Opinion 3

The Hopeless Continent?

It depends on your perspective - the solution lies within.

The Economist (May 13-19, 2000) takes a cynical, patronising and mostly inaccurate shot at the entire continent of Africa. For me to reply is somewhat presumptuous as I am not an African, even though I was born in Kenya and have spent my entire life on the continent.

Undoubtedly Africa has its problems and being politically correct about them and sweeping them under the carpet is of no help to anyone. Corruption, ineptitude, mismanagement and crooked leadership are endemic across the continent. The fault, however, lies everywhere - responsibility must be borne across the board. Taking only one issue as an example - debt. It takes a crooked borrower and an inept and irresponsible lender for debt to be created. For debt to be created on the magnitude which is found across Africa requires irresponsible lending of an enormous magnitude.

The essence of the Economist article is that Africa is a hopeless case. The article characterises Africa's leaders and donors as comic idiots which may well be valid in isolated instances but to characterise the entire continent as such and to blame it all on "African society" is not helpful and not accurate in the extreme.

So, is there hope for Africa? I would not dare to pontificate as the writer of the Economist article does. I only known what I have seen and the people I have met through a lifetime of working in the water sector in Africa.

Three brief points -

Africa (as in any other place in the world) is not made up of a faceless mass of humanity. It is made up of millions of individuals each with a hope of their own, each with a history and a family, a past and a future, fears and joys. Whilst it is not helpful to be sentimental in the face of the enormous problems which the continent has, to consign an entire continent of individuals to the trash can would be to engage in precisely the same arrogant disregard that some of her leaders are guilty of.

I recall visiting a small village in Sudan in North Kordofan State two years ago (see some pictures below). We met with the village headman who was a qualified medical doctor with qualifications from the UK. In temperatures of 45 degrees C we discussed development in the village and the region. He recounted figures of the proportions of the population who suffered from a variety of endemic conditions, the exact figures of which I do not recall. Some 40% had bilharzia, 60% malaria and an undetermined percentage had AIDS. This is an agrarian community who depend for their survival on scratching an existence in 40 decree plus temperatures from the dry earth. Now I don't know about you, but I find it difficult to work at my computer in an air-conditioned office if I have a headache. Multiply these conditions across Africa and don't be so surprised at the state of the economies of the continent.


My third point is the quality and commitment of the professionals who I have been privileged to meet and work with across the continent over the years. These are people who have qualified amongst the best in the world, who are prepared to work in their countries for monthly salaries of 200 to 400 dollars (tops). Their dedication and commitment, and often sheer dogged determination in the face of enormous odds, is an inspiration in itself.

I don't know what the "solution" to Africa is - I don't think there is a single solution. I do known, however, that it is far from a hopeless continent. The hope and inspiration lie within the continent itself.