It’s about telling it forward

James Shikwati, interview

“African sees poverty, foreigner resources and wealth”

Africa – poverty of wealth

Nairobi, July 2006

Thirty-six-years-old African economist is one of the new, different voices of Africa. Known especially for his uncompromising view that aid to Africa should be stopped, he began his own think-tank Inter Region Economic Network in 2001 in Nairobi, Kenya. As I step in the offices, there are half a dozent young people buisily working on computers. As the interview unfolds, Shikwati seems to be an expert with positive, on times almost idealistic views, still intact from Western cinizm and apathy. He published in Kenyan, African and internationaly acclaimed publications, including The Times – London, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The Sydney Herald. He is the editor of the publication Reclaiming Africa, coauthor of Agricultural Investment in Eastern Kenya and the author of the book The Economic Burden of Health in Kenya. He is an African who is not poor and does not need our help, but will be happy to engage in equal cooperation. »I have never studied outside Kenya,« he says. »Made in Kenya, that’s what I tell people.«

Because of your views you had had problems in the school where you taught and were more or less forced to leave. Andrew Mwenda, who in many ways has similar views to yours, has just left Uganda to continue his studies in the USA. Many Ugandans believe he has been removed. Is it dangerous to be your compatriot in Africa?

The situation, I think, is just like anywhere else in the world. There are always people who benefit from status quo and do not want things to change. In Africa there has been a big change how governments and also individuals resist. Initially they would shoot you or throw you in prison. Now the continent is getting more open – both insiders and outsiders can see what the government does, so they have been changing their tactics. You might be offered a job – and you get a job, bodyguard, car, nice house … – that’s a very “quiet” way of telling you to shut up. After the elections in 2003, when we had the new government coming in, many tough critics of the previous government, the people who used to be seen as analysts, thinkers of the country got “jobbed away”. And they left a huge hole where now we have a new government which does many wrong things, but the only voice of discontent comes from media. The people who used to think, sit down as civil society are all in government and once you have been taken in it is not very easy to criticize what you are now part of. This is just part of the picture and when I started this discussion on aid I knew it is not going to be easy and it still is not, because those who benefit from the industry of aid are both from the rich countries as from the so called poor countries and do not welcome this news, using different ways. That is why we try to be very careful who we use for funding because we know that somebody can easily say: “Ok, we can give you big office, big car, we are so happy with what you are doing,” and once you say: “Yes,” people will say: “We need to be reading your speech before you make it”.

One of the Ugandan students who has just finished his degree was saying: “Ok, I can see the problems people point out aboutaid, and I do agree with many things they say, but it is the international NGOs, UN and other organizations dealing in aid business who can give me a job. Andrew Mwenda or other critics – they cannot give me a job”. What is your answer to him?

I would say this is what I call straight-jacket thinking. When somebody designs a mental jacket though he cannot fit in it – we have been wearing it since independence. Let me illustrate: educational systems during the colonial times were designed to produce civil servants for the colonial government. After independence none of our governments sat down to reform educational sector so many graduates have come out of schools expecting jobs from the government, because initially that is how it used to be. You graduate, you get a job. If you do not get a job, you fail. You are a failure, because a good job is government job where you work to the day you retire. And then you get retirement benefits. So to answer that young man, he must be aware that he is still in that straight jacket thinking – just that today only a UN job is a good job – and by the way, he is not the only one. In Africa, the majority of people strictly want to end in a UN job, because that means big cars, nice houses … And it has messed our psyche even in a way that some people think that whoever has worked at the UN or for the World Bank can make the best leader for Africa. This is wrong again. So Andrew Mwenda will give this man job indirectly because he will help at opening up the thinking of people that it is not only the UN jobs, but you can create your own job. Because if Uganda has problems, you can be the first one to create an industry, a factory, a shop to supply whatever is needed, it is not UN. So I think that young man needs to be exposed only to the fact that jobs are created by people and he is a person. He should be the first one saying: “Wait a minute, this guy has brought up a very good idea and so what can us, as Ugandans do if this people stop giving us the money? What are we going to do? Are we going to die?” If he answers himself that he is not going to die, then what is he supposed to do to make sure he does not die? Create a job.

This is what we want to do here – expose people to the fact that we have the responsibility to be business people just as there are business people in rich countries. We have the responsibility to solve our problems, in stead of call up on the international community to come and help us solve it. We have to take personal responsibility. This has made us come up with programs to illustrate our point. We started a program on malaria this year and another project in eastern dry area of Kenya, which normally receives relief food. We have gone there, done a study, produced a book – projected the profits you can make … We want to present Eastern Kenya, as a place where you can make money as anywhere else in the world.

But don’t you feel that people who have been subjected to help for so long need to completely change their view of thinking – how they see the world? That they need to be newly “educated”?

Aspect of education is needed, to rethink and redirect the approach. It is necessary that both donors as people who receive donations reevaluate the situation. And this has to be done on the international, national as ell as personal level. We are trying to convince the government that even if there is money from aid, they will make more money with this new approach. If we get malaria tackled, the budget assigned to medical treatment for malaria will be released to be used for something else. If eastern Kenya becomes stable then income from taxes will grow, as they will have yet another area to collect taxes. Governments like this kind of idea, individuals less, but over all the idea is, that the wealthier the citizens the wealthier the government.

You mentioned that people rely on government too much, but in Africa one gets the feeling that the problem lies in the non-working governments. And then it is a problem when governments do not collect taxes because they get aid from the outside and leaders are subsequently not responsible to their voters because their budget does not rely on their taxes, while people are also happy as they do not need to pay taxes from which they feel disconnected, anyhow? It seems a magic circle?

I think the second part should be checked again. The leaders do not collect taxes, but people are not necessarily happy with the leaders because they do not collect taxes. It is true that people are yet to fully come to the fact, that what they call the government service only opens when you pay taxes or somebody pays some subsidies. This creates the disconnection and so the government does not feel responsible. When the road is bad you cannot blame anyone because you never paid anything for it to be good. And this is why there is no sustainability. So we need rich people, to make the government healthy and rich. Then we can reach the point where if the government fails to offer you the service you can hold it to the account.

This is the situation in which we are now in Kenya, as we have started to pay three shillings extra per liter of fuel for the government to mend roads. People were of course not thrilled about it. But they came to say, that if the government will fix roads, than we do not mind the tax because the money we spend repairing cars accumulates to more than we will pay now. So we are headed in the right direction. We are going to create a situation where if I damage my car because I hit a pot hole on the road, I can get a lawyer and sue the government to compensate the damage as I am paying it tax to fix the holes. If one starts this case there will be hundreds of others, thousand and ten thousands and the government will suddenly be very sensitive. It will know that if they take somebody’s money to repair the road it has to be repaired. And in many African countries they are yet to reach this stage. Roads are still being put up by EU, China or the USA. Next to it they put huge billboards “This road was built by the EU” and everything looks good. But after three years when the holes start to appear the EU is not there to repair them. You need to approach the EU and explain that we do not need roads but investments were there are no home resources. It is true, aid creates this disconnect, but then, to go back to the previous question about education – as we talk about the burden of aid we are aware that we need to tell the government where to get its revenue. And that is why through some of these projects we are doing, we try to illustrate that it is important that the government first of all learns to listen to its own people, learns to work with its own experts, because we have many educated Kenyans, Ugandans, South Africans – but then whenever there is an issue our governments call someone from abroad. And foreigners tell them what the Kenyans would have told them. So if they would listen to the expertise of their own people, it would be easier for them to fix some of those problems in long term instead of just rushing out, calling to some other countries …

But aren’t these long term solutions combined with poverty the major problem of Africa?

The major problem of Africa has been subsidizing and perpetuating the problem. There is no way the poverty and the long term can be a big issue, because the two coincide – long term is supposed to kick out poverty. And I am speaking this in the full knowledge that many African countries are now on average fifty years old. If we just got independent then we could say that we need some time to solve these problems. Benefit of doubt, whatever – but half of century later, there are not any reasons for any leader to start asking for time. We have received all this money and yet we are talking about the same problems. This means there is no good thinking to what is happening. But in many African countries they are still talking about tackling the same problems as fifty years ago. The Millennium Goals are promises African leaders were giving as we got independent just in a new dress. And again the same sort of idea is proposed to achieve them – to let others come and fix it. The whole aid debate is about shutting down this concept of letting somebody else fix it, and promoting the fact that we are the ones with the problem, so we must fix it. If you do that, you do lots of benefits even for the donor. The only aspect that might concern us is the political one. In era of dominance, there are people who only strive for power. In debate between Americans and Chinese, Europeans are certainly feeling left out, as they do not want to be the last wheel of history. They are busily inventing, inviting their scholars to think what they should do to remain relevant. With that kind of mindset they are scared of a situation where a continent like Africa might suddenly join the club of those who might one day be relevant. This is thinking in a very broad term. If people are genuine then they will let people live alone, but the concept that somebody gives you money plays out the way so that it makes you remain where you are. Aid is like a drug now.

And it probably also has the effect that people forget problems in their homeland when they see greater problems people face abroad?

Politically this is true. In Africa, because we are portrayed poor, politicians can use food as means to get to power. In rich countries, for the same objectives they use war, feeling of fear and need to unite. It is human, there are many examples in history of how leaders manipulate. So to some extent you can point out that making a continent like a laboratory helps others to sustain themselves because they can say: “If you think I am bad, go to Africa, there is worse.” But this is externalizing African problem and while this dimension exists, I would try to shy away from it. I know it happens but I wouldn’t think about it. I want to focus on East Africans. The student, you mentioned before, he is the person I want to meet and talk to. And the president who thinks that unless he gets tons and tons of aid dollars he will not go anywhere – these are the people I want to address. If we externalize African problem than it will never get solved, as Africans will sit back and say: “If they messed us let them fix it.” But I know we share a bigger part of the responsibility because if we have been messed, we allowed someone to mess us and we should be able to say: “Now, we take 80 % of the blame and we give on others 20 %.” This is a safer bargain than putting a bigger part of responsibility to others. I hear the arguments that we were colonized, enslaved every day. And I do not deny these things happened but if we want to solve the African problem, should we invest all your resources into asking for payment from the colonizer? Because it will be really complicated. Or should we focus first on building ourselves, so that when we ask people to pay for what they did, they will be sure to pay it. Now, we are with one hand begging, while at the same time we are saying that they enslaved us and must therefore pay again. Today the situation is such that they come admitting they enslaved us and wanting to build a road. If we tell them that we do not need a road but a small factory, they say, that their priority now are roads and that is it. We cannot bargain. We first need to build ourselves so that we can engage. Just like when you go to a shop – the shopkeeper does not see you as a beggar, she sees a customer, because you are going to pay some money and choose what you want. And if something is expired you will not take it. And this is what we want – that together with America, Europe and China, we are just another customer in a shop: confident, being able to choose what we want. And the shopkeeper will look for the customer, give advances, promotions – so everybody is happy and nobody feels being left out. However, with aid approach, Africa always goes as a baby. We have to go down on our knees, we are told to wait … it is humiliating.

But if African leader tries to stand on his own and say: “No, you are wrong!” he is often very soon portrayed as a dictator. And usually you can not claim that is completely wrong. It is the story of Zimbabwe and lately some people fear that the same process is happening in Uganda.

If you take African problems out of Africa, like dealing with Uganda without dealing with the whole Africa, then you miss a lot. But as you start comparing, then you see a pattern. Right from 1960s. Whenever there has been a major African leader something has happened. He was or is turned into something else until he is kicked out. If the leader only nods to foreigners, than he is good. And most of them will nod at first, but slowly they start realizing that they are supposed to be doing something for their country and then suddenly everybody starts questioning what is coming up and once popular leader is turned into a villain. Then it becomes violent and they mess up. Myself, I have seen how when you make a stand, even at a conference, you see your friends from developed countries change positions. You suddenly see them saying “No, we don’t like James.” or “How can James make that kind of argument?” They think you have to think like them and they get surprised when you tell them “No, I don’t agree with you”. Then they stop communicating with you and start talking with someone else. I see it happen. But it is not going to happen for ever. That is the good news. Africans are coming to see the pattern. If you really wanted to help, than why would you disorganize governments, why would you want to kick out some leaders simply because they do not agree with your philosophy? Now to get to the point where the leader ends up imprisoning those who dissent with him is really a tight line, because how do you dissent? There is still a status quo. There is this visionary leader but he is still part of the system that keeps the status quo, so you have a new idea but his vision does not capture your idea. So, suddenly you are a bad person and how to balance this is actually the most difficult thing. My way of proposing how to deal with it is to get more people focused not on the government as the “person” who should solve their problems but to focus more on themselves as the source for the solution to their problems. They should focus more on the private initiatives. If we create that situation it will not be easy if you disorganize our leadership or president to bring our country down. Because already we do not allow the president we do not allow the political system to have such power to ruin the country. Now as we speak in the majority of African countries it is the politicians, in fact the president who holds the whole country. The rule of law is almost absent. Institutions are not there. So you mess him, you mess the country. And it works very well for the donors, because the donors surely do not like the situation where they have to negotiate with many people if they want to mine or get our oil, for example. Donors want a situation where they are taking wine with me and I say “Yes” and that is the end of it. They have a deal. So if we build institutions in Africa, they will not have that any more. They take wine with me, and I tell them I will report to some committee, which will decide. They will not like it. So that is why we are suspicious. We know these guys do not mean well for us, because they speak one thing, the mockery on one side, but they really do not value it in a sense where they need to exploit some resources. Because the democracy will slow them down, democracy will mean that many people want to be part of the decision. And that means time and it slows down business. The scenario we are setting up is to say goodbye to this aid business and then we will need to reach a situation where business is developed and is efficient for decisions to be met but still creating a situation where there is an institutional way of functioning. Because when it is institutional it is also safer for the country doing business with Africa, because if the head of state dies or his party fails in next elections the business is safe, as it has been done institutionally, not politically. The scenario we are in today is where if the head of state goes, he goes with almost everything. And when another one comes everybody has to start negotiating again. It is expensive. I do not know why the western countries do not see this. It scares them. So in some democracies in Africa there are presidents who are not liked but they stay in power, because there are more interested parties keeping him in power as he is safeguarding several businesses. With this the very concept of democracy is messed up. If we say: “No aid!” we shut the doors. We start talking business. In the long run it is better for everybody, because once the deal is negotiated it will not matter who has the power. So that is the kind of new Africa we are looking at and it is going to be good for both – for developed countries and for Africans. Now, if you succeed in business the president might get scared that you are going to be the next presidential candidate. Because when people get wealthy, the politicians start to fear and they start attacking the business or they demand to become shareholders. If we create the institutions we reach the level where to be big does not mean you are a politician. And this can be achieved by kicking aid out. Aid means that to be big you must be a politician, because aid money goes to the government. And the “committees” take percentage for their decisions – wealth is in this sense not a consequence of you producing something but it is result of you being in politics. We need environment where wealthy people in Africa will say: “This is my product, which is the reason why I am rich.”

This is why many Africans I talked to said that NGOs are good for Africa because otherwise all the money the donors give would only enrich politicians, as corruption is so permanent.

With this I would want to again point out that we must be aware that someone always benefits from the present situation and will not want changes. I know we have corruption cases, terrible ones in Africa, but I have been looking at it from a way that there must be someone who benefits from belief that Africa is throughout corrupted. To exploit it to maximum, it must be accepted that you cannot trust anyone in Africa. So if a multinational wants to set up a business, they will always bring a manager from their own country. The NGO aspect is just part of this picture, portraying Africans as poor and almost genetically corrupted. But it is not true. We really need to counter these believes. If head of state is corrupt, it is not the whole country. We have a bunch of Africans who are corrupt, but not all Africans. Due process of law needs to take care of corruption. Why it has been difficult is also the fact that we never talk about root causes of corruption. You cannot be saying Africans are poor; they live on less than a dollar a day, while at the same time you talk about their heads of state having trillions of dollars on a Swiss bank account. Where did they get it? Something is missing. And this something is usually who gives the trillions. It comes from the very donor, who is tells us that our head of state is corrupted. So who is really corrupt? Our head of state with bank accounts in Switzerland or this rich nation, that gives him the trillions, so that they can access something? They simply buy our heads of states. And as they do it they use the media to cast them as victims of corrupt leaders. They never tell they played the game willingly and what did they get out of it. If you do this equation you will come to the fact that rich countries always get what they want.

So how can Africans change that? How can ordinary Kenyan changes that – what can she do?

To fight corruption we also need to establish the awareness among rich nations that they are equally to blame for the corruption in Africa. Taxpayers in Europe, in the USA … have to know that their governments are responsible in part for what they are accusing Africa. As they put pressure on their governments, it will be also easier for us in Africa to put pressure on our governments. Fighting it on two fronts will be easier. If you blame only African leadership you cannot solve the problem. After new leaders replace old, corrupted ones, things do not change. Usually they get worse. It is the scenario that happened in Kenya. Moi was accused of being one of the most corrupted characters and was kicked out. We got a new president and everybody thought: “We are safe now.” He even hired a Transparency International person to be his anticorruption adviser. What happened? Within two years, even less, the new government has engaged in worse corruption cases than what Moi did in 24 years. What does that tell you? We are not addressing the whole equation – missing is the rich, donor country. We are leaving them out, thinking that all we need to do is remove African corrupted leaders and everything will be fixed. We are not talking about the ones who bring in billions, who supply military hardware and grease the hands of the government officials to make sure deals hold. Rich nations do not practice what they preach. But we are in a way lucky – we are learning.

Are NGOs taking over educational and medical sector, just to point out two, weakening African states?

I see this as part of the pictures claiming there is no leadership in Africa and even if leaders exist they are completely corrupted. I see it as a deliberate strategy. When you tell people they have no leaders, you tell them they are zeros. But we do have leaders; however they are not able to exercise their abilities on the global political stage. NGOs come in to justify the lack of leadership. They do it very well, as they build schools, where government did not. In the short run it looks good, but in the long run, it destroys many things. It kills, first of all, the old democratic essence. If you think the government is ineffective and the NGO is the effective one then why should people vote? That is why we need to be very careful how to engage with the developed countries. Because they are not stupid, they know what they are doing. If they make us feel we have no leaders and ineffective governments they will in time be able to be our governments. This is why I have been criticizing Mr. Sachs with his Millennium goals and Millennium villages. He is saying that African leaders and governments are so corrupt that money should go directly to the villages. And it looks good, but … what are you telling the villagers when you come directly to them? You are showing them that their governments are useless and they should directly turn to the UN to solve their problems. But at the same time Mr. Sachs promotes democracy and democratic ideals. Do you see how stupid this makes Africans look? First you want us to vote, then you tell us our government is ineffective, so in essence you are going to reach a state when you can say: “Shut up, vote him, it is only he who can deliver this.” It is not that what NGOs are doing is in essence bad, it is the problem of the whole picture – in a way NGOs do what the aid is doing. They are sending the governments to sleep. In short term everybody likes it, but in this world where everything is done for the best of interest it means that the NGOs will not just leave after they build schools. No way. They will speak to you every time the international media wants to know what is happening in Africa. The world view of Africa is what NGOs say. Of course they want to paint Africa as a place of poverty to stay in business. This is why I see need for some form of indigenous NGOs, which see things in terms of “we don’t need money, we want good work”. IRIN is doing this already. Some NGOs know what they are doing, some might not even know that they are harming … Everybody wants to help the man dying by the road. But giving help and saying we are helping, we are the ones offering the services and at the same time call for strong institutions – it does not add up.

Do you feel that we can talk about the same democracies? Is the concept here in Africa the same as in the western world?

By definition yes, but not in practice. Elections in America of course interest other countries, but they will not have much influence on election results. In Africa it is different, because election result interests the British, the Americans, the Chinese as it is connected to their national interests. Remember, what you call the NGOs, majority of them are just international NGOs, who represent their governments indirectly. They also play the game of democratization. And it adds up to the final result of who leads Africa. So there are interests that are more powerful than just the mere ballot paper that ordinary African drops in the box. In this context I would say that African democracy is different, because there are more invisible voters than in the developed world. And even the invisible voters in developed world will mostly be powerful interests within those countries; ours are not only Kenyan, they are from all over the world. In Kenya, if you talks too much about land issues, land rights, about historical injustices, saying British took people’s land, I can tell you, no matter how popular you are, you will never be the head of state. There are too powerful interests. Media will wake up, international community, people will meet over tea and policies will be changed in a very, very quiet way.

Another student saw the problem of African democracies in the fact that in Africa votes are too cheap, meaning that the majority of voters is interested on having food on their tables today and tomorrow and when it comes to giving votes, what happens is that these people say to the candidates: “Ok, so I am giving you my vote, to go to the government and be rich, but what am I getting out of it?” And the votes are, as this student put it, given out for bags of salt and sugar. Would you agree?

It is true, it is happening, even in Kenya. But I think it is changing. Why is it happening in the first place? Because people do not see the connection between themselves and the government. The only thing they think they can get from the government are those bags of sugar. But we are reaching a situation when the government feels the strain of trying to reach down to people to pay taxes. So people are waking up to the realization that there is the connection. And that therefore there is some responsibility the government has to bear. It is reaching up a situation where you cannot just buy people, for they started thinking. If I talk about Kenya, people started analyzing what kind of person is the candidate, what kind of leadership he can offer. Two events illustrated this: in 2002 Moi used his status and lots of money to support Uhuru Kenyatta running for the president, but people voted overwhelmingly for other candidate. That was a big shock.

The second case was contributed to the fact that in Kenya new constitution needs to be approved by people’s vote in referendum. Initially it was government policy to stay neutral and let public decide what they want. But unfortunately the government took up position and said we support the new proposal and we would like the public to endorse it. Now, they used money, resources, millions … again the vote outcomes beat the government badly.

These two developments brought out new view of how Kenyans can vote. They played the game but when it came to voting, they voted the opposite of what the government was saying. If we project Kenyan scenario across Africa, where voting is allowed, we are headed in direction where now you ca no more use money or salt to get the vote. People are starting to recognize their connection to the government. We have reached a stage where people get more and more connected to the issues of government. So I can confidently say, that yes, the aid is happening, elections are being sold and compromised but this is a transition stage of people who had initially zero connections to the government. In a final analysis we are reaching a state where Africans will soon ask politicians to show what they can deliver.

To what are you contributing these changes – what are the important factors that can promote these changes even further?

Opening of the communication. Technology. Initially people owned only radios and the communication was minimal, also with many governments in Africa owning the radio stations or papers. Today African countries have more or less allowed the private players to come into media which means more voices. This started to change people’s way of looking at thing. Initially news, political activities were concentrated only around the centre, Nairobi. The rural areas were not important – you gave salt and sugar, metaphorically speaking. But now it has reached a point, when information moves so fast that it is not only the city area politician are concerned about, they must also think about the rural part because there they also know what is going on. So communication has played a very big role.

Then there is the aspect of literacy – levels have gone up, and then there the role unemployment plays. Unemployed have grown up in the system of “straight-jacket” thinking and they resent the government for having a degree but no job. It also makes them question our government and their policy. Several factors create an overall movement in society. To reach the stage where absolutely “no salt” will be given this process needs to be sped up, especially the information flow. So politicians will not be able to come before the elections, build a school and buy people’s votes. We are moving in the right direction also if you look at the whole Africa, the role of the regional groups, like the East African community, the role of African Union makes countries look beyond borders, people start comparing their state with its neighbors and this puts pressure on governments. Also people do not believe the nationalistic “building up borders” policies. African Union tries on connecting the regional groups and building up overall pressure on all heads of states. This never used to exist, and all these are good signs that some change is coming.

So you feel that the African Union is the step in the right direction?

If we manage it the right way. It can quickly become an organization that postures but does not deliver. One defect of AU is its bad basic. They are too slow, even slower than our governments. They are too bureaucratic. But that put aside I would say it is a good vehicle. AU creates the sense of urgency that you have to perform well in the union. That If you look what happened in Sudan, it was a very good illustration of heads of states who were scared that they might look bad, so the Sudanese president who was to be made chairman of the AU, decided to step down. In past Idi Amin was a chairman of African Union, despite everything he did. They did not care. So to some extend, yes, AU is very strategic.

Yet many people mostly see Darfur and how AU there can not stand up to the challenge?

But there are many things people do not talk about Darfur. You cannot just walk in and make peace and war stops. It is like saying: “Go to Israel and make peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” You have to look at root causes. Media does not tell people about Darfur in whole. Maybe AU must fail in Darfur to make people responsible for Darfur succeed. But AU knows a lot why there is crisis in Darfur and perhaps they are trying to talk to those people responsible. But of course there are people who benefit from the chaos and want it to last. I would not judge AU harshly on Darfur because I think it is more complicated than just making people put down arms. It is about resources, about Arab and black Africans in Darfur, about cutting in the middle of a community to divide and rule. However AU sells itself badly in Darfur. They brought out the whole Africa’s problem of always saying: “Give us money.” You cannot call the press conference, tell the world we are doing it, without having before figured out who shall pay for it. It illustrates nicely the kind of leaders we have. I wrote an opinion piece not along ago saying that when Western countries look at Africa they see resources, they see wealth. But when African heads of states sit down and try to see the continent they are leading, they see poverty, hunger. So African heads sit down and start drawing a budget to request EU and America “please, help us”. There is this extreme and it is mindset – we decide to send peace keeping but in a week we say: “We have no money.” So again they sit down and write requests. What they should do is draw up the budget the mission will need and say: “Darfur is rich, there are resources, we are going to help, but we are going to use our money and we need this money in some way to come back.” Same with DRC. Because when the US went to help Kuwait in the 1990s there was a deal, all the millions Americans said they spent were paid. It might not be in any record, but that is a fact. We deal with people who are realistic. You cannot say you are spending millions for foreigners just to look good.

There is no philanthropy?

Western countries want to hide behind looking good but that is not what they want. They want money, they want the resources, they want the wealth. “Looking-good-thing” seems to have escaped only the heads of states in AU. As they say we are going to Darfur to look good, they missed the second point, where the westerners experienced in centuries about looking good, know tactic way to say, we go to Darfur but we have weighted our expenses and we need to see some returns. Darfur problem can be solved by AU if they move away from “give us, for us to go”. Because immediately someone gives you something he will start control you how you do things. This can be very harmful in situations where problems could be solved by people there.

There was an opinion piece in one of African dailies on Africa’s bureaucracy and how the state in which Africa is today – slow, bureaucratic, nepotistic has to do with “African way of being”, “African spirit”. The piece was written by an African. How do you react to such thoughts?

What I see being African is the culture how most African communities tend to treat guests. In most communities there is the obligation to give the guest the best. If you go to a household, where people have been without food, immediately the guests arrive they pull out something what they have kept there for a long time for emergency, because they want to get the guests happy and impressed. When you look at that you see how the colonial person settled so quickly. We treated the guests nicely, but when the gust over-stayed his welcome the African started saying: “No, you must go out. You have taken my land.” This element is the only bit I think could be contributing to the African situation. Idea that Africans are slow is wrong. I think it just goes with different kinds of business.

In Europe, people from Balkans and around Mediterranean are known to be slow and lazy.

Yes, it also goes with the climate and the kind of economic activity you are running. If you are a farmer planting maize, which takes several months to grow, your approach to farming will be different than approach of a flower farmer, whose flowers become useless in a mater of days. So the sense of urgency will be displayed more with the last one. We can not end up concluding that because these two farmers are from different tribes one is slower than the other. I am saying this because in East Africa we tend to say Tanzanians are slow. And they are. You won’t find a Tanzanian telling you: “Be there at eight sharp.” In Kenya, we become uncomfortable because it is five past eight, so where is this guy? But then in Kenya, if you go to Mombasa, a tourist, relaxed town, it is completely different than in Nairobi. So I don’t think it is safe to conclude that by nature Africans are slow. It goes with the kind of business or activity you are dealing with. Pushing for one market in Africa it becomes important to have the best way and being slow is not that way. This sense of urgency – if you are saying that 200 children are dying of malaria every minute, than we can not afford to be slow to give solutions – but this awareness is only slowly being brought by technology. I want to see people demonstrating about food – saying we are tired of people dying of hunger and then maybe someone offers a solution, and maybe the first solution is no good, but then the second and third comes … more we have this kind of debate more we will be able to be in a position to fix our problems.

Are there any doubts in your mind about the so called “African solutions for African problems”?

Maybe … the problem with English is that same words can mean different things – I agree with this statement if it means getting Africans to solve their own problems. But this does not necessary mean there is an African solution – because if we have seen Slovenia solving its water problem, soil erosion, then it would be stupid for Africans to say, we won’t take that solution, we have to invent our own. The idea is not that Africans should reinvent new ways, the point is, we should be solving. So we are saying Africans solving their own problems, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot learn the possible solutions from someone else. So if you put it that way then I agree with it. For instance with malaria, the question we ask is “How did Europe do it, how did America do it?” as Africans we have to ask ourselves, how do we Africanize that European solution so it solves our problem too? But the problem has been that every time we do that, Europe tells us, “If you try that way, we won’t buy your flowers, because we have rules against those old solutions we once used.” So Africa is now in a corner of whether we should sell flowers or try to save lives? For Africans to solve their own problems it would be mean we say: “Ok, we won’t sell flowers, we will rather save our 200 children and when they are all alive, we will negotiate about flowers.” We don’t need to invent our own ways when the rest of the world already has been solving similar problems, we simply need to copy that and perfect it.

Can technology explain or even solve the situation where over 70 % of Africa is engaged in agriculture yet three quarters of Africans are often faced with food shortages?

Technology can bring higher productivity and yields but we also need to understand how the Africans view farming. After independence there was the idea that people must be educated in order to get jobs. If you are not educated then the only thing you can do is farming. Farming is a thing for those who failed, who can not succeed in educational system, can not get a nice government job. Aside this farming has been faced with the conviction that it can not feed us. In Kenya we also had the bad practice of giving people instead of retirement benefits an ox and land for farming. So we have two groups of people on farms – the retired person and the uneducated one. The motivation to be creative and to shine in your field is not there because there are no expectations. This also explains people saying “African farmers? They can’t be productive.” But I think we have reached stage, where people start to think, that we need to change. This is also our argument. We need to reach a situation where a graduate is one of those 70 % people who farm. I think it’s been a mindset and I am trying to avoid linking some of these issues to colonial times, because it is again, a good excuse. Yes, they did some things that literally threw Africans from their fertile farms and created a big farm mentality versus small farm mentality. Today many agricultural businesses when they are producing products for farmers they don’t think about the majority of small family farms, they only think about few big farms. This mentality made it difficult for a long time for these small farmers to access the products that would make their crops healthy, cows produce more milk. Because the big companies did not see them. We want to change that – to make people see their farms as a business – like you guard your shop against thieves you are careful about the weather. But when you are so dissatisfied and disillusioned you blame everything on yourself. I can assure you if the farmer gets motivated, he will not call his son in the city to get money for food but to get an advice. This is the reason I have been arguing that we should shy away from talking Africa is poor, Africans are poor. Because we are really not poor, we have land, but we don’t work on it because someone has promised to help us. We need to get people working and this calls for leadership and leadership calls for dealing with aid people. Our leaders forget about their people as they think about aid, how to approach Europe, America…

You have made also a study on free market helping promote wildlife conservation. Could you in short tell something about this?

It was motivated by the fact that when I was starting this organization in 2001 human-wildlife conflict was very big. When I did a preliminary preview of the wildlife sector and I was shocked. First, the wildlife sector in Kenya seems to be owned by outsiders. The wildlife roams on Kenyan soil but the people who benefit from the game are tour companies, hotels and it is shocking that close to eighty-ninety percents of the profits go outside. The communities that have troubles with the elephants or lions are just spectators. The only time they are visible is when the lion kills one of them. And the government will be busy saying we shall pay 30 000 shillings. Last week they increased the amount to 200 000 (about 2500 dollars) so that is how much human life is worth. If we could get these communities to be shareholding, be part of this wildlife story than they will not have to just wait for the elephant or lion to kill or ruin something of theirs but will be interested in keeping animals well and alive as they will bring profit to them. It is about enabling communities to manage these things. It means that it is a community company that owns the park and they hire professionals to make sure it is managed nicely. If they don’t do their work well they will fire them and get somebody else. Private ranches complain about increasing numbers of stock – they manage them so well that the game numbers go up to quickly. So if we have a free market way, which means it is business, we do it poorly we go down, we do it well we go up – we will not be talking about diminishing stock of wildlife. There will be more profits if doing it free market way. Because now the government is not asking itself where does the money from tourism goes – tourists will come by British Airways, will be picked by a British tour company, they will be staying in a hotel, owned by a British. Then they will be taking photos and the government and maybe the Masai community will get some money allowing that. They will also say that the driver of the tour truck is a Kenyan and that is benefit as well, but this is not a significant benefit, we should not be satisfied with that. We need African companies besides British, competing with them. Let the government owned parks compete with the private sector. And the government as a pre-election tactics even gave out some of this land to people, but then the international NGOs went all up in arms saying: »No! People will kill all the animals«. They took it to court, where it pending. On the other side the community never voted for the government although they got the land back. But we should ask ourselves why did these NGOs use so much energy and money to achieve that several governments are now petitioning the president to reconsider his actions. They forgot that when the white man came, he did not bring these animals by ship. People lived with the animals for centuries. Why today a Masai is motivated to kill the elephant is because it is of no value to him, it is useless and it destroys his property. If people start benefiting from live animals they will be the first to protect them. It is just that balance. Masai do not need to be poor, they have land, animals. Again someone created this mentality all over the world. I am happy that the Internet is making the world (re)discover a whole new Africa. They come our and others’ writings and they say: “Oh, my god, what is going on in this country?” There have been those who have been marketing Africa in a bad way, but people have started wondering: “Is this the whole truth?”

One of the aims in your working field was also to build on property in African context. Could you explain what was meant by this?

That was one of the discussions – property rights in African projects. As we speak now – property rights are a sensitive issue, secondly it only becomes acceptable to talk about property rights as long as it doesn’t touch upon let us say a British citizen. We have to think about property rights in the African context: number one – aspect many European countries are trying to paint to the rest of the world, that there were no property rights prior to Europeans coming. This makes their actions, when they said: “Up to the horizon, it is mine,” legitimate. As they overrode the existing property rights system part of the present African problem was formed. Because it has never gone out of the minds of Africans what is theirs, up to today. So they still live with this loss. Then, there is also the fact that when the Europeans overrode the existing property rights system, they came up with a legal system to guard the new one. It created the aspect of complaint which is being delivered today. There have been so many commissions that made reports about land, but no one will read them – because even just reading it, thinking about it, means conflict. But we need to put things in context and admit them their existence and then, try to solve them. This is the African context. We cannot say the law says this is his property, period. With this we forget about what happened and this causes conflict. We had very interesting discussions with eleven countries participating. And it went beyond land, it went to talk about water, mining – can a state or people trick you into selling your land cheaply, while they know diamonds can be found there – are you entitled to the profit? So we need a situation where law experts start looking deeper into these issues, they must see more then just what’s on the surface – only that way can there be a long term solution.

They say that 21st century is the Asian era – is there or better when is there going to be an African era?

Well, I think we are very much next in line. I have been looking at India and I think maybe we shall be following its way. China now is very much in the game, India following and then I think there is place for us. We might move in faster than the rest because we are lucky to watch the big brothers compete, so we have the advantage. When you are on the top sometimes you are not sensitive to details and in this way I think it puts us in a very good position. We have seen what America has done, before that we had seen Europe, now we are seeing China, there will be India and we will start seeing ourselves there. If we look at history, we know that part of Africa was once where developed countries are. If we look at Rome, Greece, northern Africa, we will see that there were times when northern Africa was at the top, commanding. What in history comes out clearly is that domination does not happen for ever, you can be powerful, but it always burns out and hits you back, others going the way you went, leaving you behind. And technology makes things move very fast, so for sure there will also come our time.

First (partly) published in Slovene, on 11.11.2006, newspaper Dnevnik, Dnevnikov Objektiv


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  1. aw12 said, on April 6, 2009 at 10:20 pm

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