Africa – Questioning My Own Values

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a terrific conference on Africa at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Naperville.  The conference focused on ways that churches and individuals who have a passion for addressing needs in Africa can get started – translating passion into response.

I found myself sitting next to a pastor from the Democratic Republic of Congo.  [Notes to self:  A) Why doesn’t anyone just call it the Congo anymore? B) Any country that has Democratic in its name isn’t.]  He’s attempting to build a church that serves Chicago’s African émigré community.  We were joined by Viola Vaughn, who is a force of nature.  Dr. Vaughan is the founder of 10,000 Girls, a school in Senegal that is already serving 25% of that number and shows no signs of slowing down.  She was named a CNN Hero last year.  She is enthusiastic, energetic, wise, controversial, relentless, relentless and relentless.  She’s also a riot.  And did I say that she’s relentless.  If you ever have the chance to see or hear her, I recommend it.

I asked the Congolese pastor if he would explain briefly the current strife in his native country.  He said that local strongmen were colluding with “multinationals” to keep the country’s most resource-rich province unstable so that they could retain control of, and profit from, its mineral wealth.  A few minutes later, Dr. Vaughn made another comment about the negative impact of “the multinationals.”

Now, I know people who work for big international companies, and none of them strike me as people who would endanger others for profit.  So I decided to ask a simple question:  “Who are these multinationals?”  Interestingly, neither one of them had an answer.  Dr. Vaughn said, “It doesn’t matter where you go, it’s the same ones.”  But that doesn’t answer the question, “Who are they?”

My initial reaction was that this was just another example of the uninformed trashing of business by people who have never actually worked in one.  For Dr. Vaughn and the Congolese pastor, “multinational” is most likely a catchphrase that gets tossed around loosely in the circles they move in, and is used as a substitute for “evil.”  For them, it appears to have specific, tangible meaning.  But when pressed, it’s not a meaning they can share.

But here’s a second thought.  Sub-Saharan Africa is (or at least was) enormously rich in a variety of resources which are in fact being extracted and sold.  It’s obvious that little if any of the benefit from those sales reaches the people of the continent.  Yet someone is buying those materials, and someone on the buy-side of every transaction knows where the proceeds really end up.

So while Dr. Vaughn and the pastor may have been wrong in the specific, they likely were right in the generality.  Awareness is an uncomfortable thing.  I wonder how much of the copper inside my laptop came from the Congo?  Blood on my fingertips?

(PS – If you are interested in understanding how the Congo got to be the way it is, I strongly recommend reading Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost.  Without giving the whole story away, what we used to call the Belgian Congo was not a Belgian Colony.  It was the personal property of the King.  It is eye-opening, and not for the faint of heart.  One anecdote from the book:  Many of us studied Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in school, where it was treated as an allegory of the descent into the inherent evil of human nature.  When asked about that later in his life, Conrad said, “No, I pretty much wrote what I saw.”)

3 thoughts on “Africa – Questioning My Own Values

  1. As someone who is involved in social impact projects in several Africa countries I read this with great interest. I also have met many strong people in Africa doing wonderful things for those who have the least.

    As far as the name of the Democratic Republic of The Congo…there is also a neighboring country called…Republic of The Congo. They are, in fact, two seperate countries.

    And as far as multinationals, in my opinion the problem lies in the fact that most wind up working with the powerful people in African countries both in government and business. Unfortunately many of these people care most about personal wealth and power and little about helping the people of their country. Western governments that send aid have the same problem.

    The wealth gets siphoned off and little reaches the average person. What the people see is a multinational or western government working hand in hand with those who oppress them and getting wealthy while the poor starve. Whether the executives of the multinational are good people or not is irrelevant if they allow their company to exploit the resources of a country while polluting and despoiling…they will be seen as having a negative impact.

  2. Addendum to my previous comment:

    Of course it happens in the US also. Witness the coal companies in West Virginia or the disease profit industry across the country.

    1. Thanks, Steve, for great comments as always, and especially for correcting my knucklehead geography.

      I completely agree with you about the remarkable number of strong, capable people who are doing great work in Africa, both Africans and dedicated foreigners. I’ve had the opportunity to meet many, both in Africa and more recently at the conference, and admire them immensely. I also agree completely about the problem of people in power who are interested only in personal wealth accumulation, not the betterment of lives. Indeed, it’s becoming clear that the development model that works best is “bypass the power structure.”

      What I’m especially curious about, though, is not the people on the sell-side of these natural resource transactions – the self-aggrandizing political leaders and warlords you mentioned. It’s the people on the buy-side. Viola Vaughn and the pastor I met were happy to describe them as “the multinationals,” which is a convenient label for them to use, but completely inadequate in my book. It’s the blood diamond story more broadly applied. Who are the westerners who agree to get in bed with the local power-holders, how do the resources that they purchase get laundered, and where do they end up?

      On the democratic/republic front, Fareed Zakaria argues in The Future of Freedom that democracy only works once per capita income (NOT INCLUDING INCOME FROM NATURAL RESOURCES) is greater that $6,000. At that level, he says, enough economic interdependencies exist to promote stability and enable the kind of horse-trading that makes democracy work. Zakaria claims that this isn’t a call for benevolent dictatorship in developing countries, but that’s exactly what it is. Not a popular argument in the US.

      There also is a theory of societal development (can’t remember the name of the main proponent) that argues that there is a hierarchy of social structures, from band to tribe, and so on up to socially-oriented democracy (nice to know we’re on top of the heap). Part of the theory, as I understand it, is that it is virtually impossible to skip a step, which has big implications not only for Africa, but also for places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m interested in learning more.

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