Things that will not work – or will they?

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The state is where the stuff is and theft is the only way to get it

On the subject of Africa, the world seems intrigued by the question whether ‘it’ will ever work. ‘It’ can be the economy, or the production, or the output from the various professions, but in most of the debates ‘it’ is the state. The state has to provide education and health care and such things, or police and justice protection for the raped women of the Congo. As the raped women of the Congo, the people without health care and the suffering matriculants of South Africa will testify, the state in Africa rarely does that properly, if at all.

Everybody already knows the answer to the question whether ‘it’ works (that’s a no), but somehow many, especially in the development aid business, are keeping their hopes up that they can help make it work. If only people were more aware of their rights, or maybe if we attach still more good governance criteria to development aid, or, you know what, let’s just do all these things that the African states do not do all by ourselves. Hence training and health projects, and community rape counselling projects.

These things are nice for those in Africa who get project stuff, of course. It’s still no justice, or a proper future in society, but, hey, at least you got vaccinated or they made a booklet from the workshop where you spoke about how you were raped. Of course you still see the governing elite driving around in Mercedeses, eating development aid pie in infinitely bigger chunks than you ever will, and being utterly useless, and the police are still drunk and in cahoots with the criminals and rapists, but that is that, then. Useless fat governing elites is what Africa is all about after all, and since they are so utterly useless, all of us, taxpayers in north and south will just have to continue to help them get fatter. In Uganda, a health reporter wrote, there was ‘fat aids’ and ‘thin aids’. You had Fat Aids if you were employed or subsidized by development aid in the field of Aids, and Thin Aids if you actually had Aids and were left to your own devices. There were more people with thin aids than with fat aids.

An article by Johny Steinberg in some time in Octobers’ Sunday Times illustrates what the state and the governing elite in Liberia is all about. It’s where most of the stuff is -ever Liberian, no matter how poor or illiterate, knows that. The villagers in the village where Steinberg spent some time, knew that. When Steinberg asked them why a son from almost every family in the village had joined the murderous hordes of Charles Taylor, when the latter waged his war on the then ruling elite, the answer was simple. They were going to the capital, Monrovia, to get some stuff. To go with Taylor was the way to get barbed wire, tools, a sugarcane press -which was what the villages’ sons duly brought back. All of it is rusted by now.

Stuff hoarded by some people in the capital. To Steinberg’s Liberian villagers, that was, and probably is, all the state was. In the absence of health, education, justice, infrastructure, communication, some sort of sense to the organisation of the country, the state is a place where some people sit with all the stuff. And all you can hope for is to get some, too.

This view of the state is most probably shared by many citizens in Africa, even in the continent’s most developed country: South Africa. What else is the current South African run on state contracts, state jobs, state projects, than a race to ‘get some’ too? You can wait to get a decent clinic, a proper school, a policeman who actually defends you from criminals, but are you really going to do that when, in all likelihood, that is going to be a very long wait? ‘Every day I get phone calls from relatives and friends of relatives. I must give them jobs’, says a friend of mine, a manager in the SA Post Office. “A job or a contract. It’s what I must do if I am a good sister, a good aunt. I try to explain that that would be corruption, but they just don’t understand that. To them, they must get something because they have nothing and I am the only way they can get it.”

The Forum for African Investigative Reporters, which I work for, has recently done an investigation into criminally driven development in Africa. FAIR has found economic activity and even schools being built (and sometimes run) by pirates, smugglers, corrupt local strongmen and prostitutes. If you compare amounts of money with developmental results, criminal or extra-legal syndicates seem to do a lot better than most states. The question would be why that is.

My non-scientific gut feel would be that it is because, at least, criminality is something that people come up with by themselves. Many observers have remarked on the originality and creativity of criminal plans worldwide, whether it’s applied to 419 type scams or ATM plunder. I imagine that you think long and hard about what you can do with your skills, your environment, your fellow perpetrators and your hapless targets, if you are a criminal. That attitude, coming up with a  ‘business plan’ so to speak, and carrying it out, must be very different from being an employee in a state machinery that you no more own than I own the English sweepstakes.

Of course the lack of a ‘business drive’ goes for civil servants everywhere. Images of thumb-twiddling civil servants who don’t care about the public are of all times and places. But I believe that the situation is worse in Africa, because state machineries there are even more alien to the average citizen than they are just about anywhere else. “This is a machine that the whites put on us after they stole our computers”, says my friend, Prudence Mbewu, the ZAM columnist.

Prudence Mbewu once wrote this sentence in a column (in another publication), only to see it  deleted from the final article when it was published. An intelligent editor had caught the ‘mistake’ Mbewu had made. Of course Africans never had computers before the whites came. Silly Prudence! Luckily she had him to protect her from embarrassing herself, or so he must have thought.

It never occurred to this editor, whose name shall remain a secret, that Prudence Mbewu had not meant it literally. She had merely meant to say that colonialism had disturbed the clock, the chronology, of Africa’s organic development. What would Africa be if whites had never come? Would Africans have developed TV, Facebook, protein shakes and Richard Branson? Would they have come up with different things? We will never know. We only know that the whites did come, that they came with steel and gunpowder and governance, and that that is that. A strange machine was placed over what was essentially a rural context, and most Africans were excluded from it until a few dozen years ago. (Interestingly, in his new book, Dennis Goldberg refers to a remark made by none other than Nelson Mandela about this phenomenon, in 1964, during the Rivonia trial. I don’t have the book with me, so I paraphrase from memory:  ‘Don’t think you can use your marxist concepts here the way you do in Europe’, Goldberg recalls Mandela telling him.  ‘You guys went through hundreds of years of different economic and industrial stages. We had our society and then came colonialism.’)

In the West, states grew organically from what once were agricultural tribes and later regional strongmen who, still later, started defining themselves as ‘nobles’. Nobles became regents and regents became party leaders. Industrialisation came, then parliamentary democracy, and the modern state. It took some time, all of it happened where the Netherlands are now, and most of it was done by fellow Dutch people. To a child grown up in the Netherlands, you can explain that there is some kind of logic to what is now the government. That you had William I, II, III, then Queen Wilhelmina, then evil conquerors (Nazis), then our heroic resistance (we like to leave out the less heroic parts), then our democracy. We feel good about all that. Or at least we feel that we have a place, a meaning, a kind of joint project going on, to which -even if we all have different viewpoints and heated arguments between ourselves- we all contribute.

To Liberians, however, the state is the current administrators in Monrovia who sit with all the stuff. And judging by what my friend the post office manager says, even the current administrators in Pretoria think of themselves as simply lucky in that way, and try to get some for their friends.

And are they mistaken to see it it in that way? Maybe not as much as we would like. Maybe they see what so many well-meaning development helpers don’t see: that it’s impossible to make the state machinery here work in the way they would so desire, that is, just like in the West.

Let’s look at the state machines in Africa. It was ‘given to us without a manual’, again, in the words of my friend Prudence Mbewu, but that is not all. It also has to work in circumstances that it was never even designed for. This is a machine that (because of pressure from donors who are concerned about the environment) reserves large tracts of land for nature reserves, so that farmers can’t farm there. There are large numbers of farming ‘squatters’ in nature reserves in Ivory Coast. These farmers are seen as ‘problems’ rather than agricultural entrepreneurs who are developing the country.

This observation goes some way to answering the question why successful entrepreneurs in Africa seem to operate largely outside state frameworks, i.e. extralegally or illegally. The state structures simply do not encourage people to start doing their own thing and make a living. Some countries tax farmers so heavily (with the tax going into the pockets of the governing elite) that many of them now rather grow the illegal marihuana (at least this can be sold outside state frameworks) than the traditional crops. Under pressure of donors, the state in Mozambique prohibited the use of DDT,  with as a result tens of thousands more deaths from malaria (Just as a comparison: Holland is too cold for mosquitoes, and we did use plenty DDT when we needed it). African states pay lip service to modern ideas about child labour, in countries where entire families only stay alive because every family member of whatever age works. African states are complex, unwieldy burocracies, totally unsuited to serve people in their particular context. This is a machinery that often just stands in people’s way. It’s a machine that jars and grinds everywhere.

How surprising is it that such a machine is often not properly used?

This is the question I would like answers to from the development aid bobo’s, the IMF and World Bank people and all others involved in ‘promoting good governance’ in Africa. How does one adapt an alien, unwieldy and cumbersome machine so that it can work here? How do we not only get the driving and management skills, but get the alignment right between what needs to be delivered (health, education, etc etc) and the system that is supposed to deliver it?

Supporting professionals and entrepreneurs, professional associations and quality practice at grassroots level (not from two-men-and-a-computer-type NGO’s, but real people doing real work) would probably in the long run work better than continuing to prop up state structures that don’t work. In the process, state structures and functions that are needed to serve these grassroots activities, will become clearer defined. Then these functions, rather than looters on top, can be supported.In the process, maybe a pirate or two will abandon their plundering game and become active in ‘normal’ businesses that can accompany these processes.

Supporting investigative journalism in local African media, with a view to the information needs of African audiences and not only to NGO hobby horse subjects that change all the time (today its environment, tomorrow its gender, last week it was education), would also help.

But there I go talking about FAIR again.

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