Lambert Mbom

International Aid and Development Forum: Where is Africa?

            If anyone doubts the tantalizing effect of this economy, I can testify first hand having gone for close to two months without a pay check. In a bid to escape the scorching heat of being unemployed and hence avoid sliding into a psychological depression, I sought a place to distract myself. After all, idleness is the devil’s workshop or so some claim. Quite honestly, I came to the 3rd annual international aid and development forum of July 22nd – July 23rd 2010 by accident. Given that it was free and coupled with the fact that it appeared to me as a fertile ground for prospective employers even though not a job fair, made it quite appealing. May be, I said to myself, I will find some prospective employers or else get a panoramic view of what this field is all about and who knows try out something else. As you can guess, the former was a huge disappointment; after all, I had neither the academic credentials nor the experience. The latter, at least, tickled my imagination.

            Africa often tops the agenda of talk about International Aid and development. Such appellations as Third world Continent and themes as eradicate poverty or when more positive “developing economies” are common parlance with reference to Africa. My inspiration flew out of a comment by one of the many presenters namely: a key principle in International development should always be not what we want for the people but rather what the people want for themselves.

In my opinion there was an unusual imbalance between relief agencies and tools and development oriented agencies. What an event it was both in terms of the educational value and also the beautiful displays that turned the event to a circus of some sorts. For the first time, I learnt about social entrepreneurship and its prospects for development as the blueprint for the way forward. It was also fascinating getting to know something about procurements processes and as you can imagine, I have spent some time toying with the idea of getting involved here. Yet these were not able to soothe my quest and thirst for something from the homeland.

            As I looked around that grotesque structure of the Washington Convention Center, there were few Africans in sight. Sure enough, there were just a handful of compatriots from mother Africa in the over one thousand delegates in attendance. Once again, Africa was missing. Yes it is quite expensive to fly to the USA just for a forum like this. And so the question then for me was: is Africa that poor? What has Africa concretely to offer to develop the world? If it is true that to whom much is given,  much is expected in return, then we must ask, is it that much has not been given or rather that the much given fell into a bottomless pit. To be quite honest, it would be wrong to support an “either…or” position as though both are mutually exclusive. After all these years of commitment to develop Africa and by sheer dint of the number of organizations involved in this business, the million dollar question remains: where is Africa.

            It is important to say here that: Africa is a huge continent where very diverse situations are found and that it is necessary to avoid generalizations both in evaluating problems and suggesting solutions…One common situation without any doubt is that Africa is full of problems. In almost all our nations, there is abject poverty, tragic mismanagement of available scarce resources, political instability and social disorientation. The results stare us in the face: misery, wars, despair. In a world controlled by rich and powerful nations, Africa has practically become an irrelevant appendix often forgotten and neglected.” (Ecclesia in Africa n.  49) This is a guiding principle for us as we evaluate the role of Africa in the exclusive club of development.

            Sustainable development was as expected on every lip throughout the International Aid and development forum. It was the leitmotif of the entire forum. In my opinion, we need to raise the bar of sustainability with respect to Africa. The thrust of my thinking is encapsulated in Christianity’s missionary expansion to Africa.

Christianity has blossomed on the continent to a certain degree thanks in large part to the corps of selfless missionaries who defied the odds and embraced the challenges wont of trailblazing. Today with the rising tides of secularism so pervasive in the culture of the west and choking it to extinction, Africa has become the hope of Christianity, at least for Catholicism. Africa was evangelized so that she too can in turn evangelize. Africans became missionaries to themselves and now to the ends of the earth.

            One could argue very strongly that Africa has contributed a great deal in developing Europe and America. Let us not touch the hot potato of slave trade. If one were to consider the enormous “brain drain” the point would have been beautifully driven home. The “brain bank or trust” of Africa is sadly beyond the confines of Africa. There is talk therefore of a modern kind of slavery which unlike its primitive form, this one is rather voluntary. People who work long hours and joggle jobs just to meet up with a certain standard of living (a car – the bigger the better; a house unfortunately not a home – the pricier the merrier) and the list is on. Or the more pathetic syndrome of professionals like medical doctors who have abandoned lucrative positions back home to toil here as Certified Nursing Assistants while struggling to get into the system.

            Yet the bigger question for me, without downplaying the role of such personnel man power is how about the financial resources? The average African who attends an event like this will sugar coat his real intentions like I heard many of my friends rattle off the magic word: networking. Yes, this is crucial and only at the risk of being myopic can one gainsay this. Yet, Truth be told here that the primary mover here is the DOUGH. We hear so much pious chatter about capacity building. Guess what?  The true capacity to be built is undeniably the treasury.

            My real problem then is that the hype about sustainable development must go beyond enabling aid recipients to survive after donors “hands off” and hand over. Rather it should be the case that having received much the groups must be able to give to others in return. This is a Pauline recommendation which is beautifully espoused in 2 Cor. 1:4 thus: God helps us in all our troubles, so that we are able to help those who have all kinds of troubles, using the same help that we ourselves have received from God. Africa definitely has no shortage of philanthropists in academia, business, sports, politics etc.  This is not my point of contention. Within the context of International development, it only becomes sustainable to the extent that development not only stands on its own but also stretches out a hand to the neighbor in need.

            Africa should not and cannot afford to remain perpetual recipients. Must Africa be developed before it can help develop others? Or is it not possible that while developing, she can stretch out to help too. Worth considering in this proposal is the fact that every day we hear media outlets inform us that America is twelve trillion in debts and yet at the same time they still sustain such development juggernauts like USAID, MCC, USADF to name but these. I am looking forward to the day when Nigeria for example will pass a budget which includes development assistance to one of its poor neighbors and actively work to see this through.  All actors in development must revisit the development model.

            In my lamentations for and about Africa during this forum, a glimmer of hope flashed. Three events in DC over the last weeks of July and early August 2010 provided a watershed for the prospects of true development. First the African Growth and Opportunity Act that gave birth to two separate events namely the AGOA civil society forum and the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP) that held in DC July 26 – August 3, and Kansas City, Missouri, August 4 – 6; then the President’s forum for Young African Leaders (August 2nd – August 6th 2010). This African prominence was quite foreboding and soothing.

            In the interim though, it was fascinating to learn about two African inventions namely Enviro – Loo Solar powered toilets and Standard Bank all from South Africa. It was also quite a privilege to chat with two delegates from Africa namely: Mr. Francis Bainomugisha from Uganda and Mr. Joseph Peters heading the giant Make Poverty History initiative in Nigeria.

            The time, money and energy put into all these events deserve some time evaluating whether they were worth the pain. We shall engage these in our next musings.