Emerging Africa: Democracy, development and environmental change

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By Robert K. Hitchcock

Emerging AfricaThe continent of Africa is often seen as a continent in decline, one in which droughts, famine, disease, poverty, failed states, economic stagnation and poorly thought-out development projects are pervasive. As Jared Diamond asked in his recent book, “Collapse” (2005), “Is the African continent doomed eternally to wars, poverty, and devastating diseases? I think not.” All one has to do is to look at book titles: “Africa in Crisis,” “Fighting for the Rain Forest: War, Youth, and Re­sources in Sierra Leone,” “Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor,” and “Conflicts over Land and Water in Africa.” Africa was characterized by “The Economist” (May 13, 2000) as “the hopeless continent.” If one sees the film “Darwin’s Nightmare,” one cannot help but despair at the massive environmental, social and economic problems facing the populations residing in and around Lake Victoria. Yet Africa received only 3 percent of the world’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the early part of the new millennium.

Africa is highly diverse: 3,500 different languages spoken in 53 countries, 800,000,000 people in a continent 7,000 kilometers wide and 8,000 kilometers in length. It has a wide variety of habitats, from some of the world’s largest and most intact tropical forests to savanna (grassland) zones, deserts (the Sahara, the Namib and the Kalahari), magnificent mountain regions (“the water towers of Africa”), and highly fertile Mediterranean zones in North Africa and in South Africa. Often seen as a largely rural continent, nearly 40 percent of the population of Africa now resides in urban areas.

According to genetic research, Africa is humanity’s “first home.” The continent is rich in both human and natural re­sources. It provides at least 14 percent of the United States’ oil needs currently, and that percentage is anticipated to increase substantially in the next several years. It is recognized for its superb populations of wild­life—including the so-called Big Five—the animals that many tourists go to Africa to see: elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, lion and leopard. Cultural tourism and heritage tourism are expanding in Africa, with greater numbers of people from Asia, Europe and the Americas visiting the continent to see peoples and places ranging from the rock art sites of the Sahara to ancient cities like Timbuktu in Mali and Carthage in Tunisia.

There is no question, however, that livelihoods in some parts of the African continent are eroding. Water scarcity is on the increase, with a sizable number of countries facing severe water shortages. South Africa and a number of other countries are coping with severe power shortages, with blackouts and brownouts commonplace, pro­cesses that affect the economy, including the mining economy, so key to the well-being of a number of African states. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 21 countries in Africa have a single export commodity. Some countries are mineral-led economies, such as Botswana, whose economy is heavily dependent on the exploitation and export of diamonds. Some African countries have done well economically with their investments, but others have had to cope with corruption, competition for power and re­sources, and poor management.

Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe since 1980, has held on to the reins of power in spite of losing a recent election. The economy has been driven into the ground, and over half of Zimbabwe’s population has left the country and are outside the borders, many of them in South Africa, where they have been exposed to anti-immigrant violence in recent weeks. Pressure from both inside and outside of Africa is mounting on Mr. Mugabe to step down.

There are numerous efforts in Africa, some of them based on traditional systems of management and governance, aimed at resolving conflicts and doing post-conflict reconstruction. Child soldiers have been demobilized and reintegrated into their societies, as seen, for example, in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

A number of different arguments have been set forth on why Africa is facing the problems that it is. One argument holds that Africa has to deal with the legacies of colonialism and the slave trade. Another is that Africa has seen its resources, both human and natural, exploited by outsiders, from neocolonial powers to transnational oil, mining, pharmaceutical, food and other kinds of corporations. There is also the perspective that Africa is in the situation it is because of its own leadership. However, this is a kind of “blaming-the-victim” perspective, according to many Africans. Some of the problems are due to geography: In some areas, there is too much rainfall, while in others there is too little. Nearly one-third (15) of Africa’s countries are land-locked, and many of its rivers are not easily navigable.

Africa is sometimes seen as a continent in conflict. In fact, the numbers of conflicts and wars in Africa have actually declined; some long-standing ones, such as those in Angola, Mozambique and Sierra Leone, have been resolved. Countries that in the past were dominated by white minorities are now democratic. Africa has seen some of the most innovative efforts at promoting human rights and democracy, from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa to the efforts at bringing together warring parties in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Human rights and gender rights are seen as important, at least rhetorically, in a number of African countries. African countries have significant percentages of women in public office, as seen, for example, in Uganda and South Africa. There has been a significant rise in local, regional and national civil society institutions (nongovernment organizations, faith-based institutions, labor unions).

African populations continue to increase in spite of HIV/AIDS and other diseases, which have affected longevity in some countries, notably South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland. Over half of all Africans live on the equivalent of less than $1 per day. The United Nations Development Program’s “Human Development Report” (2007) utilizes what it calls the human development index (HDI), a set of measures that includes poverty, longevity, literacy, gender equality and economic growth. Of 174 countries, the lowest 22 of 25 are in Africa. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), some 100,000 African children a year are trafficked, meaning that they are taken away from their home and families or off the streets and are essentially sold into slavery. Anti-trafficking efforts have expanded throughout Africa. Refugees are being repatriated to their home countries as peace agreements are reached.

Significant percentages of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are expended on weapons and the military. Land mines are a serious problem in a number of countries, including Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique where thousands of people have lost their lives or limbs. Fortunately, de-mining efforts are ongoing in many of these countries, some of them with the assistance of the U.S. Vietnam Veteran organizations.

With the exception of HIV/AIDS, most of the diseases are preventable at relatively low cost. Some of the most innovative experiments in health care are being carried out in Africa.

There are exciting—and inexpensive—methods being applied to prevention of the spread of mosquitoes and malaria. These methods include indoor spraying, the distribution of bed nets, and the dissemination of more effective antimalarial medicines. Africa has also been the scene of spraying programs that have reduced other diseases, including onchocerciasis (river blindness), guinea worm and Nile Valley fever. There are innovative approaches being used in a number of African countries for the distribution of drugs such as invermectin, used to treat river blindness, and antriretrovirals (ARVs) that help control the symptoms of Human Immuno­deficiency Virus (HIV).

Thanks in part to new prevention, treatment, health and education programs, there has been a reduction in HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in a number of African countries, including Uganda and Rwanda. A landmark legal case in South Africa in 2001 saw 32 transnational pharmaceutical companies suing to block production or import of cheap generic antiretroviral drugs. The Clinton Found­ation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and rock singer Bono all supported South African efforts in this lawsuit. The case was eventually withdrawn, and generic drugs are now available in a number of African countries.

South Africa has a new constitution with rights for groups (collectivities) as well as individuals. It recognizes the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons. The South African constitution has a guarantee of a right to language and culture, a right to water, a right to health and a right to development.

The Nama of the Richtersveld region in South Africa got a judgment from the Constitutional Court that gave them not only grazing rights and gate receipts from the Richtersveld National Park, from which they had been displaced a century before, but also mineral rights—the first case on the planet in which an indigenous population received subsurface resource rights

Resilient, hard-working and committed, local Africans are engaging in innovative grassroots development programs and activities. A substantial portion of this development is occurring in the absence of the state. Much African development—aimed at bettering the lives of Africans—is participatory in nature; that is, it is democratic, and it is aimed at promoting sustainable socioeconomic and environmental systems. In Darfur, the part of Sudan where as many as 300,000 people have been killed in the world’s first genocide of the 21st century, efforts are being made at the local level to promote peace and development.

Africa in many ways is a laboratory for new and exciting development approaches. There are efforts to establish fair-trade provisions for cash crops. One example is that of the coffee widows of Rwanda, a country where over 800,000 people were killed in 100 days in 1994 in a conflagration. This genocide left behind many widows and orphans. Some of them are now working with a coffee importer (Sustainable Harvest) that gets its products from local producers, many of them women, in Rwanda. Cooperatives were created with the assistance of the Partnership for Enhancing Linkages in Rwanda (PEARL). There are new community-level washing stations, drying racks and sorting tables. The economic returns to coffee production have increased from $650,000 in 2004 to an estimated $3,500,000 in 2007. House­hold incomes in Rwanda among coffee producers increased to $400 per year, twice as much as that of the average family. Economic returns are being reinvested in education, home construction and new technologies.

In Namibia, rural communities have been able to form conservancies, locally planned and managed multipurpose areas that have been granted wildlife resource rights under an amendment to the Nature Conservation Ordinance of 1996. More than 25 percent of the communal land in Namibia is now under conservancy status. Through these conservancies, local people have been able to generate funds that are being used to expand local infrastructure, including borehole drilling to provide water points for people, livestock and wildlife, and the payment of teach ers in community schools.

The Green Belt Movement, a tree-planting movement begun in Kenya in 1977 and led by Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s deputy minister of the environment and a recipient of the Nobel Prize in 2004, has done much to help restore habitats in urban and rural Kenya. Tree nurseries provide sources of fuel, cash and building materials for local people, and the trees contribute to holding soil and water. Environ­mental rehabilitation programs are spreading throughout Africa.

Young people in Africa are touting the emergence of what they call “the equity generation”—a whole generation of Africans who are deeply committed to social, economic and environmental justice. Some of them see “a new African renaissance” on the horizon. As noted in a special issue of “Vanity Fair” (July 2005) on Africa, guest edited by Bono, in 2000 Africans had the highest educational attainments of any group in the United States. Literacy rates are on the increase in many African countries among both girls and boys. Child immunization, maternity and child health, and nutritional supplement programs are having positive effects on reducing infant-mortality rates. Given the progress in democracy, development and human rights in many parts of the continent, Africa is providing some useful models for other countries—including the United States—to follow.

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