feel like people in troubled areas do not need this kind of cheering up. They need help out of their situation. A few tickles, worth thousands of dollars (the last time I heard these clowns had flown all the way to Haiti), will only distract them from their troubles for a few minutes. To me this group seems like a travel club desperate to justify its existence.

some good news for Zimbabwe

The BBC reports that the World Bank has decided to resume aid to Zimbabwe – the Bank has not lent the cash-strapped African country any money since 2000. Sad though is the fact that most of the money will probably go to clearance of Zim’s arrears to the WB and the African Development Bank (Zimbabwe owes $1 b). But the WB director, Toga Gayewea McIntosh, who is in charge of the group of African countries that include Zimbabwe promised that more grants will follow soon.

According to the Finance Ministry, Zimbabwe needs $8.3 billion for full recovery to be achieved any time soon after years of ruinous economic policies under the strongman Robert Mugabe.

obama is coming to Africa

US President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Accra, Ghana in July of this year. Mr. Obama will hold talks with his Ghanaian host Mr. Atta Mills, the President of Ghana. Accompanying Mr. Obama will be his wife Michelle. This will be the Obama’s first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa since Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan, was elected president of the United States.

It is my hope that besides the expected fanfare that will greet the Obama’s in Accra there will be a sober discussion of the problems afflicting millions of Sub-Saharan Africans – from poverty, to aids, to conflicts to poor governance. I hope that the US president will be as candid as is diplomatically permissible in telling African leaders to style up and realize that the region will continue to remain the global backwater if they do not stop their kleptocratic ways.

I also hope that the president will talk frankly about US commitment to improving living conditions in Africa by allowing for more free trade between the Continent and America (and please do something about the farm subsidies that are killing Global South farmers, Mr. President). President Obama will also most certainly continue former president Bush’s generosity to Africa in tackling AIDS, TB and Malaria through PEPFAR – although minus Mr. Bush’s crazy (religious??) objection to the use of contraceptives in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

I dare say in advance, Akwaba Mr. and Mrs. Obama.

still waiting for Zuma’s foreign policy agenda….

South African President, Jacob Zuma, appointed his cabinet with no surprises. The question on most people’s minds was whether he was going to retain Trevor Manuel, the man who has been South Africa’s finance minister for over a decade, in the same post. As things turned out he moved Mr. Manuel to the national economic planning commission and gave a nod to former taxman Pravin Gordhan to head the finance ministry. Zuma’s cabinet appointments were largely tame, with the main complaints being that the cabinet was too big. The appointments showed that Mr. Zuma is not going to be the crazy populist that many had feared leading up to his election. It looks like he is going to take a measured approach to solving South Africa’s economic and social problems as the country wades through an economic recession.

So much for his domestic agenda. Now let us hear about Zuma’s foreign policy, in particular what he has to say about governance in Africa. Zimbabwe, The DRC, Somalia, Sudan and Chad are all problems that require the attention of the most powerful man on the Continent. President Zuma should not allow the Libyan clown, Muamar Gadaffi, to be Africa’s spokesperson. He may be tainted domestically but his ANC credentials can still take him a long way on Continental matters. The sooner he establishes a presence on the Continental stage the better.

giving a voice to the voiceless

The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof has a piece on the plight of women in rural Africa. The story is as heartwrenching as it is evocative. Nearly one in ten women die during childbirth in rural Africa. Getting pregnant is almost a death sentence for these women. Poor nutrition, poverty (which forces pregnant women to engage in hard labor that further endanger their lives) and regressive cultural practices – like genital mutilation – make childbearing a most dangerous activity.

A while back I wrote a piece on this same issue with figures from IRIN. I am glad and encouraged that Kristof is shining an infinitely bigger spotlight on this issue. The world needs to know more about the voiceless poor in rural Africa and the rest of the Global South who are condemned to live short and brutish lives dictated by their dire economic situations and formidable structural factors (poor governance, gender bias, dependency etc etc) that forever condemn them to live like it is still 20,000 BC.

As Kristof notes in his piece, it does not take much to make a difference. Four dollars can save a woman’s life. But such measures should be seen as band aid. The real cure for the healthcare mess that persists in rural Africa is education of women (and men). Statistics have proven again and again that educated women have fewer, healthier children. Education also serves to delay the onset of childbearing, therefore avoding the dangers associated with teenage motherhood.

The right to life is the most sacred human right. The poor women of the Global South deserve better than they are getting from both their governments and the international community at large.

the summer volunteer season is here again…

It is summer time and that means that thousands of American college students have their eyes set on trips to random third world countries as summer volunteers. They will work in all manner of projects: eye clinics (I did this once – at Enyiresi Hospital in Ghana – and loved it), rural communities empowerment programs, micro-finance etc etc. Some will do it for the cultural experience, some merely to pad their resumes and some because they actually care about the plight of the poor in the world.

Whatever their motivations, these college students will have some impact on the lives of the poor people that they will be spending the next three months helping. Having participated in a summer project myself, I am reminded of the positives (and negatives) of such undertakings. Such volunteers help save lives – through immunization programs or teaching people on preventative healthcare methods or giving out material aid. They also help broaden the horizon of the villagers they work with, making them know about worlds far away from wherever these people live.

But there is a flip-side. First of all, such ad hoc summer projects are not sustainable and because of that may create dependency and an over-reliance on future summer volunteers. Second, having volunteers parachute in as “saviors from the West” only usurps the agency of locals and helps reproduce the notion that the poor of the world cannot help themselves.

Either way, I think the whole summer volunteer thing has more positives than negatives. It gives students and the people they visit and work with a chance to experience different cultures and perspectives on issues. Through these interactions some volunteers get touched and decide to be involved in the development business or go back home to influence government policy with regard to development assistance. And most importantly, some villagers at the end of it all may feel challenged and/or empowered to make a difference in their own lives instead of waiting for the next summer’s volunteers.

Somalis need some attention too

Somalia still remains a country without a government. Many Somalis still die violent deaths in the streets of Mogadishu and out in the countryside away from the press. Millions of Somali children are still forced to grow up in a country that offers them no future. And the international community still does not give a rat’s behind about Somalia.

Of all the conflicts in Africa, Somalia has attracted the least international attention. Almost anybody who regularly watches or reads news knows about Darfur. Quite a good number know about the wars in central Africa – and are doing or trying to do something to stop them. All this while Somalia remains neglected. There are no organizations (like is the case with Darfur) pressuring law makers in countries that have the power to stop the conflict in Somalia and restore proper government. Even the United Nations, which has sent peacekeepers to the DRC, Sierra Leone, Darfur, and just about everywhere else in need of the blue helmets, has maintained a healthy distance from Somalia.

Just for the record, Somalia’s lack of international attention may have been a self-inflicted wound – many people were disgusted by the 1993 debacle involving the murder of American troops. But will all due respect to those who lost their lives in Mogadishu, 1993 should not be a reason to not intervene in Somalia. Intervening with a sizeable force is the right thing to do. Piecemeal interventions – like is being done by Uganda – or self-interested invasions – like Ethiopia did a few months back – will not make the situation any better. If the international community does not act soon, the problem will spread into the wider region. The current problem with pirates and terrorists may just be the beginning.

Somalia fell apart because of poor leadership. There is nothing peculiarly wrong with the Somali people or their culture. I say it is time the world realized that Somalis are people too and that they need to be rescued from the warlords who continue to kill with impunity.