Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Why are we passive about Africa?

If you link here, you'll find a depressing story about the devastation AIDS has brought to Africa. The story reports about a documentary VH1 is running, following a trip Ashley Judd and India.Arie made to Africa to highlight the complete destruction AIDS creates -- the vast number of orphans, and the horrible economic and sexual exploitation of girls and women that follows in the wake of this chaos. When pressed, both Judd and Arie say that the real problem is that the face of AIDS is African and black -- and that, if this were a white country, the West would be much more aware and active. I think Judd and Arie are correct, but I don't agree with their statement that racism creates the difference between the West's real approach to Africa, versus its hypothetical approach to a Western country with the same problem. I certainly don't deny racism, but I also wonder if the West's reluctance to rush into the maw of this disaster is also attributable to a sense of futility. Africa in the latter part of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st Century just bounces from one horrific disaster to another. Some of these disasters are natural -- remember Ethiopa and now, I understand, Somalia? But for the most part, they seem to be man-made. Here, just off the top of my head, is an incomplete list of man-made horrors that have recently devastated parts of Africa: Rwanda, the Congo, Liberia, the Sudan, Somalia, and Zimbabwe. I'm sure all of you can, in seconds, think of all the other horrors man has visited on man in Africa in just a short time. The sheer number of disasters in Africa has made patently plain that Western aid tends to get clotted at the top, never reaching those for whom it is intended. In Keith Richburg's sad and powerful book Out of America : A Black Man Confronts Africa, he describes a continent which has large parts that have spun entirely out of control. He also describes, significantly, completely dysfunctional infrastructures. Perhaps his most telling point is a joke, current in Africa when he was there, which I'll struggle to retell:

Two men, an African and an East Asian, become friends at college in America. When their studies end, they return to their respective countries and begin working for their governments. One day, the African man, who is living in the abysmal poverty of the ordinary African, gets an all-expenses paid trip to his East Asian friend. He arrives at his friend's home to discover him living in a luxurious house on a hill, with multiple cars and servants. Asks the African, "How in the world did you manage this?" "Simple," said the East Asian. He takes his African friend over to the window. "Do you see that highway and house development out there? When they built that, 10% of everything came to me." The African departs, vastly impressed. A year or two later, he invites his East Asian friend to visit him. The East Asian arrives and discovers the African living like a Sultan, indeed, better than a Sultan. His home is palatial, his grounds enormous, his servants uncountable. The East Asian is impressed. "How did you do that?" "Simple," says the African, as he walks his friend to the window. "See that freeway and housing complex out there?" "No," says the East Asian. "All I see is a field." "That's right," says the African. "When they started to build that, 100% become mine."
Richburg's point, if I remember correctly, was that many of Africa's governments were so profoundly corrupt that they'd even managed to make corruption ineffectual. In most countries, greasing palms is common, but things still get done, even if expensively and shoddily. In Africa, however, the corruption is so complete, nothing gets done. And that gets me back to my original point: Maybe the West isn't ignoring Africa because of racism. Maybe the West is ignoring the devastation in Africa because, after decades of attempting to help, the West has the sense that Africa's problems are impenetrable and unresolvable. And if you don't feel you can help, why pay attention? I'm not saying this excuses the West's inactivity (assuming that we really have been as inactive as Judd and Arie accuse. But, perhaps, it explains it.