From being a blank spot on the map, the Sahara now looks like a springboard for the advance of militant Islam.
Until recently Mali was famous only for its music and for Timbuktu — our nickname for nowhere. Suddenly the French are invading this huge, poor, sparsely populated, landlocked African country, much of which is empty desert. Britain is helping them (if we can get our aircraft to fly).
Just a couple of years ago Mali was held up by Western aid donors as a success. It had been relatively democratic since the Malians overthrew a dictatorship in 1992. And despite being poor — its main earners are gold and cotton — it functioned better than many of its neighbours. But last March there was a coup and now its Government is ineffective. What went wrong?
First, the Government was not in fact as good as the donors proclaimed. Basking in Western aid and praise, it became complacent, corrupt and did not deliver development, especially in the poor North of the country. Sensing discontent among the population, a young army captain, Amadou Haya Sanogo, seized power last year. Although he was forced to accept a civilian president and prime minister and prepare the country to return to democratic rule, he remains a powerful but unaccountable player.
Second, the North of the country, the Sahara desert, has been home to Salafist rebels pushed out from Algeria in the late 1990s and targeted by militant Islamist movements inspired and funded by Saudi Wahhabi Islamic fundamentalists, preaching jihad against the West.
Like many, my first reaction was that they were welcome to live in the desert. What damage could they do there? But the desert, flat and empty, is also like a sea, in that people can cross with few natural obstacles and no visible state boundaries. It is perfect for smuggling money, drugs, cigarettes, guns and people across vast distances and several borders. Foreigners were, and still are, often kidnapped.
The desert was also home to the Tuareg, tough camel-riding nomads with their distinctive blue turbans, who managed the trans-Sahara trade. Traditionally they were like an aristocracy, keeping themselves apart from the black Africans to the south and frequently enslaving them. But droughts in the 1980s and 1990s destroyed their herds, and many of the young Tuareg went north to join Colonel Gaddafi’s Army.
When he was overthrown in 2011, they grabbed as much weaponry as they could and headed back to Mali, planning to seize the North and declare it an independent country called Azawad. They found well-funded allies in the Islamists and launched their rebellion in January last year, pushing the Malian Army back before taking the entire North of the country and declaring it independent shortly after Captain Sanogo’s coup.
The Tuareg may have had the guns but the Islamists had the money and a strategy. The Islamists also started destroying historic Islamic shrines and, apparently, the ancient libraries of Timbuktu. Well armed and battle-hardened, they then turned on their Tuareg allies and routed them. The Tuareg nationalists have now called off their demand for an independent state but they have made themselves unpopular.
Suddenly from being a blank space on the map, the Sahara from Senegal in the west to Somalia in the east is beginning to look like the springboard for a new Islamist offensive by AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and other Islamist groups. Mali borders seven African countries; next-door Niger, an equally fragile state, another five. According to Africa Confidential, a well-respected newsletter, the Islamists are targeting Mauritania next, with its rich fishing grounds and mineral wealth, and then Niger, which has uranium and oil.
But the biggest prize would be the destabilisation of Nigeria to the southeast, shortly to take over from South Africa as Africa’s biggest economy and chief foreign supplier of oil for the US. Nigeria already has its own Islamist insurgency, Boko Haram, which has received weapons and training from AQIM. In 2010 Boko Haram bombed the UN headquarters in the capital, Abuja, in the centre of the country, and has attacked churches and government buildings in northern cities. But it has not yet hit targets in the mainly Christian south.
There are reports that the Islamist groups are fighting among themselves, which may happen if all the attacks are in Muslim areas. Most of this part of Africa was traditionally Sufi Islamic — tolerant of local practices that are blasphemous to strict Wahhabi Islam. Shrines and tombs of local holy men and saints are now being desecrated and women forced to stay at home and wear the full hijab in public.
In Mali women have traditionally played a substantial role in public affairs and dressed in bright colours, their hair often uncovered. But today they wear black or drab green or brown and are forced to stay at home and are only allowed to meet a man if accompanied by a male relative.
Last week Islamist rebels in Mali began to advance south towards the capital, Bamako, taking the key town of Konna. The French realised that the Malian Army was incapable of stopping them and launched their own counter-attack by air.
Mali was part of their African estate and until recently France has remained engaged with its former territories far more closely than Britain has. Since 2006 the US has taken the lead on opposing Islamic militancy in Africa, establishing military training missions in most countries bordering the Sahara. One of the most alarming outcomes of the Mali episode is that most of the US-trained troops are reported to have either stayed in their barracks or deserted and joined the Islamists. But now the US cannot give direct military support to the Mali government because, under US law, it can only give such aid to democracies.
Can this rebellion be stopped by air attacks? Bombing arms dumps and concentrations of rebels may hinder their advance but AQIM can only be quelled by troops on the ground who have the support of locals. At present the Malian Army is weak and lacks morale. That means the French will probably have to provide the core of a force that includes soldiers from other West African countries.
They may get help from Tuareg nationalists but they remain untrusted.
Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister, has said the action in Mali would be over “in a matter of weeks”. These are words he may regret.
This piece was previously published in The Times.
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society
A Good African Story: Book Launch with Andrew Rugasira, CEO, Good African Coffee
Date & Time: Tuesday, 19th February 2013, 7-9PM
Venue: Khalili Lecture Theatre SOAS, Thornhaugh Street, London, WC1H 0XG
Book launch with Andrew Rugasira, author & CEO of Good African Coffee
Respondent: Dr Christopher Cramer, SOAS. Chair: Alex Jakana, BBC
Good African was the first African-owned coffee brand to be listed in UK supermarkets – this book charts all the obstacles Rugasira and his company faced: from the seemingly impossible task of finding capital, to prejudice and discrimination, to close calls with lions in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains.
Since its founding in 2003, Good African Coffee has helped thousands of farmers earn a decent living, send their children to school and escape a spiral of debt and dependence. Despite huge inflows of aid, Africa remains mired in poverty, disease and systematic corruption. In A Good African Story, Andrew Rugasira argues that trade has achieved what years of aid failed to deliver, and has provided a tantalising glimpse of what Africa could be.
As he recounts the very personal story of his company and the challenges that he has faced – and overcame – as an African entrepreneur, Rugasira discusses the barriers that prevent fair and equal trade between Africa and the rest of the world. He sets out the arguments for reducing dependency on hand-outs. And he builds up a manifesto for a revolution in the way that Africa is perceived. This is a book about Africa taking its destiny in its own hands, and dictating the terms of its future.
To attend this and other RAS events, please register on this website here - after which you will be able to register yourself for this and further events held by the Royal African Society.
The debate about the “image of Africa” seems to be reaching a consensus. The starving African child represents a reality that is rare and local. We must clear our minds of that image as representative of Africa, all of it, always. The growth figures show that Africa is apparently doing well economically and many of the conflicts, which were always local, often quite small but created terrible suffering, have come to an end. Medication for AIDS and other diseases has become more widely available. No one speaks of the hopeless continent any more.
Some people have tried to say that the image of the starving child was “wrong”. But it wasn’t invented. From Biafra, to Ethiopia and more recently Somalia and Niger, it is an occasional shocking reality which we will almost certainly see again. On the other hand there is a new image which projects Africa as the new China, the driver of the world economy in a few years time. This image shows Africa as young, smart, dripping in bling and driving a flashy car. These are simplistic reversals of the old image, and as unrealistic as the hopeless continent.
Even Oxfam, which has raised millions with images of starving African children, has now admitted that Africa is not as simple as that. A survey that the aid agency recently conducted showed that the images of starving African children are actually counterproductive in terms of their own fundraising. Three quarters of more than 2,000 people Oxfam surveyed said that although hunger was the biggest problem facing Africa, only 20percent felt they could do much about it. Most respondents said they had become desensitised by images showing hunger drought and disease. Barbara Stocking, the CEO of Oxfam, called for a more nuanced picture of Africa. She said “The relentless focus on ongoing problems at the expense of a more nuanced portrait of the continent, is obscuring the progress that is being made towards a more secure and prosperous future.” The negative image of Africa “is not the truth”.
The implication of what Stocking is saying is that aid agencies have only agreed to tell the truth about Africa now because the images they have been using for fund-raising have actually eroded people’s willingness to give them money. But I will bet that when the next humanitarian disaster hits, the aid agency which advertises with most graphic pictures of the victims will raise most money.
There is no doubt that many African countries are doing a lot better than they were in the last two decades of the 20th century when the figures for growth were, in terms of population growth, negative. Growth has been above 5 percent in many countries for almost a decade, Africa’s resources have been fetching high prices, the wars have diminished in number and extent, and governance has improved. Many capitals that were economically stagnant a decade ago are now booming, their biggest problem: traffic jams. And the old problems, many of them country specific, have not gone away. Somalia’s clan rivalry, Nigeria’s corruption, Kenya’s tribalism and South Africa’s inequality are all alive and well.
So the new picture is better but the message is don’t generalise about Africa. However, is this change permanent or just temporary? And how much do these growth rates affect the lives of ordinary people?
The first question is – will Africa use this successful period to generate a prosperous and self-sustaining future? At the moment much of the wealth has been within an urban bubble. If you counted economic prosperity by the increase in the numbers of flashy 4X4s, Africa would be reckoned to be doing well. These 4X4s now travel from gated housing estates on the fringes of big cities to shiny new glass office blocks and back again. Do their owners ever breathe real African air? Outside that bubble the poor are still poor, with little being done for them in terms of jobs or services. Most of the poor are young and un-or under-employed. Whatever their qualifications, for those who do not have connection inside the bubble the future is bleak. How long before their anger explodes?
Secondly this commodity boom has lasted more than a decade but is now diminishing. Have African governments used the revenue from oil, gas and minerals to create industries that add value to them? How much refining, processing and manufacturing has been created in Africa in this last decade? A recent article in Foreign Affairs by Rick Rowden argued that the recent growth in Africa is not bringing development. He writes: “development has generally been taken as a synonym for industrialization. Rich countries figured out long ago, if economies are not moving out of dead-end activities that only provide diminishing returns over time (primary agriculture and extractive activities such as mining, logging, and fisheries), and into activities that provide increasing returns over time (manufacturing and services), then you can’t really say they are developing.”
Rowden points out that Africa’s share of global value added goods has actually fallen from 1.2 percent in 2000 to 1.1 percent in 2008. In the same period Asia’s share rose from 13 percent to 25 percent. Even in labour intensive low technology manufacturing Africa’s share of exports fell from 23 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2008. Services, he says, will not absorb all the young job seekers in the next few years.
This all looks reasonable – if rather depressing. But then I think of those traffic jams that twice a day – sometimes all day – clog up Nairobi, Lagos, Johannesburg, Accra, Abidjan, Addis Ababa. Looking out of my taxi bubble window at the multitude of walkers – the people outside the bubble – I cannot but think they would be staying at home if their destination was not some profitable economic possibility. Puzzling – until you discover that the World Bank has had to admit that the figures they have for Africa are all wrong.
In the most recent edition of our journal, African Affairs, Professor Morten Jerven of Simon Fraser University Vancouver, drew attention to the 2010 revision of Ghana’s GDP figures upwards by over 60 percent. Overnight Ghana was $13 billion richer and became a middle income country – embarrassing for the aid donors. The reason was that the baseline date from which Ghana’s economic growth was measured was 1993. Many of the economic drivers that have increased wealth in Ghana did not exist then. And data collection at that time was not that accurate. Nigeria has followed suit with an announcement that it would be revising the estimates of its growth shortly. It is expected to announce a difference as great as Ghana’s. Professor Jerven also pointed out that all but 19 African countries had baselines for measuring growth and wealth date back before the turn of the century. New data might change our view of Africa completely.
Africa – as I have always thought – is a lot richer than is generally assumed. However, at the bottom of the pyramid, people can become vulnerable quite quickly especially when there is war. So expect to see those horrifying pictures of starving children from time to time as well as lots of cool young Africans in fashionable clothes driving flashy cars. Both are real. Both are Africa.
A RAS panel discussion co-organised with the London Africa Media Network
Chair: Eric Chinje, Director for Strategic Communications, Mo Ibrahim Foundation
Listen to podcast
Panel discussion co-organised with the London Africa Media Network.
Increased liberalisation and private investment into Africa’s media sector over the last decade has meant that there are now more privately owned newspapers, radio and television stations than ever before. The continent’s media is also enjoying a growing audience with a growth in radio listeners, newspaper readers, and internet and mobile phone users.
Driven by the young, educated, and internet-savvy, these new audiences are interested in receiving independent news and reliable information. However, there is still a gap in the industry, due to restricted funding, limited resources and individual countries’ stringent regulatory frameworks.
A scrutinising free press helps to promote democracy, good governance and socio-economic development. For the media sector to fully play its role in Africa’s economic, social and political development - and for the continent to develop its voice in the global stage - there is a need to improve the industry’s sustainability and its independence.
This event will bring together a panel of experts to tackle the key questions and challenges affecting the growth of Africa’s media sector, including: How can we solve the funding gap between available capital and media businesses? Will more private investment bring more freedom and independence or do commercial interests threaten objective journalism? What is the impact of technology and new media and how can this counter censorship? What are the best business models for achieving sustainability and staying independent? And why is it important to invest in local content and business reporting to help change the narrative on Africa?
London Africa Media Network (LAMN) is a media for development organisation whose focus is to lobby for a stronger representation of Africa Media in the globe. We work with stakeholders to rally for development of Media in Africa. The company is built on a strong belief that Africa Media, through objective reporting and representation, is critical to Africa’s human, political and social Development. Founded in 2005, LAMN brings to the fore, the hitherto underplayed African perspective on global issues. For more information, please visit: www.lamn.co.uk
Brunei Suite, SOAS (directions in map below are from Russell Square underground station)
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Congo: UK And US Must Play More Consistent Hand To End World’s Worst War
[Al Jazeera coverage of the M23 movement's advance on Goma in Eastern Congo]
Africa is covered in epithets, like graffiti. It has been labelled dark, lost, hopeless. But generalisations about Africa are dangerous. The only certainty is its size: it could contain the United States, China and India and still have room to spare. Recently it has been dubbed rising, hopeful, the continent of the future. But Africa cannot be declared successful until its vast, rich heart, the Congo, is peaceful and prosperous.
Most other African countries have more or less emerged from the uprisings and chaos of the 1990s that followed the end of the Cold War. But Congo lies broken and wasting. The last two elections have not produced a government capable of delivering services or security. The legacy of Mobutu Sese Seko’s 22 year corrupt kleptocracy remains the zeitgeist of its ruling class. The people must fend for themselves.
Congo’s potential, like most of Africa’s, is immense and unmeasured. It has everything that the rest of the planet needs for the future; the highest reserves of mineral ore, thousands of square miles of fertile land and the second largest rainforest in the world. The energy of its huge, fast flowing river could power up much of southern Africa.
The kneejerk reaction of Britain and other western countries is therefore to give Congo aid. And the only way of spending 0.7 percent of our GDP on aid is to give it to governments. But has Congo got a government? In 1997 the remnants of the Mobutu regime were pushed out by the armies of Rwanda and Uganda. They replaced him with Laurent Kabila, a former revolutionary and cafe owner, living in exile. When he rejected the Rwandans’ tutelage, they had him murdered and replaced him with his son, Joseph.
To legitimise Joseph the aid donors paid for and organised two elections each costing more than a billion dollars. In 2011 that came out of a national budget of £4.6 billion ($7.3 billion). The elections satisfied the western political need to give Kabila international legitimacy so he could now receive aid. But the elections in Congo divided rather than united. The losers saw them as fraudulent.
After the election supporters were rewarded, opponents shunned but they live in different parts of the country so a small war broke out. At the very moment when the country needed to come together, the western solution deepened the divisions. It also handed total political and economic power to a greedy elite incapable of constructing a viable state – even, as one Congolese academic said, in their own narrow interests.
What has wrecked the Congo is not lack of aid. It is politics. Aid has probably made things worse by offering development which may never be delivered. There is no state capable of delivering it. If ever there was a case for a country to be under a UN mandate, it is Congo. The United Nations’ current half-baked, ill-thought-out mandate was cruelly exposed last week as UN troops stood back to allow rebels to take the city of Goma in eastern Congo.
But there was a second, even more catastrophic contradiction in Western policy. After the Rwandan genocide, western governments, ridden with guilt, supported the incoming Rwandan regime, a rebel group led by the charismatic Paul Kagame. He now runs a capable state – perhaps too capable. Rwanda is a tightly controlled dictatorship, with almost no press or political freedom. But it uses aid well, it is not stolen. A succession of British aid ministers from Clare Short to Andrew Mitchell see Kagame as the saviour of Africa. They gave him money – currently £83 million a year, knowing it will be spent on education, health and other good things.
Rwanda’s success however is Congo’s loss. Fearful that political opponents will gather in the forests and mountains across the border in eastern Congo, the Rwandan and Ugandan regimes have armed militias there, most recently the M23, Mouvement de 23 Mars. This militia protects the Tutsis of Eastern Congo, Kagame’s ethnic group, and guards mines and plantations controlled by senior Rwandan and Ugandan officers. They control and tax trade routes and bring the loot across the border to Uganda and Rwanda. Above all, they ensure that there is no order, security or justice in eastern Congo. Every village has a militia and many have turned into roving gangs killing, raping and stealing at will. Controlled anarchy in Eastern Congo suits Rwanda and Uganda – as long as the anarchy does not get out of hand.
Unfortunately, and embarrassingly for the British and American governments, Rwanda and Uganda, their closest allies in the region, have been fingered by a well-researched United Nations report, as the suppliers of weapons to M-23 as well as the beneficiaries of the free-for-all in eastern Congo. The US tried to suppress the report. The British suspended aid to Rwanda. On his last day at Dfid Mitchell restored it.
The war in eastern Congo is the worst war in the world, costing according to some estimates five million lives. It is time the US and UK took it seriously and played a more even and consistent hand in trying to bring peace.
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles.
The story that has practically broken the BBC this week was the result of an appalling breach of the first journalistic rule – get the facts right. The journalist, Angus Stickler, broke this basic rule when he failed to show the man who accused Lord McAlpine of child abuse, a picture of him. He should have shown him a selection of pictures and asked him to identify his abuser. Rule number one broken. But this career-ending failure came about in the context of a gradually loosening of the rules of reporting.
The mantra that reporting should be “fair, accurate and balanced” is good as far as it goes but when journalists want a story badly, the rules get stretched. A senior editor on The Times once told me that tracking down a story was like hunting. You could wait for the single deadly-accurate rifle shot or you could let fly with a shotgun. Some of the pellets would miss but some would hit. All you had to do then was follow the trail of blood and move in for the kill.
Do you remember the feeding frenzy of African witchcraft stories that followed the “torso in the Thames” story in 2001? The headless and limbless body of an African child was found floating in the river near Tower Bridge, apparently the victim of a Yoruba ritual murder. The crime has never been solved, but in its wake the BBC – Mr Stickler in the lead – went on a witchhunt. Literally.
Stickler and others purportedly uncovered ritual murders linked to witchcraft in Congo, Angola, Uganda and South Africa as if ritually butchering children was a normal African past time. I remember one example on Newsnight from Acholiland in northern Uganda. The Acholi had been through 20 years of war caused by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and the, perhaps deliberate, failure of the Uganda army to catch or kill him. My experience of Acholiland was that the people did not know who to hate more; Kony or Museveni. They had been forced by the government army to leave their homes and go into camps. The Acholis are a deeply traumatised society. There was talk, but no proof, that children had been ritually murdered. I remember Tim Whewell, the reporter, interviewing a man who claimed to be a former killer of children for witchcraft now turned hunter of witches and exorcist. The man was clearly building a profitable business hunting down witches. How many children have died in this way, the reporter asked? “A thousand” he said.
The reporter then turned to the camera and repeated that a thousand children had been ritually slaughtered in Acholiland.
It is possible that there was some truth in the story. But in many African societies if you want to kill someone’s reputation you accuse them of being a witch. I also know – because I have fallen into that trap myself – that all societies use metaphors and phrases for emphasise. As a journalist you try to get the facts: who, what, why, when, how and how many? I am sure that the man in that Newsnight story said “a thousand” in the same way as the bible uses the number 40 to mean ‘many’. If I am wrong this has to be a huge ongoing story. Surely there should be a Newsnight reporter permanently in Acholiland giving us hourly updates on child killings? Instead the story was exaggerated and the fundamental issues in that society ignored. The reporter, however, was given an award for this piece of reporting.
When did you last see an African child sacrifice story? The feeding frenzy has passed, a lot of Africans have settled old scores by accusing their enemies of witchcraft, Africa is left with another nasty image on its reputation. Now it is the BBC that is left with a nasty image on its reputation.
Should we be helping White Zimbabweans?
I was recently invited to a lunch for a charity called Zane hosted by John Bercow, in his magnificent speaker’s rooms at the House of Commons. Zane is a charity set up for Zimbabwe by Tom Benyon, an energetic and engaging former MP. I was surprised to find that out of the 30 or so guests all were white and mostly over 65. I then discovered that the main focus of the charity was to support white pensioners, old Rhodesians, who had fallen on hard times. These had been the generation who had voted Ian Smith into power in 1964. He made the Unilateral Declaration of Independence of Rhodesia and said of one-man-one-vote democracy, “not in a thousand years”. These people had rebelled against Britain and caused the liberation war which cost hundreds of thousands of lives. That war also ensured that Smith’s successor would be an angry bitter man who would want revenge. Step forward Robert Mugabe.
Standing in these magnificent calm surroundings I felt a surge of rage but couldn’t find a target for it. Why should these people be helped? They rebelled against Britain, cut the links and brought war on themselves. Was this just white British tribalism? In fact none of the people I met from Zimbabwe had been a Smith supporter. One of the speakers who works for Zane articulated my confusion exactly. But she pointed out that the white pensioners of Zimbabwe are a particularly vulnerable group. The collapse of the Zimbabwe dollar and the banking systems destroyed all their savings and pensions. Some of them are starving. Unlike the African population, many of them have no family support. Some had children in other parts of the world but had lost contact or were too proud to ask them for help. African families always look after each other, especially the grandmothers and fathers. But part of the colonial project involved leaving home, cutting all links with it and creating a new world elsewhere on the planet. Putting them back in touch with family members elsewhere is something else the charity does.
The other group that Zane supports are the migrant workers from Malawi and Mozambique who worked on the white-owned farms and were driven out and left to fend for themselves. Many left home decades ago and are too poor to get back. It also does community projects in what Zimbabweans call the “high density” areas, once known as townships.
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles.
In 2006 some friends of mine were given $5 million by Lisbet Rausing for education in Uganda. They set up an NGO called Mvule (named after a beautiful Ugandan tree), and asked me to be a Trustee. We decided to spend the money on adolescents, especially girls, who had done well at primary or secondary school but had to drop out because their families were too poor to support them.
Identifying them was a labour-intensive and expensive business, but over the next five years some 2500 were selected and places in good schools found for them. They were supported throughout, not just with the fees, uniforms and books, but everything that would try to make them equal to other students, such as travel money, soap and sanitary towels for the girls. They were also provided with mentors and visited regularly by Mvule workers.
We also set aside money to track these students, interview them – and their siblings – at stages throughout their schooldays, drilling down into what happened to them, how the scholarships changed their lives and the lives of their families and communities.
The results of this study – rare if not unique in the aid world – exceeded our wildest dreams. A report entitled: ‘These days are for those who are educated’ has been produced. It has revealed a wealth of detail about the day-to-day lives, hopes and attitudes of ordinary Ugandans. Education not only utterly transformed the lives of individual students and offered them a future otherwise closed to those who do not go to school; it often transformed their families and communities. This was an indirect and unexpected impact.
Having one child in school often inspired families to find school fees for others. Mvule students also passed on their knowledge and ambition to parents, siblings and neighbours’ children. And once they graduated, they almost always paid for an average of two siblings to go to school and built houses for their parents.
These findings come at a crucial time for Africa. When I taught in a rural Ugandan school 40 years ago, almost none of the parents could read and write, but most did not feel particularly disadvantaged. Most of the children that I taught were the first in their families to learn. But we were shocked to find that less than 20 percent of the mothers of the Mvule O level students had completed primary school. It seems that little educational progress has been made in those four decades.
Today, to be without education is to be severely disadvantaged. And as African economies grow faster and faster, the illiterate will become poorer and even more marginalised. As one Mvule girl said: “These days are for those who are educated”.
This remarkable report shows just how difficult it is for girls from poor families to stay in school. It also gives glimpses of astonishing courage and despair that are deeply moving. Many students grow and sell vegetables or do odd jobs to pay for their own school fees. One girl said: “I was an outstanding (school) fee defaulter. So when Mvule Trust asked the academic registrar about needy students, he thought of me, an abduction survivor from a war-ravaged area.”
The study showed how education affected other aspects of life. It is well known that girls who are at school are less likely to get pregnant or marry early. So we asked about best friends from primary school who did not make it to secondary. The contrast was like night and day: most had five children already. The study also found that, contrary to accepted wisdom, boys who became educated were anxious to have a learned wife, not an illiterate one.
Finding these students was not easy. Rumours went around some villages that Mvule was recruiting for devil worship or prostitution. Mvule girls were often mocked because they came from poor families. But our counsellors urged them to keep their eyes on the prize, and most came through with dignity, achieving their dream of raising the education level of their family.
Nor was it cheap. Teams scoured the country to go and interview the potential scholars in their own homes, explaining to the family what this meant and getting their parents’ support. Girls especially are often pulled out of school to help with siblings and around the home. The dropout rate is high without support and mentoring teams working with the families. To find, select and support a student through even a modest upcountry boarding school for four years costs about $1780. That is about $450 – $500 a year.
Compare that to the UK and US governments which spend about $10,000 per student in secondary education each year. So be careful of charities who claim to put poor children through school for less than that, or allow ‘communities’ to choose the pupils. In a matter like this it is clear that the ‘community leaders’ will not choose the really needy and cannot provide the support to keep them in school. Aid agencies working in this area must keep track of their pupils and support them right through their education.
On the ground collection and analysis of data is essential. Too many aid donors and agencies remain in offices in African capital cities and accept whatever statistics they are given. Every government wants to announce that all its children are in school. But trips to the poorer suburbs of capitals or distant rural areas tell a different story. The figures are not as high as governments and aid donors like to believe, and the drop-out rate is phenomenal.
This survey shows that given the funding and effective support structures, education can be made available to the children of the poor, a gift that will then be passed on and never lost. I have always believed that money spent on education is the most effective aid of all. In this report we have the evidence.
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. For more of Richard’s blogs click here.
The Rift Valley in Eastern Africa is our hole in the ground, where we all come from. Not far from here our earliest ancestors stopped hanging out in the trees and started to use their rear limbs to get around on. From here we began to migrate and multiply all over the world.
Today a line of worn tarmac runs along the valley floor, fed by earth tracks through fields of stubble lying brown and empty after the harvest. Wriggling lines of green mark streams which lead to the Awash River. The east and west horizons are bordered with crazy grey mountains jagging into a light blue sky. Flashing like mirrors in the sun are the valley’s huge blue lakes and, in recent years, vast rigid squares of plastic sheeting have sprung up.
Two models of development sit cheek by jowl where mankind began to emerge some 3.6 million years ago. One model is struggling to grow out of subsistence farming. It is a step-by-step approach, communal, dependent on rain, prayers and a little aid and expertise from outside. The other model is flower farms, believed to be the largest in the world, they are driven by 21st century global capitalism, dependent on complex chains of production and transport, sophisticated financial systems and Europe’s demand for pretty summer blooms in winter. Turnover in 2008 was estimated at more than $100 million. One Dutch flower farm is an 800 hectare estate which employs 13,000 people locally.
More than ten years ago the Ethiopian government begged western horticultural companies operating in Kenya to come and invest in Ethiopia. They gave them land and a free hand. Now the farms provide more than 50 percent of export earnings, more than $300 million, and employ thousands of people. Seven years ago Ethiopia was exporting $12 million worth of flowers.
But it is not as easy as it sounds. Flowers, fruit and vegetables are very vulnerable to delays of a few hours, so the process from picking, packing, driving to an airport, flying and delivery to European outlets has to be perfect. Having induced them to invest, the Ethiopian government is trying to force the flower farms to employ only Ethiopian firms to provide the packing and transport services the farms need. That, the flower farm owners argue, will take time.
Nearby is a local cooperative of 94 farmers growing vegetables for consumption locally and for the towns. The people in the cooperative are Oromo – formerly transhumance cattle keepers who wandered with their herds on seasonal routes in search of grazing. This lifestyle, strongly disapproved of by successive Ethiopian governments, has changed to settled farming but the soil here is light and sandy – easily eroded by seasonal flooding.
A group of about 20 members gather under the shade of a huge thorn tree looking out across the flat valley to the lake and the mountains in the far distance. Birdsong is interspersed with cellphone rings and chimes. Most of the members have phones – though some are barefoot. They are very disciplined, putting up their hands up to speak. This narrative is taken from several voices among them.
“The cooperative was set up in 1993 to make the poor and marginalised self sufficient. When we get extra money we rent more land and send our children to school. Investing in land is safe because we do not know what will come. Or we construct a better home or buy cattle. A house is an asset and from cattle you get money for milk.”
“We operate a savings and credit system and also a seed bank. Members get credit which they repay after the harvest. But in the last five years the Belge rains (short rains which should come in March) have failed. It was hard to repay. But we cannot complain.” Life is a struggle and the cooperative needs constant support from outside. It has to maintain tracks and paths so that their small two-wheeled carts pulled by mules and donkeys can carry bags of maize and boxes of tomatoes to roadside markets from where they will be bought by merchants to feed the towns.
The savings and loans system needs top ups so the members can get credit, obtain better seeds for maize and onions from seed banks. “The basic co-operative law is that he who works gets the benefit. It is aimed at credit provision and asset building. The problem is that repaying depends on the strength of the market. All the surplus comes to market at the same time. This year the price of a kilo of maize has swung from 40 cents (1.36p) to 10 birr (34p).”
One problem is that the farmers get ripped off by the buyers from the towns. “We need to break the chain of brokers (the merchants who come to buy the produce). They hunt as a pack and decide the price among themselves. Onions are ok because you can store them, but with horticulture crops there is a problem with perishability so the time-frame for selling is short.”
Another issue is that some smallholders now rent out land and employ workers and some members say this creates a problem because they have more capital and higher production so bring down the market price.
All the farmers say the priority now is water. “We want to buy a water pump to irrigate the crops when the rains do not come. There is a long term problem with rainfall. The short rains that are supposed to come in March have failed for the past five years.”
Because all land in Ethiopia is state owned and controlled, the flower farm has been given the best of it. The farmers complain that it also takes water from the lake and chemicals from the flower farm are poisoning the lake – an allegation the flower farm owner fiercely denies.
Not far away a women’s cooperative is also trying to turn a profit from farming, but in a different way. It started more than 20 years ago with a small loan. Traditionally in this society the women did a lot of the hard farming work and the carrying; firewood, water, sacks of grain.
I meet the women under a large tree in a fenced field with a shed in one corner. I am given a small stool but the woman sit, their legs stretched out straight on the ground. They are of different ages but all have wrinkled faces and thin, wiry bodies.
“We started to discuss common issues and invest in livestock; sheep, goats and cows. We also started to learn to read and write. Our aim is to give training and make a profit.”
“Our life is not comparable with the old days. It is the difference between earth and sky. It is not comparable. We used to grind grain with stones. That made your hands rough and takes a long time. Women could not meet like this but now we are free to come. There was polygamy. Some men had three or four wives and the oldest one gets abandoned and has to go on working. Female genital mutilation was common but now it is almost stopped. There is still dominance of men but polygamy is rare now.”
Before, their children had to stay at home or come back to help with the harvest, but now they go to school and are free to go and find a job. The women are clearly better off, more in control and happier than they were in the past. Their current concern is the cost and maintenance of the grinding machine and the cost of fuel. They want an electric one which will cost 5000 birr, but they have worked out that it will be cheaper to run. They also want a better seed bank. The biggest problem which affects everyone is that the water table is going down. Too many people are using it. They do not mention the flower farms.
The women have also discovered that if they store grain in their shed and wait until the price rises, they can grind it and make a very good profit. They can also charge others for storage and grinding. Last year they made 1000 birr on an investment of 3000. It sounds like they are beginning to act like the grain traders their husbands complain about.
How will the 21st century flower farm coexist side by side with agriculture that is done by hand and is dependent on rain? The two models of development exist side by side but seem to have little contact with each other. They will increasingly compete for water and land though there is still a huge labour pool to draw on.
At the moment most of the farmers on the cooperative seem to be better off than the workers on the flower farms – though the workers can use the flower farm hospital for free. But in the longer term will the flower farms take over the land and water, absorb all the labour and reduce the local population to wage labourers? Or will the flower farms engage with the cooperative, help upgrade its produce and buy it?
At last some good news from South Africa. According to the new Rapid Mortality Surveillance Report by the Medical Research Council, life expectancy rose from 56.5 in 2009 to 60 in 2011, already ahead of the 2014 target of 58.5. And the Under Five Mortality Rate has fallen from 56 per 1000 live births in 2009 to 42 in 2011 – again ahead of the 2014 target of 50. Almost all of this is believed to be down to the provision of anti-retroviral drugs.
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. For more of Richard’s blogs click here.