Saturday, May 27, 2006

Development and context: lessons from Africa

Whatever your definition of sustainability, irrespective of what indicators you choose and irregardless of your politics, it is an unequivocal truth that the least sustainable part of the planet today is Africa.

Lately, it has become very fashionable to campaign for Western-led involvement in the Dafur region of Sudan. Many of those same advocates for intervention appear blind to their own hypocrisy in having opposed just such intervention by the US in Iraq. Moreover, those who clamour for more aid and more Western intervention to "help" the struggling Africans would do well to consider this post by Barie Collins on the spiked website concerning Rwanda.

Yes, before Dafur, there was Rwanda (and Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Chad....).

Anyways, if your knowledge up to this point is Hotel Rwanda, or if you've read Romeo Dallaire's book Shake Hands with the Devil, Collins' post and his previous comments on the genocide will provide some much needed depth of perspective.

In Dallaire's book in particular, the politics of the day were often referenced and sketched but, by his own admission, they were both kept closed to Dallaire and outside his purview as a soldier. Part of what haunts Dellaire to this day is a sense of failure, that somehow it was he who let the Rwandans down by not making the world take more notice of things sooner and in a more forceful way. At the same time, Dellaire recognized much was happening to which either he was not made party or he had been deliberately excluded. Certainly his book lays out in explicit detail why any thought of effective UN intervention anywhere is a mirage at best, and an opportunity for corruption and bureaucratic impedence at its worst.

Collins considers the Rwandan genocide to be far from an internally directed and driven affair. Rather, he implicates Western governments, the UN and several NGOs as complicit in the manner by which events took place and the resultant genocide.

Now, he may or may not be right. But what his post does underscore is the crucial role that geographical context plays in any and all development situations and that far too often, people intervene without the necessary understanding of that context: sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes with ulterior motives.

The lesson here is that we are our own project: we can only "fix" ourselves. And, when we seek to aid others, we have to enable them to empower themselves and not invoke our power over them or give others that power to use over them. Empowerment is the act of taking power over your own life: it can not be given to you, it has to be taken yourself. And it is the opposite of what most people recognize as standard operating procedure in politics, which is all about the exercise of power, by those who have, or wish to have, power.

In Africa, as it is in Europe, the US, the UN and NGOs: anywhere there's a bureaucracy allocating money, there's politics and power games.

And in every nation, its always those at the bottom who are expendable to those who "have the big picture in mind". In Rwanda the result of this game was mass genocide. For the last couple of year's the game has been played in Dafur. Where next?