Monday, August 17, 2009

As an Atheist, I truly Believe Africa Needs God

Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset:

Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it's Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.

It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

At 24, travelling by land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi.

We slept under the stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall. Often near a mission.

Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers - in some ways less so - but more open.

This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. “Privately” because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.

It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.

There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: “theirs” and therefore best for “them”; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

I don't follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

Anxiety - fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things - strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps, explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to another he finds - at the very moment of passing into the new - that he loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why climb the mountain? “Because it's there,” he said.

To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It's... well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary's further explanation - that nobody else had climbed it - would stand as a second reason for passivity.

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

By Matthew Parris

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Can a Team of (Bitter) Rivals Heal Zimbabwe?


Alex Perry/Harare

My neighbor on the flight is chatty. When I ask why he's going to Harare, he tells me he is an investor. I'm curious. Zimbabwe's economy has collapsed. The government of President Robert Mugabe has destroyed the country's currency. Several million people need food aid, millions more have fled, and an outbreak of cholera — that sure mark of destitution — has killed close to 5,000 and infected 20 times that number in the past year. What's to buy in Zimbabwe? "Graves," my neighbor replies. "Private cemeteries. Other places, I'll do minerals, farms, forests. In Zim, I'm in death."

In the past decade, Zimbabwe has become a repository of stories of the nightmarish and grotesque. The southern African nation is (or should be) a place of plenty, a former food exporter that was ruined, beaten and starved by the ineptitude, corruption and paranoia of its aging dictator, a liberation hero who led Zimbabwe to independence but — in a familiar African refrain — came to personify all the tragedy and broken promise of a continent. I'd had my own brief disaster there in April 2007, when, the day after I arrived, the subject of my very first interview asked me to wait while he ran to do a quick errand, returning minutes later with two policemen. I spent five days in jail before I was tried and fined for reporting without accreditation. Now, on my first trip back, my companion seemed to be confirming that Zimbabwe's long night endured.

That was certainly my expectation. Zimbabwe's history has been marked by turbulence since 1965, when the white minority government of the country, then called Rhodesia, unilaterally declared independence from Britain. After a long and bloody guerrilla war, the black majority finally took power in 1980, with Mugabe as independent Zimbabwe's first leader. He has ruthlessly held on to the position ever since. In March of last year, his Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) lost a general election to Morgan Tsvangirai's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Refusing to accept the result, Mugabe turned his security forces on his own people, killing more than 100, arresting thousands and displacing tens of thousands. But this February, with the economy in free fall, Mugabe agreed to share power with Tsvangirai. Mugabe would remain President, Tsvangirai would be Prime Minister, and their parties would split the ministries and Cabinet.

On a continent where democracy is taking root more firmly each year, the deal was welcomed as an important step away from the habits of the past. Ever since, however, Mugabe and ZANU have blocked and delayed Tsvangirai and the MDC. When I caught my plane to Harare, the new state was still only partly formed and Mugabe was deriding the MDC as "insolent." Worse for Tsvangirai's supporters was the sight of their leader smiling and shaking hands with a man whose forces had repeatedly tried to kill him — and them. For years, Tsvangirai had told them that a new era awaited one thing: Mugabe's departure. If Zimbabwe really was a nation in transition, as Tsvangirai insisted, how come the old tyrant was still in charge?

A Prayer for Deliverance

My journey to seek an answer to that question started with a surprise. The former driver of some √©migr√© friends of mine met me at the airport, and soon we hit a traffic jam. Two years earlier, traveling in Zimbabwe had been a logistical feat that involved prearranging fuel stops. Now I was stuck in a line of cars outside — another surprise — a packed mall, complete with restaurants, furniture stores and a buzzing supermarket.

The Failure Of African Aid

Michael C. Moynihan

Western aid to Africa has made desperately poor countries poorer, retarded their economic growth, and entrenched despotic regimes, argues the Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo. In her new book Dead Aid (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), Moyo, an Oxford Ph.D. who has worked at Goldman Sachs and consulted for the World Bank, takes on the “pop culture of aid” promoted by Bono, Bob Geldof, and other celebrity activists. The book instead offers marketbased solutions for Africa. Senior Editor Michael C. Moynihan spoke with Moyo by phone in May.

Q: Africa has received approximately $1 trillion in development aid in the last 50 years, yet most of its recipients are worse off than before.

A: Let’s remember what the original goal of aid was. It was supposed to increase growth and reduce poverty. On those two metrics alone, it definitely hasn’t worked. We can argue that the goalposts have moved over the years. People now argue that aid is supposed to save lives with HIV drugs and so on. But fundamentally, aid isn’t contributing to job creation or growth in Africa. If anything, it is actually impeding growth and economic development by promoting corruption, civil wars, the growth of bureaucracy—all while encouraging inflation and huge debt burdens.

Q: To clarify, you are specifically criticizing government-to-government aid.

A: Yes. I’m not talking about humanitarian or emergency aid, nor am I talking about nongovernmental organizations or charitable aid. That is not the premise of my book, which is only about government-to-government aid flows. But let’s not delude ourselves. These other types of aid are not going to make Africa grow by 10 percent a year or meaningfully reduce poverty. My critics aren’t addressing the fundamental problem of job creation in Africa but rather providing band-aid solutions.

Q: You mention some moderate success stories in Africa, like Ghana and Botswana. What are they doing right?

A: The most obvious answer is that these countries are not dependent on aid. South Africa and Botswana, in particular, do not rely on aid as much as the rest of the African continent does. But even the newcomers like Ghana who are showing positive signs of economic growth and reduction in poverty, those countries are making meaningful strides toward a more private-sector-oriented development agenda. For example, Ghana issued a bond in the capital market, which is one of the recommendations that I outline in the book.

Q: Some of your critics argue that if aid is eliminated, the market alternatives suggested in Dead Aid aren’t realistic in addressing the problems of poverty in Africa.

A: It’s completely realistic. We have seen it in places like South Africa and Botswana and in other places around the world, like India, China, and Russia. It basically boils down to “no taxation without representation.” It’s a very simple concept. If African governments didn’t have to rely on a tax base which isn’t African—aid funded by the American and European taxpayer—then Africans could hold their governments accountable. African governments would then shift their attitudes toward courting the African populace. Right now, they spend the vast amount of time courting and catering to donors because they are the ones that determine whether they live or die.

Q: Are there African leaders who are sympathetic to the thesis of Dead Aid?

A: Rwandan President Kagame is very much against a long-term aid model. Like me, he thinks it won’t deliver growth. Many people think that this is a continuation of the liberation struggle. Many believe that African countries have been decolonized, but they are not yet independent. We might not be de jure colonies, but we are de facto colonies because of our heavy reliance on the European taxpayer.

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