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Correcting some sloppy thinking on Africa

2012 April 12
by Paul Vallely

After listening to two hours of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme being presented live from Liberia (and London) on 11 April I  posted to the BBC on Twitter at 8.34am:

@BBCr4today Disgraceful concatenation of patronising prejudiced negative sneering stereotypes from John Humphrys in Liberia.

Then at noon the Royal African Society posted:

‘You can’t come here with European eyes’: A letter to John Humphreys on his trip to Liberia – By Richard Dowden @RoyalAfricanSoc

In it, the RAS director, Richard Dowden made some telling points about the BBC’s outdated view of Africa. But he got one big thing wrong. So on his website I posted:

For Richard Dowden to say:

At the time, I welcomed the Commission for Africa Report because it drew attention to the continent, but its treatment of the causes was superficial and purely external – what the rest of the world did to Africa, nothing about Africa itself. Now I realise it was another attempt to change Africa. There was no attempt to engage, no comprehension of another world out there, no respect for Africa. That aid-led solution is now trickling away into irrelevance.

is a travesty of what the 2005 CfA report said.

The report – which was written by a Commission which included a majority of Africans – had a dual focus throughout: on what the West should do, yes, but also on what Africa needed to do itself.
That meant Africans:

  • improving governance, fighting corruption, creating greater transparency and accountability, better information systems and strengthening parliament, the media, the independent judiciary and civil society.
  • It called for the removal of trading barriers between African countries and greater regional economic synergies.
  • It demanded that African governments switch resources from defence to education and health, removing hospital and school fees, and improve resources for pan-African organisations to help women and children.
  • It said that African leaders must promote economic growth and poverty reduction as part of the same economic strategy so that poor people could participate in growth.
  • It demanded pan-African groups should monitor all this.

The idea that the report’s “treatment of the causes was superficial and purely external” is nonsense. This was very far from an “aid-led solution”.

It is good that the Today programme is planning regular broadcasts from Liberia over the next year. Africa needs to be visited at time other than those of famine, war and crisis. But Today needs to get its wide range of presenter talent to look at what Africa is doing in these new areas and examine what progress Africans are making there instead of revisiting negative stereotypes.

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