Dizzy Worms

“Cholera!” cried Lucy Gomball, doing a blue-jeaned, barefooted, pink-toed jig of excitement around her kitchen table.
“Cholera!” she cried again, her husky voice rising a pitch.
The test had proved positive.  Thousands of residents of the Kireba slum were at risk.
“I knew it, I knew it.”
She punched the air in celebration.


[private]The delight of Lucy is understandable. She is the fictional East Africa representative of an Oxford-based aid agency called WorldFeed, a leading member of a cast of journalists, diplomats, aid workers and politicians assembled in my novels set in Kireba. Doing good and easing suffering are part of the raison d’etre of Lucy and the tens of thousands of well-meaning European aid workers based in Africa.

But another of my characters, the Oldest Member of the Thumaiga Club, a gin-drinking survivor of colonial rule who is ending his days in his favourite chair on the club’s red-polished veranda, looks at the aid agencies with a jaundiced eye. In the third of the novels, now under way, the Oldest Member lets rip, his hardened cynicism a marked contrast to Lucy’s idealistic enthusiasm.

“It is time for another revolution”, he declares, while taking care to make clear that he is not abandoning his conservative roots. “Never had any sympathy for the last lot, but they had one thing going for them,” he goes on to argue.

The Kenyattas and the Kaundas, the Nkrumah’s and the Nyereres were able to tap into the nationalist fervour of the time, and channel this sentiment into a force that  liberated the continent from colonial control. Today, the Oldest Member maintains, international aid has sapped Africa’s resolve and dignity, instead of freeing the continent from readily eradicable disease, help educate the children, provide jobs for the for the unemployed and feed the hungry.

“It’s time we had a fresh look at the aid johnnies,” he tells anyone who will listen.

“All we hear about are debt relief, mosquito nets and even more aid. Only encourages the chancers and second-raters who come to Africa and get paid a fortune to run it all. No wonder they all cry: Dish out more aid! Comes out like a bloody mantra. Reminds me of Pooh Bear and his hums. Think of the first line, and if you sing it fast enough and often enough, says Pooh, and you’ll be singing the second line before you know it”.

After helping himself to a handful of his favourite cashew nuts and washing them down with a swig of his gin and tonic, the OM delivers his verdict on foreign financial support: “It doesn’t do what it says on the tin.”

A 70-something white man, a former district commissioner during the days of the country called Kuwisha was under British rule,  is an unlikely banner carrier for a revolution.

But his concerns are understandable.

The high hopes that accompanied Africa’s wave of independence some fifty years ago have been largely dashed. The story of the continent has been dominated by debt, disease and disaster, both man- made and natural.

And in the 20-odd years since the World Bank first sounded the alarm bells, and warned of the disasters that lay ahead, billions of dollars of aid has failed to bring about the changes that were promised. More people in the region are living in poverty than ever before. Something is missing from the development strategy, argues the Oldest Member. And so profound is the failure of aid that we must consider the possibility that there is a link between the role of the development industry, Africa’s low self-esteem and the continent’s failure to conduct a radical reappraisal of its relations with the West.

Traumatised by its past, demoralised by post-independence failures, and accepting its victim status accorded it, Africa is in danger of missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

It should be re-assessing old alliances and forging new partnerships with that group of countries whose stunning economic growth poses a challenge to the old dominance, cultural as well as material, of Africa’s traditional partners – the so-called Bric states: Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Instead, the 50-odd countries that make up sub-Saharan Africa are behaving like one of the late President Mobuto sese Seko’s cabinet in the last years of  the country then called Zaire.

Asked the significance of one of the dictator’s many reshuffles, the US ambassador memorably replied:
“What do you get when you shake up a can of worms? Dizzy worms”, he drawled, “dizzy worms.”

Five decades after Ghana led the way to independence from colonial rule, Africa displays as much sense of purpose as a can of confused worms. Its diplomatic thrust is still focused on Washington, Paris, Brussels and London. Trade with China is not a partnership, but is led by Beijing’s determination to secure access to Africa’s oil and minerals. Africa’s business schools and universities fail to do justice in their courses to the powerful new economies; and not a single African media outlet has its own correspondent in Beijing, capital of the world’s most rapidly growing economy.

The result is that at a time that should be exciting for Africa, shaking off an unhealthy preoccupation with a declining West, the continent is moribund and drifting. If ever there were a point at which Africa’s friends should speak out, this it.

But their voices are silent.

Celebrities have nothing to offer on the subject, no fresh ideas to put forward; they keep their heads below the parapet of conventional wisdom and accepted opinion.

It is said that one can know a man by the nature of his friends. If this maxim holds good for continents, Africa is in a bad way.

Its many trials and tribulations are trivialised by the attention of  lightweight personalities from show business, who boost their profiles by adopting black babies or use the continent as a location for their latest TV series, while pop stars lecture and hector from arenas around the world.

Meanwhile Britain’s middle class despatch their restless teenagers to the continent, who regard Africa as little more than a gap year adventure playground; feckless young royals curry the favour of the London tabloids by ensuring they are photographed with African Aids orphans. Rich businessmen treat the region as a real-life laboratory for their philanthropic schemes.

Above all Africa is seen the best friend of  ten of thousands of non-government organisations who help stuff  billions of dollars of aid down the continent’s collective throat, like a force-fed Strasbourg goose – but one that stays infuriatingly thin, seemingly unable to put on weight.

Far from providing a reliable assessment of the impact of our aid dollars, the NGOs use a language which cushions and distances both user and receiver from reality. Thus challenge replaces problem, potential means disaster, as in the challenge of Zimbabwe and the potential of Congo, and budgetary anomalies means fiddling the books.

It serves a purpose: the language of aid agencies helps conceals the fact that international assistance has failed; or, at the very least, its performance has fallen short of the claims made on its behalf. Yet there is no systematic evaluation of development agencies’ performance, a multi-billion industry that should be opening its books to independent scrutiny.

True, much has changed in the years since the Economist warned of “Africa: the hopeless continent” in a cover story that caused a furore, as much because of the blunt language of the headline as the tough appraisal inside.

Africa’s economic growth is twice what it was then and its minerals are in huge demand. Military regimes have all but disappeared. State-owned corporations are either back in the private sector or under commercial pressure. Deregulation rules. Foreign investment is picking up. Mobile phones and the internet are sweeping the continent.

But the gap – material and technological – between Africa and the rest of the world is widening; Africa is losing the battle for sustained and self-sustaining economic and political recovery. Let us remind ourselves:
Three million children die under the age of five every year of preventable diseases, with AIDS adding ever-increasing numbers to that total.

The tragedy is more than a challenge to humanity – it continues to undermine Africa’s already limited management stock. Each year some 60,000 of the continent’s brightest and best leave for Europe and North America – medical workers, dentists, engineers, bankers, accountants and lawyers. There can be no more telling an example of Africa’s loss of self-confidence.

As skilled Africans leave, their places are often taken by some of the 100,000 ‘experts’ or ‘consultants’ who flock to the continent every year. Many of them will swell the ranks of the ever-growing non-governmental organisations – a movement whose impact on the region can often be damaging.

Foreign NGOs increasingly assume the functions of what should be the preserve of the state, routinely playing an important role in the provision of basic services – such as primary education and health facilities – with unintended results. They not only weaken Africa’s management capacity, but undermine the contract between citizen and state.

If the government cannot deliver the essential services its citizens expect in return for their loyalty, their allegiance is transferred to ethnic or regional leaders – the ‘big men’ who still dominate politics across the continent.

At the same time, Western donors unwittingly subvert local attempts to encourage the democratic process by funding African civil rights and good governance initiatives, thus creating a quasi-professional class of NGO activists. Donors fail to realise that the links between these activists and the people they claim to represent are all too often tenuous. The result is a growing number of organisations whose leaders are without a mandate.

Meanwhile the Western media remains the bogy man African leaders love to hate, regularly accused of misreporting the continent.

It is true that Western dominated news outlets are often guilty of arrogance and ignorance – but to focus on these shortcomings is to neglect the beam in Africa’s eye. Pick up the local papers, listen to the radio or watch local television and rarely will one find that the African media does a good job in reporting the continent to the world, and explaining the world to the continent.

Citizens who depend on their local media soon start to suffer from a form of intellectual scurvy: without perspective, lacking depth and without insight, the coverage lacks these vital ingredients.

There is no easy remedy for the debilitating condition called aid dependence, or for ending intellectual self-doubt. But Africa can begin the process in several ways. It can start by reducing the links with the donors, and raise a far higher proportion of funds for development from its own resources. The first step should be the radical reform of land ownership, the release of ‘dead capital’, and allowing land to serve as security against borrowing.

The continent needs to undergo a revolution of the mind, recalling its past achievements: from the ancient universities in Timbuktu to the bronzes of Benin. The recovery of self-confidence is as important a part of the development programme as any.

Will any of this happen? A hundred years ago the Afro-American writer WE du Bois raised a taboo which resonates to this day.

“Between me and the other world,” he wrote,  “there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.”

Yet without the revolutionary change in attitude that answers the awkward questions raised by du Bois, the Oldest Member’s fears will be borne out.

“I can hear the blighters all singing their hearts out, ‘Aid for Africa, aid for Africa’.”
He takes a sip of his gin and tonic, then continues.
“The problem is, while they sing the first line well enough, I still cannot hear the next lines.”[/private]

Michael Holman was brought up in Zimbabwe, and was Africa editor of the Financial Times from 1984 to 2002, when he took early retirement to write novels. His first, Last Orders at Harrods, was acclaimed by Alexander McCall Smith as one of his ‘novels of the year’; the second, Fatboy and the Dancing Ladies was published earlier this year. He is currently writing Dizzy Worms, the last of the trilogy.