Nov 25 2010

World Bank: climate-change “an opportunity” for Africa

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 3:46 PM

The World Bank has published a new paper on “Africa’s future” and the biggest shocker is that the usually-gloomy foreign-aid financier take a refreshingly upbeat, contrarian view of the effect of climate change on African agriculture.

Breaking with the Afro-pessimism prevalent in the international environmental community, The World Bank envisions a series of sensible adaptations to climate change — of the sort I’ve also identified — in the area of improved water usage, soil-health practices and management of coastal lands. Beneficial adaptations to climate change, the bank reckons, could deliver gains worth $1.47 billion annually.

The bank, of course, has a history of bad predictions about African development, yet the recognition that climate change brings opportunities to the people of region, and not only difficult circumstances, is healthy. By going public with this insight, the bank also makes possible more fruitful international discussions about Africa’s future.

Nov 23 2010

Do born-again Africans identify with aggressor

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 7:57 AM
On reading my post on the Pope’s tortured position on condom use, one of the wisest and most insightful African intellectuals I know — a woman who is African religious dissenter — expressed to me her own bewilderment about foreign religious influences on the continent she was born, raised and educated in:
“Africa and religion is another kettle of fish entirely and your South African freind is right about that.  It is a thing that baffles me but the way I ve come to understand it is what we call Identification with the Aggressor.  Someone does something traumatic to you and you internalize it and a part of you want to be like them.”
“Religion is an epidemic in Africa and amongst Africans in the diaspora and everyone in my family. Most of my close friends are Born-again Christians which is a thing that i have learnt to tolerate about them. Thankfully, they have learnt not to preach to me anymore.”
“But the sad part of it is that they are not able to see how exploitative it is, and the few times I have gone to church with my sister and her husband and listen to their pastor, I cannot believe how they are able to tolerate his irresponsibility–once with a congregation of over a thousand people, he preached against taking medication for psychiatric illnesses ….”
“For most african women (the potential victims of HIV/AIDS infection), they have no access to condoms, and their partners will refuse to use it, and most women in Africa are powerless, they risk being beaten for refusing to have sex with their partner if he refuses to use condoms … So what can the Pope possibly be thinking by calling for people to use condoms only when they’re having sex with male prostitutes!”

Nov 22 2010

Pope to Africa: use condoms, but not often

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 8:01 PM

A long last, a Catholic Pope has recommended the use of condoms for those trying to avoid acquiring HIV/AIDS. The remarks by Pope Benedict XVI, that condoms are justified in some cases to help stop the spread of AIDs, are a welcome break with the longstanding papal ban on condom use. While many in the U.S. consider the Catholic ban on condoms to be an empty rule, openly disregarded, in Africa devout Catholics take the ban seriously and often refuse to use condoms even in situations when condoms are the only means of protections against sexually-transmitted diseases.

In Uganda, for instance, the papal ban on condoms is one factor working against “safe sex” practices, forcing some campaigners against HIV/AIDS to promote “abstinence” instead.

Pope Benedict’s climb down from total repudiation of condoms is only partial. In a convoluted formulation, the Pope recommended that condoms could be used in, say, the rare circumstance where someone sought to purchase sexual services from a man. In Africa, such occurences are relatively rare. In the main, sexual relations between consenting adults is where condom use could help limit the spread of HIV/AIDS. The Pope continues to claim that condom use between husband and wife, and boyfriend and girlfriend, is still banned.

The very twisted logic employed by the Pope could draw attention to the social construction of the ban itself, which might help devout African Catholics to adopt more practical methods of protecting themselves against sexually-transmitted diseases. The ban really gained attention only in 1968 as part of a wider attack by the Catholic Church on then-new methods of birth control. Benedict’s concession on condoms, however slight, may leave space for public-health campaigners to promote condoms as a protection against AIDS for anyone who feels especially at risk. After all, if the Pope can “adjust” the ban to permit use of condoms when gay sex is involved, perhaps Africans will conclude that the entire ban is a species of social policy, and not religious practice. As social policy, the ban on condoms is outmoded, indeed cruel, for many African spouses need the protection of a condom to even insure safe sex with their own regular partner whom they know may have additional ones.

Pope Benedict’s comments, posted online in the Vatican’s official newspaper, are a reminder of the dubious influences of European religion on African society. Worse, the ban on condoms — however partial — is a reminder of the destructive forces still being unleashed by foreigners distant from African lands. HIV/AIDS remains a terrifying scourge in many parts of Africa. That even a single European religious leader insists on an irrational social policy that conclusively harms ordinary Africans stands as a chilling echo that the long reach of cultural condemnation continues to distort African culture. As my old friend, the great trumpet player from South Africa, Hugh Masakela, once reminded me in Ghana (where he and his wife also call home), “Every Sunday, every African attending Church loses a bit of his soul.”

While the contributions of Christianity in Africa are undeniable, and while even my own wife’s Catholic upbringing in Igboland was not without its merits, the balance of effects cannot be considered an unalloyed positive. At the very least, at this late stage in the history of the religious imperialism imposed on Africans, cannot at least the leaders of the Western-based permutations desist from disrupting the social evolution of local peoples? Is it not enough that the children of the religious imperialists of the past century — those very Africans educated in the houses of religious Westerners and now themselves religious leaders in their own societies — is it not enough that these evangelical Africans espouse forms of religious practice at odds with social sanity and individual preservation? Must also the supposedly “civilized” Western religious leaders construct traps for the supposedly “uneducated” ordinary Africans who still suffer the stigma internationally from the stubborn belief that the Africans lack of “sophistication” raises the risks of acquiring AIDS in the first place.

Nov 18 2010

Science Wars, Africa-style: answer the “irrationalists” by proving benefits of R&D

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 8:28 AM

Skepticism about the value of scientific inquiry abounds in many parts of Africa, fed by four related forces:

a) Afro-centrism, or the belief that African sources of knowledge have been unfairly downgraded in comparison with Western knowledge
b) Fervent Christianity, especially evangelical movements who insist that faith is more important than rationality
c) The persistent hold of “juju,” of magical thinking, on the behavior of Africans at all levels of society
d) Romanticization of “indigenous” knowledge by Western scholars studying bio-diversity and medicine in Africa

Anti-science attitudes to Africa stand behind seemingly unrelated developments:

a) the repeated insistence by Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s former president, that Western scientists have failed to explain the cause of HIV-AIDS
b) the widespread practice by rural Africans, and many wealthy city dwellers, of eating “bushmeat,” or wild animals, despite growing concerns that serious diseases — perhaps even Ebola and AIDS itself — are transmitted through such dietary habits
c) the resistance in northern Nigeria against innoculating children against diseases such as TB
d) in several African countries, “traditional healers” have received government sanction, giving them some of the same state legitimacy provided to nurses and doctors.

The large numbers of highly educated people who move to Europe and the U.S. and lack of social and financial support for scientists in most African countries means that there are few voices defending science in political and media debates in the region. The most passionate defenders of science often are foreigners and thus anti-science attitudes are fueled by resentments against outsiders.

To be sure, South Africa remains an outlier: the technoscientific establishment is robust in the country (as I’ve shown in a recent article), but political demands for more social and economic relevance from research highlight the tensions between the grassroots and elites in South Africa.

Aid donors and educators from Europe and the U.S. often argue that improving African science is simply a matter of supplying more inputs: get more of the diaspora scientists to return to their home countries, spend more on higher education, provide more funds for scientific research, forge more links between scientists in Europe and the US and African scientists.

More inputs into African science will help, of course, but much less than proponents expect. Anti-science attitudes in Africa are deeply rooted, and they are worsening in some ways because of the rise of pandemics and evangelical Christianity and the continuing political and moral appeal of Afro-centrism.

The anti-science movement in Africa displays curious parallels with a similar movement in the U.S. This suggests that merely dismissing science skeptics in Africa as irrational or irrelevant won’t work. These science skeptics must be understood on their own terms. And the case for greater financial investment in research and development in Africa must be made convincingly in political, economic and moral terms. That greater benefits to African societies will result simply from more spending on more R&D should not be presumed but rather demonstrated.

Nov 12 2010

Campaign of Conscience Comes to Nigeria

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:30 AM

The presidential campaign by Nihu Ribadu may be hopeless but it represents an important new form of political mobilization in a West African sub-region that greatly needs more creative electoral tactics.

Ribadu is the first anti-corruption czar in Nigeria, who was fired in 2007 after pushing too hard against wrong-doers in and around the government. While Ribadu has virtually no chance of winning a national election early next year, his campaign presents a novel approach to winning power in a country whose political leaders are a motely crew of misfits and miscreants. Ribadu is not without his flaws; he lacks administrative experience, and he has yet to demonstrate any particular sensitivity to Nigeria’s dizzying multi-ethnic, and multi-religious composition. Yet unlike anyone who has ever come before him in Nigerian politics, Ribadu is openly and frankly idealistic, committed to honesty, clarity and equity. These values make him a pioneer of great significance because his sub-region of West Africa is the most populous in the sub-Saharan and greatly in need of a vision for improved governance.

“Everything about me has always been clean and this will be a clean campaign,” Ribadu told the Economist this week. “In any case, I will not need as much money as other parties because I am not going to bribe anyone. My campaign is about winning over people with my ideas, not my money.”

The idea of gaining political power in Africa through ideas has a long history. In South Africa, Mandela famously came to power through the power of an idea (tolerance to the white minority, and unassailed power to the black majority). And 50 years ago, in the waning years of white-supremacist colonialism, Nkrumah in Ghana and Toure in Guinea each mobilized their untutored masses with compelling ideas of political and economic self-reliance.

In pushing ideas and values to the forefront of his campaign, Ribadu brings to Nigeria, and West Africa generally, an approach to politics that has yielded good results in other parts of the world, notably Eastern Europe and Latin America. Campaigns of conscience are often critical to renewing the capacity for long-suffering, long-oppressed polities to assemble pragmatic reform movements out of the shattered pieces of their nations. While the odds are stacked heavily against campaigns of conscience in Africa — a region where the “politics of the belly” famously dominates — such campaigns should be applauded rather than dismissed, reflexively, as hopeless.

Ideas do matter in African politics, even though decades of cynicism and disappointments have left Africans and friends of Africa suspicious of big ideas and campaigns of conscience. Mandela and the African National Congress proved this proposition time and again in South Africa. So did many others in Eastern Europe and Latin America in recent decades. Pragmatism has its place of course; ordinary Africans have too often been sacrificed on the altar of wildly-inappropriate “grand” ideas. Rabadu’s animating idea that corruption is the chief enemy of Nigerian prosperity is not without flaws. Yet a committment to honesty and integrity is undeniably important in any reformation of Nigeria or many other African nations. So the conclusion is inescapable: Ribadu’s high-minded quest for Nigeria’s presidency, however quixotic, is a powerful reminder that for Africa to achieve greater prosperity values and ethics must co-evolve with improving material conditions and better leadership.

Nov 08 2010

African Affairs: the essential journal

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:11 AM

One truism of African affairs is that writing — no, even thinking — about Africa by serious people from around the world is afflicted by a poverty of imagination, a deficit of passion, and a lack of self-confidence that often expresses itself as a propensity for apology. None of these afflictions afflict the premier serious journal on the region in English, African Affairs, published by the Royal African Society.

Of the many valuable features in this essential journal, the most valuable is the “Briefing,” which appears in each issue and concentrates on a timely, urgent topic. The latest issue of African Affairs, published in October, carries a briefing on the advance of the mobile phone in Africa. The article, while offering no new perspectives, provides comprehensive information about the sweeping shifts in communications in the region brought about by mobile telephony. Clear and thorough,”The Mobile Phone ‘Revolution’ in Africa,” fills an important gap in the literature — and achieves the high standard for pith, accuracy and insight that we come to expect from a journal we would not wish to live without.

Nov 03 2010

Elections won’t fix Ivory Coast

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 8:50 AM

The latest attempt to break the deadlock in the Ivory Coast could be leading to the same electoral stalemate that has forced the international partition of the country in the first place. Ivory Coast is too important to West Africa — the most populous sub-region of Africa — to permit a series of inconclusive elections. Based on the latest voting figures, the stand-off between North and South — Muslim and Christian, Gbagbo and Ouattara — likely can only be ended through a negotiated power-sharing settlement that enables the two main sub-national groupings in Ivory Coast to achieve enough autonomy from one another — and accountability to each other — to move this well-endowed nation forward.

The failure to do so should raise, at last, serious doubts about the viability of Ivory Coast as a single nation. If elections fail, and a government of national unity cannot be negotiated in a way that satisfies the legitimate needs of North and South, then the inevitable next step must be contemplated: to make partition permanent.

After nearly 10 years of stagnation, Ivory Coast must move forward even if the “price” is the creation of two nations out of one. The country remains, even in its crippled political state, an economic powerhouse that provides, in addition to enormous agricultural capabilities, a gateway to the sea for Mali and Burkina Faso, who also rely on Ivory Coast for labor opportunities. Ghana, which like Ivory Coast is a power in the booming global market for cocoa, long has needed to cooperate more closely (on cocoa prices, on investment in infrastructure, on innovation at the field level) with its immediate neighbor to the West. The benefits to the sub-region of a durable political resolution in Ivory Coast are too substantial to sacrifice on the altar of inconclusive elections. There is a better way. If the run-off election on Nov. 28 does not produce a clear winner, with a mandate to bring the nation together, that better way should be embraced.