The new imperialists

2007-11-23 00:00

“Let’s have a test,” chal- lenged a colleague in Rwanda recently, “as to what NGO Landcruiser next arrives in the parking lot.”

It was no joke. The parking lot of any upmarket restaurant in any African capital speaks volumes about the neo-imperial game being played out in Africa.

Four-wheel-drive after four-wheel-drive emblazoned with the logo of some donor agency or children’s charity jostle for space.

The humanitarians are not hard to spot in person either. Usually white, generally loud, they prefer a shabby-chic uniform of T-shirt, jeans and sandals. But they are more powerful and usually less benign than they appear.

Sitting recently in the Café Bourbon in the smart, new shopping precinct of Kigali opened my eyes (and ears) to some of the implications.

“We must just transfer the $8.5 million,” rasped the American working for a prominent NGO.

Such money grants them considerable power and influence. The average Rwandan earns $240 per year. The government’s annual budget is $650 million. Recent events in Chad over alleged orphan smuggling by an NGO illustrate if nothing else the degree of suspicion such relative power produces.

Those sympathetic to the (mostly) young people performing humanitarian roles in Africa argue that they bring much needed skills to deprived Africans. The defence normally adds that they are giving up promising careers and suffering hardship in doing so.

What they don’t emphasise is the less obvious harm they do. Those previously rendering imperial service suffered hardship, disease and violence. There were no emergency medevacs then, no media to dramatise their service and no pop stars to campaign on their behalf.

And even if these forefathers and mothers promoted policies politically distasteful today, they were more accountable than those in this new quasi-colonial service. The imperial agents of old had at least to answer to parliaments and taxpayers, not self-appointed boards of self-important thought-leaders.

But this is not the worst of it. Recently Paris Hilton announced that she was going to be really brave and travel to Rwanda.

“I’m scared, yeah,” she said. “I’ve heard it’s really dangerous. I’ve never been on a trip like this before.”

She was reportedly planning to “leave her mark” — just like many others before her, supposedly helping Africa while helping themselves. Once there she might have considered a visit to the local

Millennium Development Village, an idea to help Africa formulated by Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs. Celebrity airhead might meet celebrity economist.

Explaining what motivated her trip, Hilton said: “There’s so much need in that area, and I feel like if I go, it will bring more attention to what people can do to help.”

If it eventually happens, hopefully the hotel heiress’s visit (now officially rescheduled) will be more successful than the village concept by which Sachs wanted to prove his theory that if you give a small unit enough resources then the inhabitants will prosper, a micro-prototype to the “more aid equals African development” thesis.

The cost of the “services” rendered by such foreigners is, as ever, borne by Africans. Their actions, fundraising techniques and prominence strengthen the perception that Africa is unable to help itself — both inside and, especially given foreign NGO funding requirements, outside the country.

It perpetuates perceptions of helplessness and a victim mentality. At a time when many have realised that African development depends on Africans determining their own policies and making those choices, such actions transfer power and emphasis away from the continent’s decision-makers.

Portraying Africa as an object of pity also ignores the very real progress the continent — now in its fourth straight year of six percent GDP growth — has made in ending conflict and raising living standards. What Africa needs is extraordinary economic growth, not extraordinary pity. That is why eventually Africa will tire of this new generation of imperialists, just as it rejected the last lot.

• Greg Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation.

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