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While underlining Canadian people’s best intentions for the African continent, Gerald Caplan argues that his country and the rest of the Western world should understand that many existing practices around trade, aid, lending, investment, and recruiting in relation to Africa cause far more harm than good. Without an approach that goes beyond mere compassionate humanitarianism, the author stresses that the efforts of millions of courageous African social activists will be in vain.

Millions of Canadians care deeply about Africa. Look at all those who belong to Darfur solidarity groups, contribute to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, and tell pollsters they favour much more generous foreign aid.

Yet this article may well be the only time in the entire election when the word is actually used, and I salute the Ottawa Citizen for commissioning it.

Of course all generalisations about Africa need to be handled with great care. The continent couldn't be further from a monolith. It includes 54 wildly diverse countries and a billion wildly diverse citizens. And it's absolutely true that Africa is not just a collection of bad news stories and that millions of Africans do lead normal, happy, vibrant, fulfilled, loving lives.

But the other truth is that Africa remains a continent of a million woes. It has more problems per square person than any other: poverty, conflict, genocide, corruption, hunger, disease (including HIV and AIDS), miserably mistreated girls and women, despicable leaders, giant slums, insufficient drinking water and sanitation, inadequate electricity, lousy schools, minimal health care, little infrastructure. What's worst, each of these harsh realities feeds on and exacerbates the other, so all must be dealt with at the same time, a superhuman task that has barely been begun.

Many Canadians feel deep sympathy for the plight of Africans and wish they could do more to help. Most Canadian governments have made the same claim. We want to be part of the solution to Africa's ills.

The trouble is, however, that we're actually part of the problem. We proudly see ourselves as some kind of noble missionaries—the dedicated white man or woman come to save the hapless blacks from their own failures. But the harsh reality is that for some 600 years we've consistently pursued policies and actions that have brought misery and suffering to the majority of Africans, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa. Almost all of us in the rich world continue to benefit from the exploitation of Africa that has been executed by our governments, the powerful multilateral financial institutions we support, and the private companies that our governments often promote.

This doesn't mean that all Africans are simply the passive victims of white neo-colonialists; that's knee-jerk liberalism run amok. The opposite is true. Since formal colonial rule ended, country after country has suffered from a plague of malign leaders whose only interest has been to reward their own cliques while increasing the oppression of their citizens. In fact, it's this double jeopardy that has been the scourge of Africa; venal leaders at home and destructive intervention from outside. These twin afflictions are not unrelated.

Look at the list of Africa's ills. Virtually every one has been caused, or exacerbated, by Western influence in one form or another.

Almost without exception, Africa's ‘Big Men’, its despots and tyrants, have either been installed or propped up by a western power, usually the US, Britain or France. It began at the very dawn of African independence when the US initiated and the Belgians executed a plot to murder Patrice Lumumba, the Congo's first elected leader and, for the next 45 years, its only one. The Americans helped put Joseph Mobutu in power, who for 3 decades plundered his country and brutalised his people with the active and knowing participation of the US, France and the World Bank. The appalling war that has convulsed eastern Congo in recent years is a direct result of Mobutu's misrule and the decision of France to allow leaders of the genocide against Rwanda's Tutsi to escape into Congo. Africans kill, the West enables.

That 1994 genocide is another perfect storm of African elites and westerners colluding to cause incalculable harm. It was Catholic missionaries and Belgian colonialists who were most responsible for pitting Hutu and Tutsi against each other. A tiny greedy elite of Hutu extremists planned and executed the genocide, it's true, but it would not have succeeded without the active support of the French government and its military. The genocide might well have been stopped dead in its tracks but for the adamant refusal of the Clinton administration to send reinforcements to General Dallaire's puny UN force.

Even Africa's most notorious Big Man today, Robert Mugabe, might not have gained power had Britain stopped the illegal rebellion of a handful of white racists, and had it not then embraced good old President Bob in his first decade of murder and oppression.

Look at the terrible cost in lives and lost development opportunities caused by the apartheid state in South Africa before 1994. Besides its vicious internal policies, the apartheid government systematically raided and destabilised all the African-led governments of southern Africa. The US and Britain bolstered the white government as a so-called bulwark to communism in Africa. The tragic toll is still being paid.

Take corruption, an ugly phenomenon that has almost become synonymous with Africa itself. It's quite true that corruption is a deep-seated crisis for much of the continent. But there's corruption and then there’s corruption. Cops demand bribes from drivers to ratchet up their miserable salaries. But the big guys, the ones who steal millions of dollars and more, can only succeed with the aid of a sophisticated network of Western banks, lawyers, accountants, middlemen and tax havens. We never hear of this half of the dance, yet it takes two to tango. Let's have a Transparency International for rich countries that creates a dishonour roll for those that facilitate and profit from the hundreds of millions, even billions, they help steal from Africa.

Take the crises in education and healthcare. Believe it or not, policies imposed by the World bank and International Monetary Fund, on which so many African states depend for loans and legitimacy, actually put a ceiling on the number of teachers and health workers that government can employ, in order to keep the cost of government low. Questions of need were irrelevant. In fact, the West demanded that fees be imposed on both schooling and health care, which, to the apparent astonishment of the horde of PhDs who work for these institutions, led to a serious decline in school attendance and the use of health clinics.

This is only one example of how western policies and practices have contrived to worsen the burdens for many Africans. There are countless others. Many of them stem from the same ideology that led to school ad health fees for the poorest people in the world. Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz calls it ‘market fundamentalism’, the dogma that whatever the question, market nostrums are the answer: small government, privatization, the conviction that the private sector will bring growth that will trickle down and benefit all.

As report after report has documented, in Africa as in the much of the poor world these dogmas have palpably failed to create sustained growth while dramatically increasing inequality, in short a perfect failure.

Onerous conditions for receiving a loan - privatizing water supplies, for example, or grossly under funding higher education - were actually destructive of African economies. So were the loans themselves. Often provided to the most egregious of African leaders at exorbitant rates, many desperately poor countries have spent more repaying the interest on their loans to the affluent West than on their health and education budgets combined.

Instead of trade being profitable for Africa, the West has forced the continent to open its markets to western goods, all in the name of free trade, at least for the weak and poor. At the same time, European and North American farmers are subsidised to the tune of $1 billion a day or more. Incredibly enough, it costs Ghanaians more to buy a local chicken than one shipped from Europe. No country has developed without protecting its markets and industries until they were strong enough to be competitive. But we insist Africa, with all its burdens, be the first to try. It can't be done.

We promote more Western investment for Africa, but in reality most of it goes to a small number of oil-producing states. China is always blamed, half fairly, for its obsession with Africa's resources. But they've learned everything they know from us. Few western resource-extracting industries pay appropriate taxes, royalties or wages. Many pollute the environment and use bribes to get contracts. Western investors are in fact the source of much of Africa's corruption.

Finally, foreign aid is far from the generous contribution to Africa that we like to think it is. Not only isn't there enough of it, it often doesn't do the job intended. Under Canada’s current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, aid - already at record lows - has actually declined in the past two years. And a great deal of so-called aid rarely gets to where it's needed in any case. Much is tied to buying Canadian products, and large amounts end up going to Canadian consultants. What actually goes to alleviating poverty or helping development is never quite clear, but it's only a fraction of whatever amounts you hear.

The truth about the West's relationship with Africa is exactly the opposite of what most of us believe. The West exploits Africa far more than we help develop it. The reality is that over six centuries, from the slave trade to the brutal decades of colonialism right through to today, year after year the West drains off far more of Africa's resources than we invest or donate.

What should Canadians do? First, understand that we are not compassionate humanitarians or modern missionaries, but that in the name of justice we owe Africa an enormous debt for the way it’s been looted and plundered. Second, we need to make the rest of the Western world understand that many of our trade, aid, lending, investment, recruiting and other practices are causing far more harm than good. Otherwise, despite the best efforts of millions of courageous African social activists, their continent will remain a mess.

* Gerald Caplan, who has a PhD in African history, recently published The Betrayal of Africa.

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