French-Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou argues that official development assistance must take specific African cultural characteristics into account to encourage the emergence of true African development models.
You believe the concept of “development” comes from developed countries. What do you mean?
It’s a fact: development criteria are defined by the dominant economic powers. In a sense, they are the ones who determine who sits at the table for G7 and G20 talks. However, these criteria do not necessarily coincide with development criteria from an African perspective. Our continent has its own traditions, a different way of managing conflicts, and dealing with institutions. Furthermore, from the outside, our traditional institutions are often seen as incompatible with the development of society.
Ultimately, it’s a little like the definition of beauty standards. In several regions of Africa, overweight women are seen as very desirable. In Europe, you must be thin, even anorexic, to be on the cover of a magazine! The dominant concept of beauty is therefore European simply because Europeans have all the necessary means of spreading their definition through newspapers, media and products. Africa does not have this capacity to impose its criteria on others. And, in my opinion, the presence of autocratic regimes does not help. The concepts of development and autocracy are indeed contradictory, even though China is key world power and India rapidly growing as an emerging power.
In the midst of climate change and in a context of an economic model based on growth that is increasingly criticized, can Africa offer a solution?
Africa observes and draws from other emerging nations, especially in Latin America. It observes in particular its capacity to acquire a certain level of economic independence through the promotion of local culture and products and to regulate the outpouring of false generosity from certain Western governments who tend to take back what they have given. Other development models, better adapted to our continent, certainly exist. They take account of the African way of living, handling conflicts, and sharing and creating wealth.
What is the role of the African diaspora?
It has a major role to play. It must not only foster enthusiasm among the people of Africa, but also assist local economies through economic action and initiatives. The diaspora already gives a lot, by transferring funds from developed countries to developing countries and by starting businesses. The intellectual diaspora–like our elders in the in the 1930s and 40s, including Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor–rethink and write about Africa, thus creating a sense of pride in their identity.
Many political voices in developed countries call for the establishment of an “equal partnership”. What do you think of this?
They are living in an ideal world. For an equal relationship to exist, there must first be a balance between partners. If I want to form a partnership with France, I need more than wealth. Many things are needed: a democratic impetus, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a government that does not resemble a gang of officials plundering State resources.
Another question arises: if a partner’s public accounts lack transparency, should France work with them? We must be sure that the assistance will reach those it is intended to help and will be used wisely. Of course, we cannot assign a policeman to verify every euro we spend. But we must establish adequate control mechanisms. The governments of rich countries often allocate aid and trust the government to distribute it among their citizens. This is a mistake and it creates a great deal of suspicion among citizens.
Does this mean it is best to avoid dealing with an authoritarian government likely to misappropriate international aid?
That would be a mistake. Aid is part of international courtesy. It distinguishes us from animals. We cannot accept a refusal to assist citizens in danger. Furthermore, aid does not appear out of thin air. It is the result of a process involving common historical, economic and cultural relationships. The citizens of the State providing aid must be aware that, to a certain extent, it has contributed to a reducing the scope of the State receiving aid.
However, as I said before, we must ensure that the aid granted in good faith is distributed fairly between both supporters and opponents of the regime in power. We should even ensure that this aid contributes to the democratization of power. Aid in itself is not enough, we must study consequences on the ground.
In this case, don’t donors expose themselves to suspicion of “colonial interference”?
This suspicion will probably never be completely erased. But tracing the path of aid from its source to recipients would help to reduce this suspicion of collusion. The problem is that in Africa, the aid often ends up in the local leader’s pockets…
Is it unjust for developed countries to ask developing countries to contribute to the Paris Agreement?
This results from the lack of balance between developed countries and the others. But African governments cannot just let the Congo Basin forest go up in flames. This is a common good, and we must protect it together, just like certain monuments that are part of our world heritage as humans. If we lose this forest, part of humanity’s heritage will disappear with it.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.