Some books are more timely than others. With aid agencies recently in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, a book urging us to re-examine the ways in which the West offers economic assistance to African nations could hardly arrive at a more opportune moment. Young’s analysis of the situation takes the long view, beginning with an examination of colonialism.
Once seen as a civilising mission, this is now regarded as an ‘unspeakable crime’. But, Young argues, the mainstream account of colonialism as ‘nothing but’ oppression and exploitation marginalises African peoples, casting them as powerless players in their own drama. Nevertheless, ‘colonial legacy’ has become the cited reason for the decline of most African nations since independence, and this is currently the backdrop against which most aid agencies have to operate.
Guilt, then, has always been one of aid’s drivers, and this has allowed a culture of aid-dependency to arise – foreign aid accounted for 30 per cent of the GDP of several African nations in the mid-1990s, and it was clear that policy-making was designed to attract such support. This, along with increasing amounts of ‘leakage’, which saw African elites prospering while the projects that aid was intended for foundered, led to attempts to encourage African societies to make the elites more accountable. And this in turn involved full-scale intervention in African society, the ‘criminalisation’ of African leaders, and the attempted imposition of ‘a liberal, Western social order’. This includes attempts to change attitudes towards, for example, homosexuality and female genital mutilation. The underlying current of such a drive, Young asserts, is ‘a determination to make Africans [more] like us’, an ambition he describes as ‘boundless arrogance’.
It’s a difficult and troubling subject, and Young’s solution to the manifest problems won’t please everyone. But now, more than ever, alternatives to the status quo need a public airing.