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Facing the public, there is hardly any trace of the colonial yoke. Or the condescending paternalism that was displayed without shame years ago. Even the image of the wise man who teaches how to fish instead of giving fish loses its pull. Development projects in sub-Saharan Africa are experiencing times of apparent symmetry. Horizontality, the exchange of knowledge and skills, collaboration on an equal basis with local partners, with people from there, is styled.
But this supposed cooperative harmony, these reciprocal flows from you to you, usually camouflage a solid power structure. Ingrained hierarchies in which the Westerner is situated — sometimes formally, though often implicitly — above the African. In the awarding and implementation of projects, “underlying mentalities” fly over, explains Taskeen Adam, researcher at the University of Cambridge and associate manager of the social enterprise Open Development & Education.
South African by birth, Adam shoots at his own idea of international development. In his opinion, this presupposes that “the Global North has to tell the rest of the world, without distinction, how it should develop.” From the Anglo-Saxon academic epicenter, the expression has spread and assumed as a synonym for the path to progress. The two words embody an unbeatable conceptual synergy. A kind of magic potion to escape poverty.
“Many projects favor International Development graduates from Western universities, belittling the experience in the context and other studies not accredited under that name,” continues Adam. With the ID (International Development) seal stamped on a diploma, it is assumed that someone can devise certain strategies to reduce illiteracy in Ghana. Or galvanize the agriculture of Mozambique. Or digitize small craft businesses in Chad.
Some of my highly qualified colleagues are silently intimidated. Someone comes from the North and they automatically think ‘that’s it, you must be better prepared,’ “admits Winnie Mitullah, director of the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi.
Verticality permeates behaviors from above. It makes it clear who has the last word. It also inhibits a jump forward from below. Even in thriving countries of the continent, such as Kenya, legacies of command persist, complexes that are lost in the night of imperialism. “Some of my highly qualified colleagues experience a quiet, inherent bullying that they don’t even feel. Someone from the North arrives and they automatically think ‘that’s it, he must be better prepared’ “, he admits. Winnie mitullah, director of Institute for Development Studies from the University of Nairobi.
The Kenyan researcher remembers a recent meeting. The details of a joint project between his Institute and the Kenya Ministry of Planning and National Development. An initiative partly financed with foreign funds. Someone indicated that Mitullah and his team would start working with an expert from the North. “As I left the meeting, a colleague told me: ‘Winnie, I want to see your resume, being an expert is not enough.’ Colonialism is something very deep, but people are beginning to be assertive “, ditch.
The stigma of arrogance
Much of the financing for development in Africa goes directly to governments. Donors set the requirements. They mark times, they focus areas of action. And they send a foreign team under somewhat aseptic names, with a vocabulary that evokes modesty: consultants, technical assistants … “I have seen young people who had just graduated trying to guide African professionals with 30 years of experience in education or health in their countries ”Mitullah complains.
Those who denounce the dynamics of power in African development – the preeminence of echelon a priori, almost immovable — they avoid falling into Manichean traps. It is not a question of stigmatizing the Westerner with the sanctuary of ignorant arrogance. Nor does it take for granted that local people always act inspired by contextual wisdom and good faith. “It would be a mistake to assume that projects led by entities from the South are always going to be better. It will depend on the country, on who is in charge, on many factors ”, points out Marleen Mekker, professor of Inclusive Development at the African Studies Center from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.
Mekker is aware that his claim may sound “controversial.” But for her it is essential to maintain a fair view, case by case, “in the debates on decolonization.” He subscribes to the maxim “African solutions for African problems”, to which it is “difficult to oppose, although knowing that this is a pillar that admits nuances, in recognition of the continent’s diversity.” And he gives as an example a program on birth control that was tried, without success, in Niger. “The country’s elites rejected it for geopolitical reasons: the more population, the more negotiating force, the more aid.”
“The large international organizations”, he explains, take the “bulk” of the cake under the “classical justification of their greater operational capacity”, says Carlos Oya, professor of Political Economy of Development at the University of London.
When the recipients of funds are NGOs, the Western dominance is overwhelming. From the School of Oriental and African Studies from the University of London, Carlos Oya, professor of Political Economy of Development, understands that the bias is not so much geographic but size. “The large international organizations”, he explains, take the “bulk” of the cake under the “classical justification of their greater operational capacity.” In addition, the aid is guarded by cumbersome guardians. Sentinels dressed in the costume of fairness. “Generating grant applications takes time and money, access to information, a lot of paperwork. And a good network of contacts, which among African NGOs tends to be, in general, very limited, ”says Oya.
The Madrid researcher wonders why donors do not “simplify their conditions”. Free from so much bureaucratic labyrinth, money could flow without intermediaries into African hands, thus boosting purely local development trends. “They don’t do it for due diligence reasons [precauciones que se toman antes de asignar partidas], due to their own bureaucratic culture … I do not believe that there is a conscious or active discrimination ”.
No time to investigate
Mekker detects other reasons that hinder access to financing from African entities. Or that increase the advantage of those that come from the Global North. Reasons in which language reflects cultural patterns, a way of thinking. “Applicants have to speak the same language as donors, sell their idea, select the right words,” he says. Beyond formalities, knowing how to move in the game of expectations seems key to being chosen. More and more African organizations demonstrate that they know their rules. Founder and CEO of Tanzanian Children’s Fund, Peter Leon Mmassy frequently travels to the US to raise aid for his NGO, which provides shelter, food, health and education for orphaned children.
Aware of so many impediments, a growing list of donors prioritize institutions and entities based in Africa. It is already common practice among the governments of Scandinavian countries. And the International Development Research Center, dependent on the Government of Canada, stipulates that researchers based in Africa must lead their projects. IDRC acts with a strong conviction: only rigorous analysis and intellectual awakening driven from within can make a firm foothold towards progress.
The International Development Research Center (IDRC) acts with a strong conviction: only rigorous analysis and intellectual awakening driven from within allow a firm footing towards progress
Monetary injections like this are pure oxygen for the battered research activity in sub-Saharan universities. Professor Carlos Oya tells a sad story of decadence and abandonment. After decolonization, many countries especially pampered their higher education. A strategic bet to break the cycle of dependency. “The universities of Dakar (Senegal), Makerere (Uganda) or Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) became prestigious hubs regional knowledge ”, he explains. But in the 1980s and 1990s, the “structural adjustments dictated by international organizations such as the IMF” landed, which imposed their educational preferences, emphasizing the mandatory stages. “It was said that the university was a luxury for some countries,” continues Oya.
With a meager investment, many centers are now barely enough to pay meager salaries. So his best academics, instead of focusing on research for development, supplement his salary in the private sector. “Consulting jobs for NGOs or international agencies, the famous think tank… Some colleagues arrive at 80 hours a week, ”says Mitullah, who launches a reading recommendation to better understand this drift: Scholars in the marketplaceby Mahmood Mandami. Oya confirms that when contacting African colleagues for a project, they are hardly ever available. The professor at the University of Nairobi, for her part, explodes with indignation: “That university in Africa is not a priority … what kind of reasoning is that?”
A study by the Zambian economist Grieve Chelwa illustrates the scarce presence of African authors in scientific articles on the continent. Only a quarter of the literature on economic challenges there is signed by at least one author from a sub-Saharan university. Like Chelwa, Domilola Adebayo is one of many African students who have completed their studies abroad. After graduating from Nigeria, he made his PhD thanks to the Cambridge-Africa program from the British university. Now he is researching socio-economic development in the South from a historical perspective.
Some donors, he says, refuse to fund ideas from African universities. “Sometimes, for fear that the funds will not be used correctly, which shows a terrible consideration of the continent as a whole”, estimates Adebayo
Adebayo knows well the privileges that the academic trip to the North unfolds: contacts, multiple financing options, time and peace to devote himself to studying. He warns of the prejudices that hang over the non-Westernized African academic. Some donors, he says, refuse to fund ideas from African universities. “Sometimes, for fear that the funds will not be used correctly, which shows a terrible consideration of the continent as a whole,” he estimates. He admits, however, that the research / development tandem on African affairs has been shifting, for some years now, towards a greater North-South balance. At least in theory.
When a consortium is formed between a Western and an African center, collaboration should, in principle, be the norm. But “there are researchers who continue to treat their local partner as an employee. And some Africans continue to identify the Westerner with the boss ”, admits Adebayo. He also tells of cases of Nigerian colleagues who return to their country, “after immersing themselves in development theories with a Western perspective, with a messianic attitude, as if they possessed the revealed truth.” Hybrid identities that arouse both rejection and admiration. And they show the complexity of a sector in which the certain and the ungraspable acquire equal relevance.
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