Mallence Bart-Williams on Sierra Leone – the richest country in the world and Western dependency on Africa


Mallence Bart-Williams talks to Berlin about Sierra Leone – the richest country in the world, in nature, people, culture, treasures, minerals…and stamps.

“Of course the West needs Africa’s resources, most desperately. To power aeroplanes, cellphones, computers and engines. And the gold and diamonds of course. A status symbol to determine their powers by decor and to give value to their currencies.

One thing that keeps me puzzled, despite having studied finance and economics at the world’s best universities, the following question remains unanswered. Why is it that 5,000 units of our currency is worth 1 unit of your currency, where we are the ones with actual gold reserves?

It’s quite evident that the aid is in fact not coming from the West to Africa, but from Africa to the Western world. The Western world depends on Africa in every possible way, since alternative resources are scarce out here.

So how does the West ensure that the free aid keeps coming? By systematically destabilising the wealthiest African nations and their systems, and all that backed by huge PR campaigns, leaving the entire world under the impression that Africa is poor and dying and merely surviving on the mercy of the West. Well done Oxfam, UNICEF, Red Cross, Live Aid and all the other organisations that continuously run multimillion dollar advertising campaigns depicting charity porn to sustain that image of Africa globally.”


Why it’s time to BAN Band Aid…

Sigh. The air has turned colder in the UK, it’s almost acceptable to bring up Christmas and three African countries are suffering from an (admittedly devastating) outbreak of the Ebola virus. We know what this means… it’s also about time for Sir Bob to come to the rescue, saving the African continent yet again with another excruciating rehash of the paternalistic, patronising and painful festive Band Aid classic “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” thirty years after the original.

Initially, one might ask why Geldof think’s it’s necessary to release this song when there is already a (admittedly French-produced) version “Africa Stop Ebola” with West African artists Guinean Kandia Kora, Mory Kante, Marcus and Sia Tolno, Ivorian Tiken Jah Fakoly, Malian Amadou & Mariam, Oumou Sangaré, Mokobe and Salif Keita, Congolese Barbara Kanam and Senegalese Didier Awadi (what a line up!).

The intentions are good, but the song is damaging, patronising and perpetuates the difficult-to-shift impression across much of the mainstream media and public perception in the UK (and much of the ‘West’) that Africans are helpless and are waiting to be saved. This is despite the fact that Liberians, Guineans and Sierra Leoneans are helping themselves to combat Ebola, and Nigeria and Mali have successfully contained and eradicated cases of the disease.

According to research carried out by VSO in 2001:

80% of the British public strongly associate the developing world with doom-laden images of famine, disaster and Western aid. Sixteen years on from Live Aid, these images are still top of mind and maintain a powerful grip on the British psyche.

This false understanding of the African continent has a huge impact on all who live and work and were born there. It defines roles such as ‘powerful giver’ and ‘grateful receiver’ and leads people living in the West to assume that everyone must want and need to embrace our democracy, culture and political models; beliefs that are then reflected in the global political, economic and social system and in relationships between countries and between citizens.

Here’s my take on why it’s time for Geldof to hang up his sword and cape, climb down from his white horse and ‘hand Africa back’ to those who live there:

It’s Christmastime; there’s no need to be afraid
(Although it’s perfectly acceptable to stockpile Ebola Survival Kits, ban flights from the whole continent of Africa, and talk about Ebola as if the only reason we should be concerned is that it might actually leave the continent)
At Christmastime, we let in light and we banish shade
(Shade? Phew, that’s something they could do with in Africa surely? It’s SO HOT THERE ALL OF THE TIME)
And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy
(Or how about some good old fashioned equality in the distribution of wealth and resources?)

Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime
(But not too tightly, you might catch something)
But say a prayer to pray for the other ones
(Yes the OTHER ones)
At Christmastime
It’s hard, but when you’re having fun
There’s a world outside your window
And it’s a world of dread and fear
(Did you know: they don’t have fun in Africa; only dread and fear)

Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears
(And tears are the source of the Niger, Nile, Congo, Zambezi, Orange…)
And the Christmas bells that ring there
Are the clanging chimes of doom
(If only they had festive music like this)
Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime
(But there might… )

The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
(And this is unique to Africa)
Oh, where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow
(The EU has been clearly lying to us about the fact that it imports 40 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural exports (but don’t get me started on ridiculous inequalities in the global economic/food system and the imbalance of African imports/exports)
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?
(Funnily enough, they do. Because one in four Christians live in Sub-Saharan Africa)

Here’s to you, raise a glass for ev’ryone
Here’s to them, underneath that burning sun
(And it’s only going to get worse thanks to Western-led climate change)
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all? 

Feed the world
Feed the world
Feed the world
Let them know it’s Christmastime again
Feed the world
Let them know it’s Christmastime again

Even Geldof knows it’s crap. It’s time to disband.

Why I’m not “Living Below the Line”

This week, if you have the slightest interest in international development and live in the Western Hemisphere, it’s likely that you’ll have been bombarded with people tweeting/blogging/facebooking/instagramming photos of lentils and noodles as they undertake the Live Below the LineChallenge’, where they live on £1/$1.50 of food per day for five days.

I’m going to put my hands up right now and admit that in 2012 I undertook this ‘challenge’ for a month and last year again for five days. This year, however, I am not taking part because I’ve woken up and realised just how bad this campaign really is… for a number of reasons:

My main issue with the campaign is the same issue I take with other Western international development campaigns – it’s (inadvertently) patronising. However well-intentioned, the campaign has, for many, turned into a funpersonalchallengetoseewhetherIcansurviveonapoundaday… LBTL is also, along with many other Western fundraising campaigns/NGOs/development organisations, designed to make the participant feel good about what they’re doing; believe that they are a little closer to understanding what extreme poverty looks/feels like and that they are playing an active role in eradicating poverty and going some way to ‘saving’ those who live in it (a) I know I am making sweeping statements here and b) these are the issues that I have with the majority of Western-led development orgs and campaigns). The harsh reality is that Live Below the Line is a shallow campaign built for social media – it’s the McDonald’s of international development campaigning and fundraising – fast, palatable, gimmicky and marketable, but damaging. This is yet another campaign that groups people living in extreme poverty as a homogeneous group with the same problems and issues and values, it labels them as poor, helpless and ineffective agents to be acted upon, saved and…not much else, thus dehumanizing. This campaign is not educating, it’s eliding the facts of poverty, reinforcing stereotypes and obscuring the real challenges being faced and the truth about the people facing them.

My second issue with the campaign is that, by focussing on extreme poverty purely in economic terms and drawing ‘poverty lines’, the campaign manages to trivialise the many complexities of poverty and what it will actually take to alleviate it. I appreciate that, for a campaign like this to be successful in getting people’s attention, it needs to focus on a single issue and that the Global Poverty Project and Live Below the Line do allude to some of these complexities if you dig a little deeper into the campaign. However, the general public face of the campaign, that has an awareness raising objective alongside fundraising targets, focuses on income (and the food that it can buy) alone, which is an inadequate measure of poverty –  and very shortsighted. As Ben Coleridge wrote in his blog post: “People’s capacity to translate income into wellbeing differs according to cultural, social and political contexts. While people’s incomes might set them above the determined ‘poverty line’, without access to a functioning justice system for example, their capacity to translate income into real opportunity is severely reduced.” The income focus of the campaign also ignores complexities such as the intra-household distribution of the wellbeing derived from income (gender is a huge factor here) and the fact that most people living on £1 a day spend only half of this daily income on food.

My third issue with the campaign is pretty much this:

Live Below the Line makes its first mistake in using the word “live.” To live, at least in my mind, means to really experience something, to understand an existence in such a way that you could describe its nooks and crannies with your eyes closed. Not spending a lot of money on food isn’t “living” below the line, because regardless of how you eat, chances are your home is still stocked with Ikea stuff, a comfortable bed, hot water, air conditioning, digital cable, etc. People forced to spend no more than $1.50 a day on food are also forced to live with violence, exposure to the elements, disease, and war. Saying you’re living like them because you’ve decided to give up fancy sandwiches for five days is like someone saying they can empathize with Nelson Mandela because they spent a night in the drunk tank.”

and this:

“Poverty is not a f**king game.

Poverty does not have rules except you have to do it again tomorrow. Poverty is not new or exciting. Poverty is not neatly quarantined to one area of your life. Poverty is not something you can control with neatly defined parameters. And it does not come with prizes.”

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on the Live Below the Line campaign, whether you’re in favour of it/have undertaken it or not. Am I being too harsh or too kind?