Why the Irish should show solidarity with Africa


We must not forget the lessons of the Great Famine when it comes to providing aid for Africa, writes David Adams

RESPONDING TO another letter writer who claimed that "reckless population growth" is a major cause of famine in Africa, Paul McCarthy (Letters, July 24th) did well to remind us that biased commentators posited virtually the same theory when trying to explain away the Great Famine of 1848.

Then, as McCarthy noted, it was "papists breeding like rabbits" that supposedly was the problem. Nowadays it is black Africans and their "reckless population growth".

As the current economic downturn begins to bite, it shouldn't surprise us that opinions of this sort are starting to surface again.

As people thrash about for scapegoats and fall guys on whom to vent their frustrations, foreign aid and "foreign" people - in the latter case, our newest and most vulnerable citizens - are always tempting prey.

And to not only the bar stool philosopher types, but also, and more worryingly, to a tiny few in the media who occasionally pander to the prejudices of the lowest common denominator.

I have seen it suggested that famines in Africa cannot possibly be as bad as reported otherwise African populations could not keep growing at the rate that they do, or so the paper-thin logic goes.

Worse still, and something that seemed to attract a fair measure of popular support, was a recent suggestion that foreign aid to African countries should be halted altogether.

Regardless of the reasonable-sounding language in which this particular idea was couched, it still amounted to advocating that people should be left to die and that nature alone should determine the balance between populations and resources.

I don't think even the most biased commentator of the mid-19th century went that far.

There is, indeed, a direct correlation between large families and poverty and deprivation but not in the order that those short on memory and compassion would have us believe.

Nor must we look back as far as the Great Famine to learn lessons from our own social history. Until quite recently, people in Ireland did indeed "breed like rabbits", even the Protestants.

I myself am from a family of 10 children, which wasn't that exceptional among our neighbouring co-religionists.

A mere few decades ago, between six and eight children was the norm here, right across the board.

Neither can we reasonably claim that religious imperatives and/or tribal based competition over territory made this a phenomenon particular to Ireland.

During the same period, large families were also the norm in Britain, where the Catholic Church's edicts on procreation held little or no sway and territorial jostling between the different strands of Christianity had long since ceased to be a factor, except in a few places like Liverpool and Glasgow.

Nowadays, three or four children is the average, so what changed things?

More than anything else, a massive broadening of educational opportunities and, leading from that, bottom-up economic growth. Our own history shows that the narrower the opportunities for educational and economic betterment, the larger individual families tend to be.

It may seem irrational, but it is nonetheless a matter of fact that less resources produces more children. Irrational maybe, but not inexplicable.

To put it bluntly, when life is a daily torture, with no realistic prospects of it getting any better, you will indulge in the only pleasure available to you, regardless.

Never mind our history, the history of virtually the entire developed world tells the same story. As the average income climbs within a country (this almost invariably following a massive widening of education and employment opportunities, particularly for women) the size of the average family reduces.

There are, of course, problems with western aid to Africa. I have complained often enough about them myself but these are related to issues of management, accountability and distribution.

To help the African peoples move from a position not entirely dissimilar to where we were only a few decades ago, we need to start applying the remedies that we ourselves happened upon. We need to invest in primary, secondary and third-level education, and also in creating sustainable employment.

In the case of Africa, heavy investment is required, most particularly in agriculture.

Far from reducing it, we need to direct massively more, better-targeted aid towards Africa.

Furthermore, if the West is genuinely committed to helping people there create a better life for themselves, then it must lower its trade barriers.

And what of the dictators and despots? As Hitler demonstrated, there can be no guarantees about what any society might throw up as a leader. But history shows, too, that there is much less chance of dictators finding their way to power and/or holding on to it, where a highly educated populace is involved.

Of course, in order to apply the social history of this part of the world to our thinking on Africa, we must first accept the underlying premise of McCarthy's letter: which is that the various peoples of Africa are no different from ourselves.

That they are neither less honest than we are, nor less intelligent - just more unfortunately situated.

For some people, I suspect, accepting that fact will be the biggest hurdle of all.