It is impossible, even if one were sitting in a roomful of enlightened economists, politicians, lawyers and social scientists, to reach a consensus on the definition and causes of poverty. There are those who claim poverty is a mental state, as others insist poverty is a manifestation of idleness. However, having traversed the lengths and breadths of Africa, I am convinced poverty exists in the realm of reality, more so a physical state of humanity. In as much as you can see blatant wealth when it confronts you, abject poverty needs no interpretation in its tangibility.
In whatever forum one sits where economic and resource dynamics of Africa are debated, one thing seems to gravitate toward a consensus – that Africa is richly endowed with both natural and human resources. The question being: if a country, or a continent has so much at its disposal, why are its citizens afflicted with abject poverty?
Dambisa Moyo, one of Africa’s leading economic thought leaders, in her best-selling book ‘Dead Aid’ ascribes Africa’s poverty to poisonous benevolence disguised as aid money from Western countries. When she wrote the book just under 20 years ago, Western aid to Africa was probably computed in the billions. With the entry of China into the ‘dead aid race’, it is possible that aid and grant money – some of it camouflaged as ‘development funding’ – currently runs into trillions.
Apart from chocking under a heavy soapstone of debt, Africa still screams for budgetary support despite sitting on trillions worth of minerals, oil and the world’s largest young population. As an example, my country Zimbabwe is facing perennial default to a US20 billion dollar foreign and domestic debt, yet we do not just boast of more than 30 world-class minerals, but we are also probably in the top five exporters of platinum, lithium and tobacco. Not to mention some of the world’s glamorous tourist destinations at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe Ruins and the Hwange National Parks.
Yet three quarters of Zimbabwe’s adult population is not only unemployed, but also labours under a yoke of informal piece jobs that cannot yield three meals a day; cannot afford one medical aid, life insurance, primary school education or even public transport. If one compounds the impact of Covid-19 with irregular rain seasons, Zimbabwean citizens now rank among the poorest in the world – here we are talking food insecure and perforated disposable incomes in a highly inflationary environment. Ironically, the ruling oligarchs and their few government acolytes boast millions of dollars stashed in overseas accounts.
Public hospitals have neither adequate personnel no sufficient drugs. Learners photocopy books, while teachers and nurses remain on permanent industrial action alert. Food prices and the cost of living is driven by an expensive United States Dollar competing against dysfunctional local Zimbabwe Dollar currency policy. It is impossible to fathom how a country not at conventional war – except with its own people – can have millions of poor citizens. This takes me to one conclusion: Africa suffers from bad political governance, corruption and an arrogant leadership that considers power as entitlement. In real terms, bad national governance and manipulative electoral processes ultimately result in poverty.
However, do not rule out Richard Auty’s resource curse or theory of the paradox of plenty . Perhaps Dambisa Moyo is correct that Africa does not require aid, but her theory is trashed by icons like Bill Gates and Bob Geldof who insist the ‘civilised world’ cannot stand in awe as fellow humans in Ethiopia, South Sudan and DRC suffer. But why are we Africans always quick to resolve conflicts with AK47s? Who really benefits from the wars in DRC, Mali, Cameron, Ethiopia and South Sudan? If you follow perennial conflicts in northeastern DRC closely, you will concur that both Uganda and Rwanda want to have a say in how resources are distributed in that country.
Such proxy wars instigated by external provocateurs who benefit from chaos and weak national governments enrich a few generals while impoverishing millions of Africans. The African Union (AU) and its surrogate regional bodies such as the Southern African Development Cooperation (SADC) seem powerless to resolve these crises. The quest for self-determination in south Cameron and Ethiopia’s Tigray region is another way of causing poverty. Why, because governments divert crucial, scarce resources to unbudgeted military expenditure.
Today, I also want to set the record straight. There are those whom I term ‘pseudo pan Africanists’ who will inevitably point fingers at ‘western imperialism’, ‘neo liberalism’ and ‘white capitalist interests’ as the only drivers of African poverty. I do not agree because this holier-than-thou theory ignores introspective self-responsibility.
If Africa re-organised its governance and production systems on the basis of market freedom, property rights, rule of law and constitutionalism, the continent would be able to pushback any exogenous factors that militate against sustainable resource mobilization. 60 million Congolese are poor not because of France and Belgium’s colonial exploits; not even due to ‘imperialist tendencies’ of Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni. They are poor because of bad, corrupt, self-centred governance in Kinshasa. Up until we Africans learn to run free and fair elections that eliminate post-electoral disputes; up until we Africans adopt free market policies that encourage productive value addition of our resources, will we remain paralysed in foreign debt and intractable poverty.
Billions of development funds are spirited out of the public purse in South Africa and Zimbabwean via opaque and corrupt deals. Our governments are grossly unaccountable, corrupt and clueless in matters of liberal governance presided over by partisan, one-sided parliaments. Until we Africans change our ways, we shall forever remain objects of pity, targets for aid and candidates of exploitative Chinese ‘mega deals’ whose interest is taking commodities from the continent.