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Jun 16 2011

Banking on poverty

So at various points in the past I’ve talked about the pernicious lie that is the idea of Africa as a barren wasteland. Because Africa’s people are poor, we assume that the continent itself is poor. After all, isn’t that what we see in the charity commercials? People (mostly children) poking through rubble, having to walk miles across a barren wasteland for fresh water, dry savannah with no resources to exploit? It’s a lie, all of it: Africa isn’t poor because it lacks resources; it is poor because it isĀ kept poor:

Hedge funds are behind “land grabs” in Africa to boost their profits in the food and biofuel sectors, a US think-tank says. In a report, the Oakland Institute said hedge funds and other foreign firms had acquired large swathes of African land, often without proper contracts. It said the acquisitions had displaced millions of small farmers.

When colonial powers officially left Africa, they left behind a long legacy of abuse and destabilization of local government. The lack of domestic education and infrastructure meant that newly-minted African leaders were woefully unprepared to resist sweet-sounding offers that came from foreign corporate entities, promising high-paying jobs and modern conveniences. What people didn’t realize was that, much in the same way European powers had taken control of American land from its native people, Africans were signing their lands away.

Africa is incredibly resource rich, but lacks the human capital to exploit its own powers in the way that, say, the United States was able to do to become a world power (of course the fact that outside Mauritania, Africa doesn’t really have a thriving slave trade prevents them from really matching the USA’s rise to dominance). The result is that Africans have a choice – work for foreign corporate powers or starve. Whatever political will there is for change is tamped down by well-funded and armed warlords that act as political leaders, but reap the rewards of selling their people back into slavery chez nous.

Of course with no real options for self-improvement, people who wish to survive in Africa agree to work for the corporations. It is only by allowing the conditions to remain oppressive and hopeless that the corporations can maintain an economic stranglehold on the nations of Africa. That is why I am particularly skeptical when one of the same hedge funds that owns African land roughly the same acreage as the country of France (wait… isn’t colonialism over?) say something like this:

One company, EmVest Asset Management, strongly denied that it was involved in exploitative or illegal practices. “There are no shady deals. We acquire all land in terms of legal tender,” EmVest’s Africa director Anthony Poorter told the BBC. He said that in Mozambique the company’s employees earned salaries 40% higher than the minimum wage. The company was also involved in development projects such as the supply of clean water to rural communities. “They are extremely happy with us,” Mr Poorter said.

Anyone who knows about the existence of a “company town” knows to be wary of statements like this. When the entire economic health of a municipality is dependent on jobs from one source, the citizens of the town basically become 24/7 employees. Without strong labour unions and the rule of law, this kind of arrangement can persist in perpetuity, or at least until the company decides that there’s no more value to be squeezed from that area and the entire town collapses, creating generations of impoverished people.

Much like we say in yesterday’s discussion of First Nations reserves, when there is not a strong force for domestic development – whether governmental or otherwise – people are kept trapped in a cycle of poverty. Poverty goes beyond simply not having money – it means that one has no hope of pulling themselves out. When you lack the means, the education, and the wherewithal to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” (a term I hate for both rhetorical and mechanical reasons – wouldn’t you just flip your feet over your own head and land up on your ass?), all of the Randian/Nietzschean fantasies of some kind of superman building his fortune from scratch can’t save you.

Which is why well-fed free-market capitalist ideologues annoy me so much. The private sector is not bound by ethics, and most of the companies doing this kind of exploitation aren’t the kind of things you can boycott (as though boycotts actually work, which they don’t – just ask BP). When profit is your only motive and law is your only restraint, you’ll immediately flock to places with the least laws and most profits. I’m not suggesting that more government is necessarily the answer – most of the governments in Africa are so corrupt that they simply watch the exploitation happen and count their kickbacks – but neither is rampant and unchecked free market involvement.

Like Canada’s First Nations people, Africans must be given not only the resources but the knowledge and tools to learn how to develop their own land. They must be treated as potential partners and allies, rather than rubes from whom a buck can be wrung. Small-scale development projects that put the control in the hands of the community rather than the land-owners are the way to accomplish this. Not only does it build a sense of psychological pride and move the locus of control back into people’s hands, but there are effects that echo into the future, as new generations of self-sufficient people grow up with ideas and the skills to make them happen.

While it’s all well and good to talk about bootstraps, when there’s a boot on your neck then all the pulling in the world won’t get you onto your own feet.

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4 comments

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  1. 1
    Riptide

    I came up with the rhetorical reply to the bootstrap question, that it’s awefully hard to pull one’s self up by the bootstraps when one’s legs have been cut off at the knees. This phenomenon seems like little more than externally-imposed enclosure, only without the benefits of that enclosure actually flowing to localized metropolises where the impoverished tenants can migrate to try and reap them. It confirms my suspicion that America (and the West generally)’s biggest export isn’t films or democracy–the biggest export we have is simply misery.

    We’ve maintained our illusion of prosperity at the cost of immolating rainforests, seeding Chinese ground with so much pollution that literally millions of people are in the process of succumbing to lead poison, and looting Africa like it’s about to catch on fire. And even with all of the world’s resources flowing Westward, we’ve *still* managed to fuck things up domestically to the point that the average person only survives under the delusion that they don’t live in a narco-police state in which they’re wholly owned by corporations. We’re entertained by sideshow politics and reality television while the wealthy class continues to rape the environment, we’re distracted by the spectres of gay marriage and political correctness and illegal immigrants when our very future as a species is being increasingly called into question by the greedy bastards who are banking on there *not* being a Hell for them to go to after they die.

    We will soon face a crisis point where there will be no easy decisions, personally or globally. Our lifestyles are simply untenable as they stand now, and we can only pretend they are by ignoring the misery they cause to Asia and Africa.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    Except that that view of things (with the corporations being the head of the human centipede and “the little people” being the tail) presumes some kind of premeditated malice on the part of those at the top. It’s an attractive thought, but what’s more likely (and more frightening) is that nobody’s pulling the strings. The “greedy bastards” are just as much a product of our society as the rest of us are. We can exert influence on them collectively, we just have to keep our wits about us.

  3. 3
    Michael

    In reality, factors like wars, corruption, and dictatorships are likely to explain Africas situation. For a good example, have a look at Zimbabwe pre-Mugabe and today. The potential influence of IQ, in particular if a viscious circle with malnutrition is present, is also interesting.

  4. 4
    G.Syme

    “They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force–nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got.”

    While I agree with Michael that poor administration and the squandering of resources are important elements in Africa’s poverty, the overwhelming presence of foreign interests amongst such a vulnerable population means that exploitation is almost inevitable. Even if these interests were not profit-driven, the lack of legal protection and the desperation of the populace push even (mostly-) altruistic groups towards exploitation. The Kano trials and the AZT trials spring to mind.

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