Projects Without Development

Guest Post by Erin Pettigrew (PhD Candidate, Stanford University)

       Naked Palm Trees and Other Failed Development Projects in Senegal

La Pointe des Almadies is Dakar’s wealthiest neighborhood and it teems with expat NGO workers and the palaces of government officials. Recently, the construction of an immense statue, “The African Renaissance Monument”, a 27 million dollar project commissioned by Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, has transformed the neighborhood’s landscape. The imposing bronze figure of a muscled man, one arm protectively wrapped around a woman, the other triumphantly holding up his infant child, sits atop a hill overlooking the city.

Source: Wikipedia

The statue and Wade’s current projects for the construction of the “Seven Wonders of Dakar” (a section of the capital which will include a  new National Theater, Museum of Black Civilization, National Library; the School of Fine Arts and the School of Architecture and Music Palace) are seen as wastes of government money spent to satiate the President’s desire for a legacy rivaling Senghor or even the grand public projects of France under past presidents Chirac and Mitterand.  Growing discontent with Wade’s attempts to stay in power past the current two-term limit and with what is perceived to be his inability to ensure reliable infrastructure to his country’s population has culminated at times with criticism of “The African Renaissance Monument”.

Most of Dakar’s neighborhoods experience daily power outages and terrible traffic due to poorly maintained and inadequate roads. However, Wade has somehow scraped together enough money to build bronze statues and to build a second national theater to replace the centrally-located and historical Théâtre Daniel Sorano in downtown Dakar.

I am not an expert in development. I am a historian whose interest in West Africa began as a Peace Corps Volunteer in neighboring Mauritania but I have found myself progressively less optimistic about prospects for change in the daily lives of most West Africans I know. On a recent research trip to the northern Senegalese city of Saint-Louis, I was struck with how much more run-down the city seemed to me than it had my first time there in 2003. While Saint-Louis can be picturesque from afar, with its 350 year-old colonial facades built on its central island, the reality is that its infrastructure is disintegrating.

A government building in Saint-Louis (picture by Erin)

Despite the presence of NGOs (visible by the many white SUVs and walled compounds marked by their painted slogans of “Espoir” and “Aide”), it’s hard to see signs of successful projects.  As I walked through the city, I couldn’t help but notice numerous failed plans. I passed dead trees protected by reed fencing where someone had thought plantings along the streets of a popular neighborhood would be a good idea. Talibés (students, or little boys sent out to beg for money and food by some unscrupulous marabouts) are an ever-present part of Saint-Louis streets despite heavy investment by NGOs to provide the boys with reliable food and housing. The shores of the city are lined with old tires, plastic bags, and fish remains.

As I looked in at a dark closet where thousands of colonial documents sit waiting to be organized and made accessible to the public, the regional archivist also told me that plans to build a much needed space to securely house the country’s archives had been shelved years ago in favor of the construction of the Piscine Olympique, Dakar’s largest swimming pool.

Riding in a crowded bush taxi and hitting the crawl of traffic on the way back to Dakar, I couldn’t help but wonder what prevents these initial investments in tree plantings, child welfare protection and road construction from being maintained. From this perspective, much of the failure of such development projects seems to be explained by a lack of investment in the maintenance of current projects.  Perhaps this can be explained by the framework of funding and the reluctance on the part of donors to provide for anything other than new projects. (After all, it’s much more exciting to say that Dakar will benefit from a new, state-of-the-art performance space than the rehabilitation of its old theater space.) Or maybe funding agencies and donors find it difficult to collaborate on projects such that one agency might undertake an initial trash clean-up while another would ensure that a second clean-up is planned a month later.

Possibly there is also a lack of coordination between funding agencies and local governments who, once the preliminary heavy investment has been made by development agencies, could then continue the programs with less funding but with longer term results. Projects initiated by African governments also need to consist of more than an initial flood of money but should also include funding to be set aside for the continued and regular maintenance of such projects so that they remain relevant and useful.

Dakar (picture by Erin)

To emphasize this point and to return to my original starting point of La Pointe des Almadies, one only need to look at the pathetically barren palm tree trunks lining Dakar’s prettiest drive from downtown to the “Renaissance” statue that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.  Abdoulaye Wade requested the planting of hundreds of palm trees along this drive to welcome delegates of the Organization of the Islamic Conference who met in Dakar in 2008. Now, three years later, the majority of these tress are simply reminders of another failed project. Inadequately or never maintained, the trunks stick out of the ground, their tops bare and exposed, they stand isolated and quivering no longer serving a purpose.

I’m sure they looked beautiful in the first weeks they were planted but have become symbols of the emptiness of similar endeavors. I know that there are successfully sustained projects out there but it’s difficult not to feel disheartened by the many visibly failing projects aimed to satisfy a short-term goal or donor stipulations rather than the actual needs of a struggling population.

Erin Pettigrew is currently conducting dissertation research in Senegal and Mauritania.

getting out of my league…

The other day a friend ambushed me with a somewhat interesting question. Presenting me with two options – Negritude or Fanonian “New Africanism” – he asked me to pick one that best describes my view of how the process of societal change should pan out on the Continent. I usually don’t like caging myself with labels but on this occasion I decided to put myself in the Fanon camp. My objections to Negritude, at least as formulated by Senghor and Cesaire, are best captured by the following quote from Bodunrin:

A way of life which made it possible for our ancestors to be subjugated by a handful of Europeans cannot be described as totally glorious.”

My sympathies towards Fanonian arguments derive from Fanon’s idea of the creation of a new society in the post-colonial period. Realizing the traumatic impact that colonization had on the African psyche, Fanon advocated for a renewal that did not hearken to the African past – unlike Senghor and Cesaire – for two reasons:

Firstly, in the post-contact period there was virtually no way of defining this pure and glorious African past that proponents of Negritude were beholden to. The African and his past had come to be defined in relation to and in juxtaposition to the European colonizer. Africa was essentialized as anti-Europe. Indeed even people like Senghor and Cesaire had come to learn of this past through the European lens – in the racialist works in anthropology and German-inspired pseudo-sciences of the time.

Secondly, the post-colonial state faced a new challenge of creating a nation-state composed of different ethnic groups with different histories and world-views (which particular African cultural identity did Negritude have in mind? Hausa, Zulu, Bemba, Kamba, Dinka….???). Fanon understood that the creation of strong and functional nation-states was critical to the realization of the fruits of independence. This he contrasted with the risk of decline into tribal quasi-states if sub-national forces gained prominence – as sadly came to pass. Notice that Fanon did not advocate for the eradication of tribal or ethnic identities. All he advocated for was the internalization of the fact that allegiance to the state should dominate any allegiance to sub-national identities. The Fanonian view allowed particular African cultural practices to flourish, but only to the extent that they did not threaten the state. In other words, the object of the state was not to advance any particular worldview, African or not.

Additionally, implicit in Negritude was the rather hollow notion of African epistemological exceptionalism (that whole thing about passion and reason. See Cesaire’s work on this) – a factor that, according to Fanon, would have only served to alleniate the African from the global community. Also, Negritude taken to its logical conclusion was racist in the sense that it sought to prove that the African (from pre-contact era) was more virtuous than the brutal European colonizer. Fanon did not want to continue living in the native-colonizer dialectic paradigm.

That is how I read Fanon on the subject of post-colonial nation-building. His provocative views on the virtues of violence and the psychology of being Black in the post-contact paradigm are not relevant to the arguments advanced here. Just to be clear, below is a sketch of why I think Fanon and not Senghor or Cesaire had the right idea.

I am passionate about economic development. I believe that all humans, regardless of culture, should be provided with opportunities and allowed to make autonomous choices about their individual destinies (roughly in the sense postulated by Amartya Sen). Contextualizing this on the Continent, I am of the view that the provision of public goods like education, healthcare and proper housing etc etc should never be subordinated to backward cultural mores inherited from centuries ago.  I understand that the designation of cultural mores as backward is problematic. However, we can sidestep arguments about this by simply stating that the objective of the state should be to create conditions in which individuals live as long as they can and have the most opportunities as they can in order to realize their potential. Any practices or worldview that go against this simple requirement, in my opinion, can be termed backward.

In other words, our objective should not be to abolish the way of life of the Luo, Kikuyu, Zulu, Hausa, Ashanti etc or espouse any of them as superior. Instead, our objective should be to educate sons and daughters of the Continent and afterward avail these options to them. Only then can we truly be promoting the best of cultures by allowing all of them to compete in the market place of ideas.

That is my peni nane answer to my friend. And I must admit that I am out of my league here. My dabbling should however remind us that there is a need to provide a logic for the existence of the African state. It just might be the case that the reason we are yet to reach the political kingdom called for by Nkrumah more than fifty years ago is because we never quite described what this kingdom was.

the strange…

For some time now I have been following the absurd story of witchdoctors and ‘traditional’ healers in Tanzania who apparently kill people with albinism with the belief that their body parts can be used for medicinal purposes. No, this is not something that used to happen in the 18th century. It is happening now, in 2009. France 24 ran a story on this a few weeks ago. The BBC is reporting that the Tanzanian government has finally decided to do something about the killings – perhaps because of the increased international attention. But their solution is almost as strange as the killings themselves.

They are asking villagers to have a referendum-like affair in which they will ‘vote’ indicating who they suspect to be linked to the murder of albinos. Now I am no anthropologist or sociologist but what kind of law enforcement is this? First of all, the government should be ashamed that it did not sniff this out early enough. This is also a sign of a total failure of social education in Tanzania. These witchdoctors and ‘traditional’ healers, anthropologists and socialists will love this, ought to be required to get licenses and should be constantly monitored by the government to guarantee best practice – if that is ever possible (In my world they should be completely outlawed). No country in the 21st century should be tolerating such crazy things. And about the killers, they are common criminals who should be arrested and treated as such by law enforcement.

This story also raises the question of culture and tradition in Africa. As I have stated here before, I am no fan of blind traditionalism – a la Negritude. I think that for far too long we have continued to conflate culture and tradition with poverty and ignorance. Having witchdoctors is not traditional. Witchdoctors do the things they do because they do not have laboratories or the knowledge to package their herbs in more efficiently delivered capsules. They are not necessarily alternatives to hospitals as some apologists would have us believe.

And there is absolutely nothing fun about living a ‘traditional life’ as is often described by anthropologists. The “original affluent society”, as they call it, had a life-spun of 30 years and had a reciprocity-based economy that could only support a few dozen people. This will not work in a 40 million man society. Let us stop pretending, there are a lot of traditional practices all across the continent that belong in the dustbin of history. If we continue to bury our heads in the sand, occasionally the volcano will boil over and embarrassing stories like the Tanzania albino story will make it to the headlines of major news sources.