Aid may be killing Africa but education can save it


OPINION:EDUCATION SHOULD be Europe’s new long-term response to Africa’s problems. Once again a famine in Somalia, exacerbated by civil strife, is creating headlines around the world. Why is it that, 50 years since colonialism was swept away by the “winds of change”, inequality so stubbornly persists between Europe and Africa and, just as importantly, within African societies themselves? What’s to be done?

The European response since the 1960s, partly motivated by colonial guilt, has been based largely on throwing money at the problem, both by governments in the form of bilateral and multilateral aid, and by individuals donating to charities. Aid agencies on the ground certainly have a critical role to play in emergencies. But the long-term effectiveness of financial assistance in this form was clinically dissected in 2009 by Zambian economist, Dambisa Moyo. Her book, Dead Aid, forcefully argued that this approach has fostered dependency, encouraged corruption, and ultimately perpetuated poverty and poor governance.

The fact that it was an educated African who articulated this critique is what made her argument all the more devastating.

A more fashionable idea in recent times has been to focus on the balance of trade between the developed and developing worlds. Historically, trade barriers erected by developed countries have resulted in exploitation little different from the colonial era. Their removal should indeed ameliorate the situation.

But problems of inequality will remain. Potentially the most effective means of breaking down systemic inequality is, in my opinion, education. My perspective is that of someone who works as the financial controller of a Ugandan university.

Near Fort Portal where I live, about 250km west of the capital, Kampala, the Chinese are building a wide road down the Rift Valley escarpment towards Lake Albert – clearly with one eye on the proven oil reserves there, and the other possibly on the even greater potential riches in a virgin corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is no coincidence that in virtually all countries in Africa railway lines do not connect major centres of populations, but instead connect mines to ports.

Education would open African eyes to new forms of exploitation – by foreign governments, multinational companies and even some foreign non-profit organisations. “Foreign” does not just mean European, but also Arab and Chinese.

Colonial pioneers purportedly swapped beads with tribal chiefs for land. Nowadays, foreign dignitaries arrive and promise a tarred road here, a cultural centre there, and bung a few sweeteners to a strategically important politician.

Individual Africans need to become more politically sophisticated. It is hard to think of a political party in Africa which genuinely professes, let alone practises, a coherent political philosophy. Whereas parties in Europe espouse socialist, liberal or Christian democratic values, there is no indigenous African ideology beyond tribalism. Political parties are more often than not built around a commanding personality who offers tribal leadership and is rewarded with uncritical tribal loyalty.

Too many times I have heard educated colleagues in Uganda boast that they would vote for the most likely winner in this year’s Ugandan presidential and general elections; to back the winner was more important than endorsing the best policies. They see no irony in the fact that if a starving thief steals a loaf of bread from a market stall a mob will beat him to death once they catch him, yet when a politician steals millions from the public purse he is often re-elected by a landslide. One of my favourite posters during this year’s election in Kampala read: “The society of uneducated people in Uganda supports the re-election of President Museveni” – again without a trace of irony.

Education could also help defuse the flammable cocktail of religion and politics in many African societies. Uganda hit the headlines this year for proposing the death penalty as part of an anti-homosexuality Bill. There seemed little enthusiasm for this measure among ordinary people I talked to. However, opportunistic politicians needing to deflect attention from more important bread-and-butter issues incited zealous Christian pastors to whip up hysteria over it.

The fastest-growing religion across Africa is a fundamentalist, often American-funded, “born-again” version of Christianity that takes the Bible literally, quotes it selectively and exploits the illiterate, the semi-literate and the desperate. They are successful because they offer not just miracle cures for Aids and disabilities – which they invariably do – but also hope.

One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, I was sitting on my verandah listening to the fire-and-brimstone preachers on their loudspeakers around Fort Portal when suddenly an earth tremor hit – not unusual in the Albertine Rift Valley region.

I heard subsequently that the pastors had a field day.

By introducing free universal primary and secondary education in the past decade, Uganda is at last attempting to improve education among its people. Paradoxically this “big-bang” approach may have had the effect of reducing standards across the board, as overwhelmed teachers now find that class sizes have tripled to 80 or more pupils. Students are not taught to question or to think for themselves, with the result that university standards are often more comparable to secondary school standards in Ireland.

The tragedy is that Ugandan students are naturally bright, talented and possibly better-motivated than their Irish counterparts. They are arguably Africa’s greatest untapped natural resource. But they need direction and leadership which must come from within.

There may be merit in the argument that, just as the well-known, fee-paying schools around south Dublin were originally founded to educate an “elite” that would drive forward commerce, scholarship and politics in Irish society, so too is there need for such a system of more elite schools in Uganda to mould leaders. Funding, of course, should be contingent on selection by ability rather than wealth.

Students should learn to engage critically with competing ideologies and theologies, to be less deferential to perceived authority, and to challenge intellectually on issues of equality and social justice.

To play a round of nine holes at Fort Portal golf club costs the equivalent of 50 cent, a second-hand golf ball costs 50 cent - and to hire a caddie for the afternoon costs 50 cent.

Europeans shouting from the sidelines about inequality in Africa will never get very far. Reform needs to develop organically from within their own communities.

What was so important about Dambisa Moyo’s book was not its critique of African aid – some European academics and development sector practitioners had questioned this before. Rather, it was that an educated African was calling for fresh thinking and, more importantly, was able to portray the crux of the problem in such a clear and persuasive way to the rest of the world.

Brendan Clerkin has worked in Kenya and is currently the financial controller of a university in Fort Portal, Uganda

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