Lessons from Africa

Alan Staff reflects on his experience as part of a mission and fact finding team to Rwanda and Burundi, asking whether our approach to and perceptions of aid are quite what we might think.

Having recently returned from a working visit to Rwanda and Burundi I was struck by how the two different political systems have a direct effect on their respective populations, and the different attitudes expressed by residents concerning leadership.  While there is no doubt that most people in the UK would feel that Central African politics has little to teach and everything to learn from us, I think that there are some very obvious lessons which we might learn.  If there is one point that the National Genocide Museum/memorial in Kigali makes very strongly it is that human rights atrocities and welfare crises are invariably predictable, understandable, potentially preventable and yet repeated with a savage inevitability.  It is the belief that ‘it couldn’t happen here,’ which allows us to detach from or take a morally superior view of the issues which we would rather avoid dealing with.

Rwanda is beyond doubt a success story in developmental and economic terms.  Everywhere there is evidence of investment, infrastructure improvements and productivity, especially around the capital. A significant presence of aid organisations and corporate investors suggests that this country, so recently torn apart by politically engineered genocide is taking rapid steps toward prosperity.  Those benefitting from this new optimism are positive in their view of the future and very supportive of the Government for the benefits of infrastructure, agriculture and a sense of national pride.

In Burundi however we saw little sign of investment in infrastructure, a strong sense that corruption in both government and business was crippling the country, and a level of social tension and overt aggression was evident on the streets.  Huge numbers of disaffected unemployed young men congregate on roadsides and the presence of armed military, police and security guards everywhere merely increased the sense that this is an unstable society barely able to control its own fears.

Is all what it seems?  In Rwanda we were aware that there is sense that it is dangerous to criticise the government and that the apparent prosperity is at the price of living with a potentially repressive political system conscious of its country’s recent history and of the potential for political coup or of influential political movements emerging.  Political language, for all its modernised appearance still has elements of guarded violence and the further you go from Kigali the less evidence there is that the ambition of those in power is able to extend into the desperately poor rural communities.  This is not to say that the intention is not there but there is a difficult juxtaposition between the building of prestige projects ostensibly to increase the sense of national pride, and the chronic need of those for whom the growth offers no benefits as yet.

Burundi, facing elections next year, has a government which appears to be openly criticised by many of the population and has a long history of coups and corruption at the highest level.  It was very difficult to find anyone whose attitude towards the government was positive, and there was a degree of fatalism around the likelihood of social or economic conditions changing.  We spoke with a number of people who had lived and worked in both countries and there is a clear drift of employees from Burundi to Rwanda which is being replaced by relatively uncontrolled migration from the DRC into Burundi, usually with little in the way of resources or usable skills.

These two nations, in many ways so alike, offer a dangerous and highly flammable cocktail in an area already surrounded by civil disputes and ideological conflicts.  The combination of a marked contrast in the fortunes of the two countries, the presence of so many unemployed young people looking for a cause or point for their existence and the socio-political history of the area make this a seriously volatile region despite the world political view that at least one of the two countries is prospering and offers potential return on investment.  The impact of one country thriving and its neighbour declining presents huge problems in managing socio-economic migration causing increasing pressure on the one hand to control and marginalise those migrants, and on the other a skills drain from an area which most needs those workers.  To what extent do we consider these practicalities when we consider where we place aid, support or investment? Are there reasons to consider the effect of economic exploitation dressed in investment clothes into one area we like because they say the right things, but not into a neighbouring state which we fear to be less stable?  What are we actually learning from our political history in the world’s conflict zones if it is not that economic support which is given on ideological grounds rather than simply on the basis of need and humanitarian consideration has a very nasty habit of biting us on the tail.  This is especially the case where arms and associated supplies are included in the package.

Is cross border economic migration a natural balancing effect in international resource management or is it the precursor to cultural and social tensions which inevitably breed nationalistic and protective social change?  It is easy to look at places like Rwanda or Burundi and pretend that we are so much more advanced in our thinking and yet even the most cursory glance at our own socio-political landscape must send out warnings.  Most specifically these warnings will relate to a growing sense of or search for national or social cohesion leading to social fragmentation and a backlash against multi-culturalism.  This is frequently coupled with a reduction in trust in the government and law, concerns about transparency not only in public conduct but in economic practice and policy, and the impact of uncontrolled manipulation of populations and government by corporate entities including the press. Political responses to this tend to be predictable and most frequently based less upon rational or humanitarian principles and more upon appeasement of populist trends or vested interest.  Actually Africa looks a lot like us, just with less clothes!

Alan Staff is CEO of Apex Scotland, a charity working with offenders and those at risk of offending, and is an elder at St John’s Evangelical Church, Linlithgow.  He has a background in community development, mental health care and social policy.



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