‘I am an angry African,’ Assefa Bequele writes in this week’s Pambazuka News, challenging the continent’s failure to meet its collective responsibilities to children. ‘I will tell you why and what, I hope, we can do to build an Africa fit for children and help nurture an African man and woman that can walk with pride on the world stage’, says Bequele, calling on fellow Africans to ‘have the courage and be the first to speak out and engage in the defence of the inherent rights of all human beings including children’.
‘A fault confessed is half redressed.’ (Swahili proverb)
‘Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.’ (Doug Larson)
‘Silences have a climax, when you have got to speak’. (Elizabeth Bower)
Allow me to depart from the traditional form of address common to opening ceremonies, so that I can engage in a personal and candid conversation with you, fellow Africans in civil society, about the state of children in Africa and our collective failures to meet our responsibilities. By dint of geography, race and history we share a common fate and a common destiny. There is no place for hiding or obfuscation.
I am at an age where I should be tempered by wisdom, serenity, and humility, no doubt all great qualities. That unfortunately is not the case; I am someone that is saddened and outraged by the condition of the millions of children around the world who are disadvantaged and excluded. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I view myself as a world citizen. Like the poet John Donne, I say, ‘no man is an island, entire of itself; I am a part of the whole; every man’s death diminishes me; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’
But, above all, I am an angry African who has lost patience with
- The hypocrisy of the international development actors or ‘partners’, to use the more polite though somewhat less-than-honest description
- The complacency of the African public and the buffoonery that excuses indignities and harmful in the name of African culture and tradition and
- The callousness and hypocrisy of our politicians who talk incessantly about slavery, colonialism, global capitalism, international responsibility, reparations and so on, while abusing their people, squandering their nations’ wealth, and evading national responsibility and accountability.
And so, angry I am; and I will tell you why and what, I hope, we can do to build an Africa fit for children and help nurture an African man and woman that can walk with pride on the world stage.
THE CYNICAL USE OF AFRICAN FACES
The other day I was at a major international gathering of some 500 or so people mostly from Europe, but also from around the world to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the CRC (Convention on the Rights of the Child). The great show at the event was a video on the great, the good and the beautiful from Hollywood and the world of music – so called Goodwill Ambassadors – and the grand work they are doing to save the world’s children.
Personally, I do not care for this kind of PR, but I should perhaps grant that the recourse to such means is a matter of taste in communication and advocacy work, and so, notwithstanding my deep distaste, I should say to the many and increasing number of agencies that do: Good luck with your approach.
What really got me was the gratuitous use of African faces to demonstrate the worldwide problem of child abuse and exploitation. This video was supposed to be about the world’s children but what you saw were mostly African faces – faces of pathetic African boys and girls crying for the generosity and good hearts of Western donors. No reference at all about the sexual abuse that many children in the west are subjected to; nothing about the pornographic rings in Belgium, the UK and much of Western Europe, or, about the decades of child molestation in the bastions of high morality in US or Ireland; nothing about child trafficking in Europe or America; nothing about global tourism and child prostitution in Africa and Asia! I find such hypocrisy and the cynical use of African and Asian faces for fundraising and self promotion rather unsettling.
Yes, we have problems and do appreciate international help and solidarity, but not at the cost of our dignity. We in civil society in Africa should therefore regard watchfully the behaviour and work of international development partners, be they within the UN system or in the international NGO community, and insist that our African boys and girls are seen and treated with dignity.
Now to the second point: African complacency. Africa is a very young continent, the youngest in the world. Children under 18 constitute some 51.5 per cent of the population, with the ratio being as high as 54.8 per cent in Nigeria, 55.2 per cent in Ethiopia, and 60.8 per cent in Uganda. That it is so can be a blessing but also a potential curse. The extent to which African governments respect children and protect them from harm and abuse, and provide them with opportunities for a healthy and productive life has an impact both on the future of the children concerned and the future of the region. A healthy, well-fed and educated child population is a necessary foundation for a modern productive and knowledge-based economy that can effectively participate in today’s globalised world.
Similarly, the way we raise and treat our children at home and in school is critical for what they will be as adults and citizens. A child growing up in an environment where he sees his mother beaten by the father, where girls are discriminated against and excluded, where differing views and opinions are not tolerated, and where choices are not negotiated is unlikely to be the builder of a peaceful and democratic order. But look at the facts:
- Over a third of children less than five years old suffer from moderate to severe stunting.
- Each year some one million babies are stillborn; about half a million die on their first day; and, at least one million babies die in their first month of life.
- As if this is not enough, we now face a huge and growing orphan population, estimated at for example some 20 per cent of the under-15 population in Congo (Brazzaville), Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Look at the absolute number of orphans in selected countries: 4.2 million in DR Congo, 4.8 million in Ethiopia and a staggering 8.6 million in Nigeria. According to ACPF, the orphan population in sub-Saharan Africa could, within a couple of years’ time, be equal to the size of the combined populations of South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho.
- There is then the problem of violence against children. This is a widespread problem throughout Africa and is found at home, at schools, at work and in the community. In an ACPF survey of violence against girls in Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, over 90 per cent of the girls surveyed reported being victims of one form of violence or another. FGM is deeply ingrained and early marriage a common practice.
- Finally, low access to schooling. Briefly, despite the progress, fewer than half of children of primary-school age in Sub-Saharan Africa go to school.
These are some of the sad facts. Yet, in far too many countries, children are given an inferior place in the scheme of things, at home or in the larger community. We have to combat and correct this reticence and complacency. This is all the more important given that we do not have a supportive public environment or public opinion in much of Africa. Where are the African voices that speak out against child rights violations say in Darfur, DRC, Somalia and Uganda?
Regrettably, the voices we have heard in the past and continue to hear today are those of individuals and organisations outside our region, almost all in the West. This has several explanations, of course, but is nonetheless unacceptable. I have no patience for us, Africans, who are the first to talk about historical or contemporary injustices while perpetuating, justifying and even defending abusive practices here at home and turning a blind eye to crimes by Africans against fellow Africans. We need to speak out and claim our place on the human and child rights agenda. And such talk should begin with African civil society.
POLITICS AND AFRICAN LEADERSHIP
Finally, I am disappointed and even shamed by the kind of politics that guide and inspire African leadership.
ACPF has done an evaluation of the performance of African governments. The results of our analysis and findings are reported in The African Report on Child Wellbeing 2008: How child-friendly are African governments? This report uses some 40 indicators and a composite Child-friendliness Index to score and rank the performance of 52 African governments. And this showed that the ‘most child-friendly governments’ group consisted of Mauritius, Namibia, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Kenya, South Africa, Algeria and Cape Verde, and in that order. Rwanda and Burkina Faso have also done very well, coming 11th and 12th, respectively, in the Child-friendliness Index ranking despite their low economic status.
These and the other countries that emerged in the top ten or twenty did so mainly for three reasons. First, they put in place appropriate legal provisions to protect children against abuse and exploitation. Secondly, they allocated a relatively higher share of their budgets to provide for the basic needs of children. Finally, they used resources effectively and were able to achieve favourable wellbeing outcomes as reflected on children themselves.
At the other extreme are the ten ‘least child-friendly governments’ in Africa – Comoros, Guinea, Swaziland, Chad, Liberia, Sao Tome and Principe, Gambia, Central African Republic, Eritrea and Guinea Bissau. Of course, the political and economic situation and the underlying causes vary from one country to another. But, by and large, the poor performance or low score of these governments is the result of their failure to institute protective legal and policy instruments, the absence of child-sensitive juvenile justice systems, and the very low budgets allocated to children.
EXCUSES FOR INADEQUATE ACTION
A recurring explanation or excuse given by governments for inadequate action is limited financial capacity, lack of resources and poverty. To what extent is this true? Comparison of the Child-friendliness Index ranking with their economic status reveals that national commitment to children is not related to national income. The Child-friendliness Index shows that, despite their relatively low GDPs, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda and Burkina Faso are among the best performers in Africa. They are among the twelve countries that have made the greatest effort to put in place an adequate legal foundation for the protection of their children and for meeting their basic needs. On the other hand, relatively wealthy countries, with relatively high GDPs – Equatorial Guinea and Angola, for example – are not investing sufficient budgetary resources in ensuring child wellbeing, and so have scored very low on the Child-friendliness Index ranking, coming out 38th and 35th, respectively.
The Child-friendliness Index data confirms that it is politics, and not economics, that accounts for differences in government performance.
CLAIMING OUR DESTINY
We Africans should claim our destiny and hold our governments and ourselves accountable for our being what we are and where we are. We should be truthful, honest and critical with ourselves as individuals and as citizens. Yes, we should insist on our right to be treated with dignity. But, most importantly, we should have the courage and be the first to speak out and engage in the defence of the inherent rights of all human beings including children.
Secondly, we should resist afro-pessimism. Yes, there are considerable challenges facing governments in Africa, but change and progress are possible and feasible even at very low levels of development. You do not have to have oil and diamonds to provide a better country for your children. Rather, success has to do with whether children figure out in the election manifestoes of politicians and their parties; whether they are at the heart of the budgeting process and given a hearing; whether laws are based on the principle of the best interest of the child; whether the state has established a child-sensitive juvenile justice system; and whether we are moving towards a polity and society that is child-friendly. In other words, good governance, and this means: Politics that put them first, laws that protect them, and budgets that provide for them.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* These were remarks made at the opening session of the 2nd Civil Society Organisation Forum on the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), 11 November 2009, Addis Ababa.
* Assefa Bequele PhD is executive director of The African Child Policy Forum (ACPF).
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.