Is Sub-Saharan Africa Worth Saving?
Philanthropy is involved with basic innovations that transform society, not simply maintaining the status quo or filling basic social needs that were formerly the province of the public sector.
Anyone who’s been remotely functional since 2006 will be aware of the revolution that is (PRODUCT) RED, henceforth referred to as (P) R. The brain child of self-styled altruist, U2 frontman, Bono and ONE / DATA, ‘Scroll & Key’ member, Bobby Shriver; (P) R is meant to be yet another chance for the rich to once more help the ailing nations of sub-Saharan Africa. All proceeds collected through (P) R are passed on to the Global Fund, a world-wide fight against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Nevertheless, not everyone has met (P) R with cheers. It has, instead, attracted critics from many circles. For one, my grand-uncle Jacques d’Albert (an unsung aristocrat who’s spent millions of Euros on successful sustainability projects in the Sub-Saharan region) added, ‘This is another selfish product pushing machine designed to sell merchandise under the guise of philanthropy’. It seems that this life-long philanthropist’s words are also shared by Mark Rosenman, of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, who wrote that it was an ‘example of the corporate world aligning its operations with its central purpose of increasing shareholder profit, except this time it is being cloaked in the patina of philanthropy’. Strong words for what is essentially a humane goal to eradicate the ‘toxic-triumvirate’ that plague Africa and stunt the development of many countries.
South Park once referred to Bono, subtly of course, as ‘the world’s biggest crap’ (Episode 1109 [#162]). And if this is anything to go by, then Bono has just laid an almighty turd on the whole world, one which I feel will never go away. In essence, do we have a true fighter for world justice or an Irish megalomaniac with a penchant for grandiose dreams? Questions that, I am sure will raise much mass-debate, but I digress.
Let us look at how all this began. In January of 2001, in the British medical journal The Lancet, Amir Attaran and Jeffery Sachs proposed a large increase in foreign aid budgets for HIV / AIDS, over the researched figures of the 1990s. They wished for a stream ‘of $7.5 billion or more…directed toward funding projects which are proposed and desired by the affected countries themselves, and which are judged as having epidemiological merit against the pandemic by a panel of independent scientific experts’. This was to be based on grants, not loans, for the poorest countries; unlike the World Bank which was the largest multilateral HIV / AIDS funder then existing. Three years later we get the Global Fund: a newly recognised public-private partnership, a first of its kind, with a transparency that allows one to trust it.
From this enter Bono and another host of ‘wagonites’, who together introduce many campaigns whose proceeds would help the Global Fund. Gates himself, through the Gates Foundation, donated $500 million to the Global Fund, calling the fund ‘one of the most important health initiatives in the world’. Then came (P) R, a brand licensed to partner companies such as American Express, Apple Inc., Converse, Motorola, Gap, Emporio Armani, Hallmark, Microsoft, and Dell, by which each partner company creates a product with the RED logo. In return for the opportunity to increase their own revenue through the (P) R brand, a percentage of their profits is given to the Global Fund.
In retrospect, this sounds dandy, well thought out, and there seems to be streams of money going to the right places – something I feel organisations like the World Bank, WHO, UNAIDS and PEPFAR can and should learn from. Nonetheless, one must ask, is it working? Is there change? What are the current benefits? Looking at the situation more closely will reveal a trend that is juxtaposed to the aims of many a philanthropist and aid-worker for the last 20-30 years. Harrowingly, this is that the countries most affected by the AIDS epidemic have had an increase in their rates, rather than a decrease that has been so sought after. Lest not to sound like a cynic, but there must be something wrong if we have up to 24% of sub-Saharan Africa still HIV / AIDS infected, a figure on the increase in some regions.
Is all this money still worth it? Billions of Euros are being thrown at Africa in a bid to save’ its peoples. Many new initiatives are being drawn up to entice (and yes, that is what it is) the public into trying to help. I can only imagine the stress Bono, Geldof and Co. must go through trying to convince normal to think of others. I believe I can speak for Europe when I say that any of us will watch some terrible tragedy on TV, say how horrible it is, change the channel and forget about it.
In 2009 I co-chaired a discussion, for my old debating team, questioning whether campaigns like Save the Children and (P) R actually had any lasting impact. Back then (P) R was in full-swing and rather popular – like those yellow Lance Armstrong ‘Livestrong’ armbands. Remember them? Funny what hindsight does, non? Back then I was extremely skeptical of the whole (P) R campaign and five years have done nothing to change my opinion. So, why am I revisiting the issue? To be honest I too, rather hypocritically, was infected with the (P) R bug. Since 2007 I’ve had in my possession a plethora of (P) R products; a Dell laptop (stolen), an iPod nano (given to my ex-girlfriend), a Ralph Lauren wallet (given to Tao Okamoto), three GAP shirts (occasional pyjamas), an Emporio Armani watch (in my desk in Luynes) and Beats headphones (still in use, surprisingly) Back in 2009 I remember having used the RED impact calculator which told me that the total money I’d spent would be enough to ‘provide HIV prevention training for 40 peer educators’, not that impressive for approx. €4000.
Like me, many have been sucked into this cause. Back in 2009 my fear was that it would, like the ‘Livestrong’ armbands, become a fad. A few years ago I’d met many an idiot who only bought RED, ‘cos’ it’s cool’ or because it was a ‘great fashion statement’. There was no ‘heart’ in their purchases. No humanistic reason to see X% being given to the Global Fund; rather it was self righteous preservation, which I believe is the worst kind of non-Comtean altruism – it’s false. I mean there is a large incongruence between the said and the done. However, the worst has already happened: (P) R did not even become a fad before falling into obscurity. Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who knows what (P) R is.
So, does this mean that it takes throes of status minded celebrities to make us, the normal, want to see global change? Little do we realise that the true power lies within the consumers, rather than the celebrities. I should have, in all sense, donate the €4000 straight to Global Fund. But instead, like most others, there is this invisible force that makes us want to consume the wrong things. Purchase power and the strength of economies do not lie in the hands of celebrities and politicians, as well as the need to affect change. Politicians and celebrities are just people elected buy us into positions of power, who in turn tell us how we should live our lives and spend our money. That is, in my opinion, extremely narcissistic behaviour that I can’t stand. We can all affect change directly without giving Bono more any more reason to win a Nobel Prize.
Many believe that this large cash injection proposed by Attaran and Sachs needs to be slowed down considerably, and I do believe that Africa – at the moment – is not worth the money being thrown in to it. Corrupt politicians and terrible financial governance aside, the G8 have to recuperate from their own financial problems caused, rather ironically, by politico-financial corruption and bad governance. For sun-Saharan Africa the key focus should be education, medicine and indigenous help. By education, I do not mean this ridiculous, quasi-missionary-led, ‘abstinence-only’ teachings, or HIV targeted sessions. I mean real education from the roots; I am speaking of 100% literacy, a real education system focused on producing real dreams for young children. Once we have a literate and intelligent people, then we only have a fringe group that would partake in activities that would lead to later illness. People fail to understand that you cannot approach the sub-Sahara with a Westernised philosophy, as there are still some people that live very primitive lives and it is these people that HIV is affecting horribly. For some the subject is a taboo, dealt with by death, banishment, or rape.
Secondly, medicine, which has become a real crux in the African developmental wheel, is stunting progress with epidemics, pandemics and throes of other diseases. Let us get a few things straight, HIV / AIDS has become a manageable disease in the EU / US / UK and Japan. Tuberculosis and Malaria are virtually non-existent in these states. I am therefore pretty certain that if more money was focused in providing the same system of healthcare and same types of medicine (not the out of date 5 year old shit that we get), then maybe my earlier described trend would be on a downturn. A friend of mine once commented that, ‘If H5N1 or H1N1 ever got into Africa, the whole continent is fucked’, yes and I must agree that if that situation ever occurred (and touch multiple woods that it does not happen) then really would be the end.
Lastly, and probably my most important point, is a need for Africa’s intellectual diaspora to return. Thabo Mbeki, speaking to a group of university students in 2001, struck out against what he viewed as the racism underlying how many in the West characterised AIDS in Africa, ‘Convinced that we are but natural-born, promiscuous carriers of germs, unique in the world, they proclaim that our continent is doomed to an inevitable mortal end because of our unconquerable devotion to the sin of lust.’
Well, this is rich considering the rising levels of teenage pregnancy and STDs that rage the West, and the UK to be specific. I do, nonetheless agree with what he says, in that the aid work we receive is not always done with a selfless heart. Africans need to help other Africans first; before we begin to expect help from other people. I am not an advocate of selflessness, but I still believe it is shameful how many Africans have the audacity to call themselves patriotic members of such a beautiful continent, when their only purpose is to be like the ‘Mzungu‘ – to steal a Swahili word. It is equally incredulous for those on Africa to expect help from foreign aid workers, without even trying to do much for themselves, and trust me there are people like that everywhere.
To the diaspora; this is my personal cry to all proud, patriotic sub-Saharan medics, teachers, lawyers, musicians, writers, journalists, engineers, academics (basically anyone with a worthwhile gift to share): Go back home and help the countries that gave birth to you and raised you. I know that many have had to leave home because of government related problems, some as refugees maybe, but in the end it is not about you and the past, but those who may end up being in a situation far worse than yours. You all, like me, have been given and led very fortunate lives, but help is needed back at home.
So, is Africa really worth saving? I leave it to you to answer that question.