On the heels of yet another G8 summit the global hand-wringing about the crisis of African development lumbers ahead with its parade of conferences, commissions and concerts proclaiming support for the poor from the seats of power. Conspicuously absent from the spectacle of solidarity is any acknowledgement of history. In fact, the discourse and politics of the West’s relationship with the African continent is deliberately, decidedly and dangerously a-historical.
Like the small boy watching the parade, who exclaims that the emperor has no clothes, Gerald Caplan has written a small but powerful book to expose this latest betrayal of Africa: the denial of context and history. A Canadian scholar and political activist with a life-long commitment to justice and African development, Caplan has made a much needed intervention in debates about Africa’s future. His book, The Betrayal of Africa, asserts that history matters, for understanding the present in which we live, and for finding ways forward to the future we desire.
The Betrayal of Africa at under a hundred and fifty pages is a true “pocket” book. As an activist living in North America, I would love to have one in my pocket at all times to distribute whenever someone asks, “So, what is the problem with Africa?” The question, while usually sincere, carries an inherent distortion. It separates Africa from its historical relationship with the rest of the world and sustains a lie that is reproduced over and over again, even by those who seek to bring about positive change for the continent.
The lie that The Betrayal of Africa seeks to expose is the contemporary version of the imperialist era’s white man’s burden. Caplan observes that the conventional explanation for Africa’s plight is two-fold. “First the problem is African – corruption, lack of capacity, poor leaders, eternal conflict. Second the solution is us – by which (he means) the rich white Western world that will save Africa from itself, its leaders, its appetites, its ineptitude, its savagery”. He then demonstrates through clear argument and solid research that this conventional view is “hokum – arrogant, self-serving and, above all, plain wrong.”
Caplan’s book is accessible and punchy, short on polemic and full of factual nuggets that inform (or remind) readers of the history of plunder and pillage that remade the continent to serve the interests of industrialization of the imperial powers, and that continues today. It is a history that left structural economic, cultural, and political legacies that must be acknowledged to be transformed. Caplan also reminds us that the story of Africa’s relationship with the West also includes solidarity in the cause of emancipation, independence and affirmation of human rights. It is this history of internationalist solidarity that he seeks to reclaim, to rescue from the current discourse of aid and charity.
“Despite the evidence, rich countries continue to insist that their interest in Africa is based on compassion, philanthropy and generosity. But all this nobility serves to conceal the real obligation of the rich world – to pay back some of the enormous, incalculable debt we owe Africa. We need to help Africa not out of our selflessness and compassion but as restitution, compensation, an act of justice for the generations of crises, conflict, exploitation and underdevelopment for which we bear so much responsibility. Many speak without irony of the desire to “give something back,” without realizing the cruel reality of the phrase. In fact, that’s exactly what the rich world should do. We should give back what we’ve plundered and looted and stolen. Until we think about the West’s relationship with Africa honestly, until we face up to the real record, until we acknowledge our vast culpability and complicity in the African mess, until then we’ll continue- in our caring and compassionate way – to impose policies that actually make the mess even worse.“
Gerald Caplan does not shy from denouncing the complicity of African elites in the betrayal of the future of the continent. . But he has intervened as a citizen of the West who is deeply and sincerely concerned about the future of humanity. His message is one of sober yet hopeful co-responsibility. He also does not shy from acknowledging the difficult prospects of bringing about positive change. But he takes to heart the advice of Eduardo Galeano, “Let us postpone our pessimism for better times”, by pointing to ways in which the West could contribute in meaningful ways to a better future for African peoples. “If the West were serious about "helping" Africa, it would not use the World Trade Organization as a tool of the very richest against the very poorest. It would not insist on private sector solutions that don't benefit the poor or create employment. It would not dump its surplus food and clothing on African countries. It would not force down the price of African commodities sold on the world market. It would not tolerate tax havens and the massive tax evasion they facilitate. It would not strip Africa of its non-renewable resources without paying a fair price. It would not continue to drain away some of Africa's best brains. It would not charge prohibitive prices for medicines. In a word, there would be an end to the 101 ways in which rich countries systematically ensure that more wealth pours out of Africa into the West than the West transfers to Africa."
The Betrayal of Africa is published by Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press (2008). It sells for $10.00. Put a copy in your pocket and pass it around.