Rethinking development in Africa

Any West Indian reading the history of modern Africa will find a depressing number of echoes in the failure of its nationalist dreams. In 1945 there were only four independent states in Africa: Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia, and the Union of South Africa. These were hardly advertisements for the future of the continent, but elsewhere there was overwhelming evidence that colonialism had turned the locals into Fanon’s ‘wretched of the earth’ and that only self-governance offered any hope of recovery.

In the late fifties, as independence loomed and Nkrumah, Senghor, Kenyatta and other intellectuals began to enter politics, there seemed every reason to expect a bright future. Pan-Africanism promised to clear away the detritus of colonialism and to build economies that could compete with the great powers which had exploited the continent, unconscionably, for so long. At the time, only a few die-hard pessimists pointed out that postcolonial Africa was woefully unprepared for the administrative challenges of modern government. As independence dawned, black Africa had 8,000 secondary school graduates in a population of 200 million – almost half of them resident in Ghana and Nigeria. Four out of every five people relied on subsistence agriculture and lacked basic education and health care. Political visions and intellectual force were never going to be enough to overcome these disadvantages. Since 1945, after the creation of fifty new states, the continent has become a byword for underdevelopment, disease, famine and war. Time and again, the early visions yielded to Cold War realpolitik, corruption, ethnic rivalry and wholesale repression.

Today our images of Africa are dominated by Darfur, the Congo war and the collapse of Zimbabwe. Elsewhere, if we think of it at all, the continent leaves a vague impression of failed and failing states. Although billions of dollars of aid have been poured into Africa, very little seems to have improved in the last twenty years and too much of the money has wound up in the hands of corrupt politicians, or been used to fuel wars. Despite scores of well-intentioned development schemes, life for the wretched millions has changed very little. It is easy to yield to a counsel of despair and to give up any hope of substantial development.

Against this backdrop, it is easy to see why a small group of German aid workers were greeted with bemusement when they devised a radical new approach to developmental funding. Instead of loaning people money, or financing billion dollar government projects, why not pay everyone in a village a basic monthly income, with no strings attached? Last year they began a pilot project in the village of Otjivero, sixty miles east of the Namibian capital. Otjivero, population 1000, had an unemployment rate of more than 70 per cent, child malnourishment of 42 per cent and it was notorious for high rates of crime, alcoholism and AIDS. As the German newspaper Der Spiegel describes it, “The settlement offers a cross-section of a society with people at the bottom and people at the top, but little in the middle. Otjivero is a microcosm of Namibia, Africa and the world.”

The new income was called a Basic Income Grant and amounted to 100 Namibian dollars, approximately US$13. The idea behind the scheme was simple. If people were given enough money to push them from what is known as ‘absolute poverty’ – in which everything is provisional and unstable – and into ‘relative poverty,’ then some might be able to marshal their new resources and bring about development where generations of outsiders had failed. Inevitably, there would be some who squandered the money, or used it to buy alcohol, but for others it could act as a lifeline.

Less than a year later, the project has already confounded its critics. Because parents can now pay tuition fees, school enrolment has risen to more than 90 per cent, malnourishment has fallen to 10 per cent and local police have a drop in theft and poaching. Because they can afford better food, AIDS patients are responding better to their treatment, and according to the local teacher, “suddenly the children [are] wearing shoes.” After the villagers got used to the income grant, one man visited the house of the aid workers who had come up with the new system, beaming inexplicably. “Don’t you see?” he said, “I now have trousers and a t-shirt. I am now a person.”

Even more impressive than statistics are the stories of individual entrepreneurs who have used their new income to buy chickens, farm corn or start a bakery. The villagers have done all this on such trivial amounts of money, and in such a short time, that they have already given the lie to the most pernicious myth about Africans, that they lack the will to develop their own societies, or as the cliché goes, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The little village of Otjivero has shown that most Africans didn’t lack the will, they just lacked the bootstraps.

What makes the Otjivero precedent so important is the very hopelessness of the village’s initial situation. In terms of developmental challenges, Otjivero is the New York of the developmental world. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. With a small tax increase, the government of Namibia could easily guarantee a monthly stipend for all its citizens, opening up a promising and almost completely new prospect for grassroots development, not just for Namibia but for every underdeveloped country in the world. While there are still, undeniably, very large problems which remain to be solved across the continent, the Otjivero project also offers a glimmer of hope that Africa’s future may not be irretrievably lost after all.

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