By Serdar Cam
– The writer is President of Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA).
Incessantly “mauled” by imperial colonialism since the 15th century, Africa’s history is one of pain and misery.
We find in many history books naive attempts to portray colonialism as “Europe’s effort to further explore the world”. However, the geographical discoveries that began in the 15th century also mark the beginning of colossal sufferings for Africa.
The invasion of Africa by the West started with the establishment of the Maritime School by the youngest son of Portuguese King John I, Henry (1394-1460) the “Mariner”, in the small Portuguese town of Sagres on a small cape jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean.
A number of notables educated in this school were Vasco de Gama, Christopher Columbus, and Magellan. The school trained people who had a craving for money and fame, thereby creating the first institutional structure for colonizing Africa supported by the political power of the time.
As is known, Portuguese sailor Bartolomeo Dias’ discovery of the Cape of Good Hope in 1487 was followed in 1498 by Vasco de Gama’s crossing the newly christened cape and eventual arrival in India, a turning point in the history of transporting the natural resources of the African continent to the “modern world”.
Discovering an immense source of wealth in Africa, the West immediately pushed aside Africa’s own peoples and states and speedily set about enslaving and colonizing them. The discovery of what had previously been unknown to them very quickly transformed into a desire to dominate and an ambition to rule and manipulate as they saw fit.
A captivating world of indigenous cultures and civilizations, Africa, however, was commodified by the so-called developed countries and turned into a mere commercial tool devoid of all magic. The colonialists took back to their lands so much and left the indigenous peoples with the leftovers to survive on.
The continent whetted the appetite of the West first as a source of slaves and raw materials and then as a market itself, eventually becoming a field of fierce competition in the 19th century.
While only two African states — Ethiopia and Liberia — were able to maintain their independence during this long and painful process, borders were literally drawn with rulers, and millions of Africans lost their lives under tyranny and persecution.
“Behind every great fortune lies a hidden crime,” French writer Balzac remarked. When the burning ambition of those who jumped the bandwagon later was combined with the pioneering states’ fear of losing their gains to the latecomers, what ensued was even greater devastation.
Condescending perspective on Africa needs to change
Even though most African countries gained “political independence” after the Second World War, the actual situation and their tarnished image that had persisted for so long did not change at all. Africa, to which the West was supposed to bring “civilization”, is depicted as a picture of utter misery, afflicted with civil wars, terrorism, political instability, poverty and all sorts of crises.
Unfortunately, the kind of approach and understanding that the Western countries and international aid agencies have developed over the years with regard to “aid” are also part and parcel of this vicious circle.
Aid campaigns that highlight pictures of hunger, misery, disease and human tragedy — pictures with trite slogans that amount to nothing more than emotional abuse — are repeated over and over again, as was the case in the past.
With a population of one billion, Africa is home to 15 percent of the world population and is known to have natural and human resources to a degree no other continent possesses. The continent is teeming with all sorts of richness in terms of oil reserves, natural gas deposits, gold and diamond mines, forests, water resources, marine products, rich endemic plant species, diversity of climate that enables multiple harvests every year and a great potential for tourism.
Despite this abundance, however, developed countries with their institutions, the media and international aid agencies have been persistently drawing an image of Africa as mired in poverty and misery. In addition, we see a global perception engineering whereby the image of African countries are further tarnished by security issues, where news reports on deadly attacks by terrorist organizations, such as Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda, are constantly highlighted.
Human crises, however, are not exclusive to Africa. There are poverty-related deaths in many developing countries, where there are also hundreds of thousands of homeless and jobless people struggling to survive.
Millions of civilians have been fleeing places like Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq, creating a situation in which great multitudes of refugees are either waiting at borders or stranded in camps fighting hunger and awful deprivations, and we even find situations where it is the coastal guards of European countries that puncture and sink the very boats these people have come in.
Therefore, scenes very reminiscent of those that have become so etched in the African image are actually being witnessed in these Western countries. Yet, the silence of the global community in the face of these human tragedies is giving rise to a question of sincerity in terms of how the oppressed are really viewed.
Hoarders thriving on rhetoric of poverty
The fact that the negative image of Africa has been meticulously maintained for years has led to a vicious cycle regarding the aids collected for Africa.
An Africa that seems to be “condemned to poverty and unable to solve its problems” provides aid organizations with a huge operating field [where they enjoy a lot of latitude]. On account of the collected funds, so many companies cluster around these aid organizations and new supply channels are opened.
Certain sectors such as pharmaceuticals, food, textile, and transportation are able to thrive on these supply channels alone. Additionally, many charities set aside a significant portion of the collected funds for their administrative expenses because of the costs associated with human resources.
Thus, instead of ushering in a lasting development phase in these countries, there emerges an international aid sector feeding on poverty. The most painful fact about this sector is that its existence is contingent on the exploitation of feelings and human tragedy. Unfortunately, many well-meaning charitable organizations also get caught up in this process unintentionally.
It is only natural that some regions are hit by human crises from time to time. But it is now appreciated that the way to resolve such crises is not collecting tons of disaster relief materials and dumping them on the region hit by the crisis.
The reason is, in most cases, the collected materials do not find their way to the needy owing to the profoundly frail logistical infrastructures of the countries involved, so they end up being wasted.
Even when the aid does reach them, it provides only a temporary relief, and whenever a similar crisis strikes, it is back to square one.
A recent LA Times article entitled “U.S. foreign aid: A waste of money or a boost to world stability? Here are the facts” notes that the U.S. government — the greatest foreign aid provider in the world — sent $15-million funding for combating malaria in Africa in 2016 as well as millions of dollars’ worth of antimalarial drugs, which are being stolen and resold on the black market.
It has also been discovered that USAID’s funds have also fallen victim to money laundering in the hands of local people. Similar incidents frequently occur whenever there are disaster relief aids and fund transfers.
Hence, billions of dollars that are collected are wasted in projects that are inefficient and that fail to bring about any lasting solutions. According to the OECD’s 2016 preliminary data, the amount of official development assistance in the world has reached $143 billion.
Although billions of dollars have been donated since the 1950s, no tangible results have been achieved in terms of development in the underdeveloped countries, which goes on to demonstrate that the problem has nothing to do with financial resources. So, what should be done?
One has to start over sometimes
Since the beginning of the 2000s, the UN has set ambitious targets in combating poverty and underdevelopment. Although the replacement of “the Millennium Development Goals” with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals has contributed to the forging of a common will on a global scale, discourses still do not translate into action to a desirable extent.
Therefore, what is needed is a profound mentality transformation. Self-indulgence and the calculating ways of the countries based on their interests are becoming an ever-growing problem, catering to the construction of a new world that is not willing to share.
The most basic goal at this point is to act sincerely and center all aid efforts on human dignity. No country’s efforts to develop and thrive economically in a manner worthy of human dignity, particularly those of African countries, should be perceived as a threat and a cause for competition.
As for development aid, more realistic and lasting approaches are direly needed. Most activities carried out under the guise of charitable work only serve to cripple the countries’ capabilities to stand on their own feet.
For example, when certain economic and commercial privileges are gained through the transfer of certain funds, sectors with developmental potentials are finished off, their capitals are seized, and an unfair system of income that would benefit only a chosen few thousand is established.
In such a scenario, which has no semblance of development, the only thing we can talk about is a relationship between the colonizer and his dependent subjects. It is just as unacceptable for the new players in the foreign aid field to try and reserve the resources of the underdeveloped countries for their own benefit alone and to consider these countries merely as markets and fields of competition in terms of raw materials.
The essential step is to stop the kinds of aid that aim to save the day but make no real contribution to the welfare and stability of the recipient countries. Infrastructures whereby every country can wield its own resources should be established and a new development cooperation model that allows for structural transformation should be developed.
To this end, Turkey has been pioneering efforts and projects toward the creation of lasting solutions in Africa while many international organizations, the UN included, are still involved in and call for temporary emergency aids for Africa.
Through a new model that we may call “Turkish Style Development Assistance”, the 21 Turkish International Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) offices in Africa, opened with the cooperation of Turkish state institutions and NGOs, have been initiating projects, one after another, in order to establish the basic infrastructures the countries need in every field.
As in the case of Somalia, which is ignored by the world, hospitals, clinics, roads, and schools are built and wells are opened, which signifies an ongoing process of capacity building and infrastructural development in the field of most basic services.
Many production sectors, such as forestry, livestock keeping, agriculture, and running greenhouses and fisheries are supported, which in turn contributes to creating more jobs and revitalizing the economy.
The aim of all these efforts is to prove that countries are indeed able to embark on sustainable and beneficial development processes when tangible projects are created that consider real needs regardless of the actual magnitude of the funding.
Therefore, it is also Turkey’s aim to show the entire world that no country can be eternally damned to poverty and to help Africa get rid of its image as the “dark continent”.
When real development efforts are underway that would enable structural transformation, there is no reason why Somalia, for example, with its 3,333-km shoreline –Africa’s longest — cannot become a second Dubai or Abu Dhabi in the future.
As it stands, Somalia is not able to benefit from these shores, and communities terrorized with poverty generate pirates, whose attacks deal a serious blow to global commerce.
According to “Sea Piracy – 2015” report of One Earth Future Foundation, the humanitarian and economic cost of the pirate attacks that took place between 2010 and 2015 in the Western Indian Ocean, where Somalia is situated, exceeded $25 billion.
This means that unless an understanding of development that prioritizes structural transformation is achieved in the cooperating countries, the world looks set to continue sending aids while continuing to lose more on the other hand.
Today’s wealthy can become tomorrow’s poor
The 140th verse of the Chapter of the Family of Imran (Surah Âl-i ‘Imrân) in the Quran notes that God makes vicissitudes rotate among the humankind. In other words, neither wealth nor poverty, or good or evil is permanent.
Today’s developed countries are those that managed to pull themselves together after going through so much devastation and hunger in the two world wars and losing nearly 100 million of their people. Similarly, no real obstacles seem to be standing in the way of African countries’ development as long as the processes whereby these countries have been reduced to fragile and failed states are sincerely appreciated.
First of all, developed countries should not look down on Africa because of their wealth; they must learn to respect it.
Despite being crushed for five centuries under the yoke of slavery and colonialism, and going through civil wars, terrorism and many other hardships, African peoples have succeeded in preserving and perpetuating their rich cultures with their traditions, languages and unique handicrafts.
They even enriched America and Europe with their cultures even though they were forcibly taken there as slaves. They have developed such an exemplary harmony with nature in a way most other people would not be able to achieve.
With an average age of 20 and an annual population growth rate of 2.5 percent, the African continent’s another advantage is its recently emerging pool of trained human resources.
A large number of professionals from many African countries, such as Somalia, South Africa, Namibia, Kenya and Senegal, occupy senior positions in international organizations. Therefore, it is also impossible to talk about “ignorance” as being a reason holding back Africa.
What needs to be done is to give a greater say to Africa’s trained individuals and present them with sustainable opportunities to help them tap their potential for development with the motto “African solutions to Africa’s problems”.
No cooperation possible based on “dark continent” image
If there is a genuine desire for African development, a new language must be devised to communicate with the continent. Africa, with its easily seized resources thanks to a conventional image of poverty, disease, and wars, is now a thing of the past.
Today, just as is the case with the rest of the world, African people are reading, and improving themselves and raising their voices against injustices. They also reject all efforts to discredit their countries through the highlighting of certain adversities, and any and every attempt to stifle their development.
It should be known that the negative image engineered for the continent is proving destructive rather than constructive for both development and long-term cooperation because Africa’s problem is not a shortage of human or natural resources, but simply the absence of an environment of security that would unlock this potential.
If the Western perspective on Africa changes for the better, eventually resulting in the creation of a lasting global confidence, all African countries will naturally become a part of the development process. It would thus enable them to attract foreign capital, engage in trade, achieve political and economic stability, and in short, create a more lasting wealth and prosperity.
As a result, Africa can in no way be called a “Dark Continent”. There is a bright future awaiting the cute children of Africa — where the sun is ever shining — with their never ending smiles amidst all the sorrow. As long as the world believes in this and acts sincerely…
*Translated by Ömer Çolakoğlu.
*Opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Anadolu Agency’s editorial policy.