What a difference a year makes… 5 things I learnt in 365 days of ‘development truths’

I know it’s been a while. It’s been a few weeks since I posted at all, but even longer since I feel I posted something that I’d really been able to get my teeth into. For various reasons life had got in the way and I think that lots of changes in my personal life, coupled with a lack of confidence in my abilities to ‘hold’ this blog, have put me off posting for too long.

I spent the majority of February in Ghana, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire, exploring, seeing friends and dancing. Despite the trip being purely for the purposes of enjoyment (few people could believe we weren’t there to volunteer), I had a number of very interesting conversations and was able to observe lots of things going on that reinforced several of the thoughts and feelings documented in this blog so far, and introduced many more. I’ll be addressing some of these issues in subsequent posts.

It seems fitting then, that a year on (almost to the day), I feel more galvanised than ever to explore, investigate and interrogate some of the issues I’ve begun to address here. Whether or not this will continue in the form of a blog, I don’t yet know, but for now, I think it still serves as a good platform to help me shine a light on some of the issues I see in our wholly ‘developing’ world.

Here is a taster of what I’ve ‘learnt’ this year. I will go into more detail about each of these points in a series of posts in the coming weeks:

  1. Stereotypes associated with developing countries are only a tiny part of a much bigger problem

You might remember that my primary motivation for starting this blog was an advertising campaign by a well-known British NGO:

“…about a young African girl who had to walk several miles a day to collect water and how people could text to donate money to help her. It wasn’t the first time I’d had the thought but I was struck by how patronising and unempowering the advert was – that all we should feel for this human being, this personality, this girl, was pity – and these adverts become the poster campaign for how we feel about the whole of the developing world (or in this case, Africa.)”

As you’ll see if you’ve read some of my posts, the topics I cover now are so much more varied. I realised that these stereotypes are just a symptom of a global economic and political system that disempowers and subjugates whole continents… This year I hope to focus on a number of different issues and questions, which you can read on my updated About page.

  1. Colonialism never ended, and we’re in an era of neo-colonialism

Sadly, my return from West Africa meant that I narrowly missed Ghana’s celebration of Independence from Britain on 6th March. Although I’d had a sense of what’s going on there before my trip, it became increasingly apparent that, in actual fact, ‘independence’ in many ways, has been in name only. This is not to take anything away from the wonder that is Ghana as a country, and the many successes it enjoys as the result of its capable and active population; but it’s apparent to me that the country is consistently being disempowerered by external influences and prevented from reaching full autonomy and, subsequently, potential.

It’s possible to argue that there is a continuation of influence being exerted by the original European colonial powers on the region. In Ghana, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire, the influence of Britain and France respectively, is obvious – examples include: disproportionate involvement in internal affairs, politics and trade, interests in raw materials and energy sources; even down to the fact that the CFA franc is printed in France. Additionally we’re now seeing an apparent ‘carving up’ of the continent by China and the US; in trade, investment, government infrastructure contracts and resource mining, and arguably, for the US in military influence and culture. NB: I will justify these assertions in subsequent posts.

I would argue that the West continues to be a huge external influence on the region, in a multitude of areas that covers economy (aid, trade, loans, government contracts, resource access), politics (manipulation of democratic process, leaders in pockets of Western leaders, assassination of Pan-African leaders, underrepresentation and inequality in global institutions such as the UN and the World Bank), culture, religion, language and much more. Over the coming months and years I plan to chart a map of external influence on the African continent as I believe that the current set up is disempowering and unequal, as I hope to either prove or disprove in subsequent posts.

  1. There are lots of wonderful people and organisations doing good work in this area

Here is just one example: At Cape Coast Castle, one of the most notorious British slave forts in Ghana, I found a book How Europe Under-Developed Africa by Walter Rodney, recognized as one of the “Carribean’s most brilliant minds. On the website of his foundation, his short introduction reads:

“His scholarly works and political activism engendered a new political consciousness.  His PhD thesis, A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, illustrated his duality as an intellectual and activist as he challenged prevailing assumptions about African history and put forth his own ideas and models for analyzing the history of oppressed peoples.  His seminal work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, provided a new construct for development theory and established framework for analyzing current global socio-economic and political issues.”

To discover him has been life-changing. Reading parts of his book felt as though he was sitting inside my head as I read pages and pages of arguments and points and theories that complimented my own thinking. Rodney has inspired me beyond measure and has been a catalyst for some of the work that I want to do in the coming years. This past weekend marked the 12th Annual Walter Rodney Symposium held by the Walter Rodney Foundation set up by his friends and family after his assassination. I was unable to attend, but am in the process of watching it online, and I look forward to reporting on it in the coming weeks. I really recommend you look him up.

  1. ‘Altruistic’ foreign aid is a cover up

Something I already knew (thanks to my dissertation), but that has been further reinforced, is that foreign aid is covering up a huge drain of resources and money from developing countries, namely on the African continent, through climate change mitigation, tax evasion and profits going to multinational corporations. Here’s just one article with more information. Aid can also often be linked to national or corporate interests in the form of ‘tied’ aid  (despite pledges to end it) and can be given strategically to promote national political and security interests:

“Over much of the South, (…) networks (leading states, NGOs, UN agencies and the business sector) are busy trying to provide humanitarian assistance, reduce vulnerability; resolve conflict and strengthen the capacities of civil actors: aid has become a technology of security” (Duffield, 2002: 153-4).

Which leads me on to:

  1. The ‘developed West’ won’t acknowledge how much it has benefited (has been built on the back of), and continues to benefit from the subjugation of developing countries and those living in them

In the latest edition of Red Pepper magazine, Nick Dearden, Director of Global Justice Now writes:

“…But over the past two decades, the war on global poverty has been subverted and co-opted. In an age when obscene wealth became once again something to boast about, those big campaign groups and politicians concerned about poverty moved with the times. To keep ‘poverty’ relevant to Thatcher’s children, they gutted it of political content. Through the new concept of ‘extreme poverty’, it became possible both to believe in me-first individualism and free market economics, and to care about the very poor.”

This is something that has become increasingly apparent to me; that the large majority of us are blind to how complicit we are in the disempowerment and subjugation of those living in extreme poverty, and how essentially defunct and useless foreign aid is without change on a global, systemic scale to level the playing field. In the current system, ‘aid’ is at best a sticking plaster on a gaping wound, and at worst simply serves as a strategic tool to further Western corporate and political interests and as a salve for our collective consumer conscience, peripherally aware that all is not well.

This list could be endless, but this is just a small handful of the many things I have discovered and uncovered throughout the year (much of which may not be news to you). I’m learning new things every day and will continue to do so. My hope is that by unpacking some of these thoughts and issues, and bringing them out into the sunshine, somehow might contribute to their transformation.

Please feel free to share your thoughts about this post below!


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