“The State of Africa” – Martin Meredith

27 11 2007

A history of post colonial Africa, this makes for a profoundly depressing read. It is well written and engaging, with plenty of details to bring the sad story home but ultimately is a catalogue of peoples betrayed by their erstwhile leaders or worse whilst the rest of the world at best looks on and is often actively complicit. The corruption, venality, greed, arrogance and vanity of a collection of men which has resulted in suffering on a scale never before imagined does not make for a pleasant read. With countries like the US, France and the Soviet Union backing evil regimes for their own geo-political ends, and Britain, Belgium and Portugal walking away from unstable, unsustainable “nations” cobbled together from disparate tribal, religious and language groups to fit their colonial needs at the time leaves me ashamed and saddened. This is a captivating book that should be read.

Many of the problems in Africa are Africa’s problems which Africans needs to solve for themselves. But they need to be given help in doing so. Not western agencies providing solar panels that no-one knows how to install or use, not school and clinic buildings that no-one without on going funding to pay for staff to work in the buildings. Colossal amounts of aid have been wasted in Africa by donor countries that then refuse to reform trade practises. The US subsidises its cotton industry to the sum of $4billion per year allowing US farmers to dump cotton onto the world market for less than it costs them to produce it – devastating West African farmers. The EU pays each cow in Europe $900 per year, which is more than the average African earns. The list goes on and on. At the same time as creating a heavily protected and subsidised market in agricultural produce, one thing Africa could compete on, the EU and the US are insisting on “trade liberalisation” that will force African countries to allow unfettered access to their markets by western and far eastern services and manufactured goods, killing any fledgling industries here in Africa. When it comes to trade liberalisation perhaps the EU and US should be dealing with the plank in their own eyes before whining about motes in African’s eyes.

Sorry, that last paragraph was a bit of a rant, but I’ve been saddened reading the book while looking around here in Ghana and checking out some statistics. The Ghanaians are a lovely, friendly, happy and positive bunch of people who live in a desperately poor country. That they can remain so happy and positive makes me feel ashamed about the whinging I was part of in the UK about what seems like trivial things now. There is real hunger here, and it will get a lot worse in the next few months as the destruction to crops caused by droughts followed by flooding in the north of country makes an impact.

To try to give some perspective; the GDP of Ghana is about $10billion using the official exchange rate (source the CIA country data book). This represents the entire economic value of the country, all the traders, shops, businesses and government spending as well as aid. This isn’t just the money the government raised as taxes or the balance of payments, it is the entire economy. The UK spends about $100billion a year just on health care. HSBC makes about $23billion profit a year. The amount that the US gives its cotton farmers constitutes 40% of the GDP of Ghana. And Ghana is not the poorest West African state. There is a well meaning campaign in the US to provide “one laptop for every child” in Africa. Ghana can’t provide one textbook for every child. There are classes untaught because it can’t pay for teachers. Solutions need to be found, but they won’t be pouring more aid money in willy-nilly. Nor will they be giving children who can’t go to school because their families don’t have enough to eat a laptop computer.

I’m really sorry for such a ranty post but please, please, please think, learn, read and campaign. In the west we have a huge responsibility for creating this mess in the first place and then have been complicit in the continued desolation. We therefore have a huge responsibility to find ways of helping Africa fix its own problems and more importantly to stop adding to Africa’s problems.

[2007-11-27 17:30 Corrected GDP of Ghana from $20bn to $10bn. I should have checked rather than relying on memory]

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