Treating Africans as friends, not dependents

by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, July 6, 2011, at 3:13 pm

Many African countries lag behind the rest of the world economically in ways that perpetuate cycles of poverty and dysfunction. These cycles can give the wrong impression that more developed countries are superior to these African nations.

In Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo argues that Western nations have undermined African economies by giving cash to countries that are often corrupt and by providing aid to some nations trying to get off the ground. This is the result of unintended paternalism. The West needs a new of thinking. What would it look like for Western nations to treat struggling African countries as friends instead of just recipients of their help?

This may seem like mere semantics, but for many African leaders it's important. For example, on a recent trip to Cameroon, journalist John Allen asked Bishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, how the West could help Africa. Here's what Allen reported about that exchange:

"'The problem is the way you phrased the question,' [Onaiyekan] said. 'You asked how the West can "help" Africa. We're not interested in "help" in that sense, meaning that we are exclusively the receivers of your generosity. We're interested in a new kind of relationship, in which all of us, as equals, work out the right way forward.'

"The most important thing the West can do, Onaiyekan stressed, is not giving increased development aid or more trade, but what he called a 'change of mentality'-including, he said, a change of mentality within the church."

What really struck me about this conversation was Onaiyekan's challenging the perspective that many African nations are simply standing around with downtrodden faces and outstretches hands waiting on the West to help. Perhaps part of the blame for this mentality on my part has been the years and years of seeing images of Africans depicted as helpless in TV commercials for relief organizations. In the past I may have thought of Africans as needing our "help" rather than thinking about what it means to partner with them as friends so that they can help themselves and find solutions to their own problems.

It seems that the East may view Africa differently than the West. In fact, the Chinese are sending strong signals that they do not see Africans as inferior dependents. For example, Chinese businessmen are marrying African women and are seeking out new business opportunities on the continent. Jennifer Brea explains:

"While Americans are pestering their leaders to Save Darfur-an unlikely prospect absent full-scale military intervention-the Chinese are busy building roads and hydroelectric power dams. China believes Africa is a huge economic opportunity and deals with Africa like a business partner. The Chinese see Africans the way many would like to see themselves."

Building infrastructure instead of sending over things like clothes is the type of initiative that helps Africans help themselves in the long run.

Not seeing Africans as equals has become such a tense issue that some Africans are even telling U2's Bono to change his mentality. After he delivered a standard development speech about the need to give Africa more cash, an African man in the audience asked Bono, "Where do you place the African person as a thinker, a creator of wealth?"

Maybe we've been going about this all wrong. Maybe the best way to help Africans is not to see them as recipients of our "help" but potential thinkers and wealth creators who need friends to provide the support that moves countries off the path of dependency and onto the path of freedom and prosperity.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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