The Politics of Begging

The Politics of Begging

LAST week, Zambia’s President Mwanawasa spoke at Harvard University on ‘Zambia and Africa in the 21st Century’.

His speech was an overview of the economic, political and social progress the country has achieved in the last few years. Zambia’s transition to multiparty democracy has been accompanied by fundamental economic reforms in an effort to establish a liberal political economy.Zambia remains a country with great scholarship on cultural anthropology and has set precedence in Africa when it prosecuted in court its former president Chiluba for corruption.However, President Mwanawasa’s speech read like a World Bank poverty-reduction strategy paper, and I wondered to whom this information was targeted in an audience primarily composed of students.We certainly were not an International Monetary Fund (IMF) team deciding on a lending package for Zambia and scrutinising its economic performance.Another aspect of his address which did not quite fit was during the question-and-answer session when President Mwanawasa would pepper his answers with phrases like, “we are poor”, “we want to be assisted”, “come to our rescue”.I felt like he had a begging bowl.The “we-are-poor-and-helpless” rhetoric by prominent Africans makes me uneasy.I believe this perpetuates the already destructive and damaging dominant stereotypes about Africa.It endorses the negative ideas that we Africans (and non-Africans as well) have of Africans: that we are helpless victims incapable of our own salvation.This mentality, I believe, is one of the most counter-productive and self-imprisoning attitudes that we can have about ourselves and is one of the greatest impediments to African progress.It is easy to lambaste the western media who is always depicting Africa as a place of endemic disease, entrenched poverty and protracted conflict.It is easy to criticise books with titles like ‘The Shackled Continent’ and ‘Africa Unchained’.But when an African statesman is perpetuating the very stereotypes we are trying to discourage, I feel especially pained and see ourselves backtracking.I see Africa as a place of vast wealth, under-tapped potential and great opportunity.Perhaps I am being too harsh, naive and unfair.Perhaps there is nothing wrong with asking for assistance.Perhaps it is difficult for President Mwanawasa because after all, Zambia is a country with some of the lowest Human Development Indices in the world.And it is true, the Millennium Project Report mentions the need for an increase of 126 billion dollars worth of aid over 2003 levels to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.So I cannot refute the fact that aid is necessary for poverty reduction.I guess that what I’m uncomfortable with is the obsequiousness.I would like to see our leaders negotiating and bargaining for aid, not begging for it.Aren’t our leaders supposed to inspire? I do not see President Bush, or any other national leader, on an official tour talking about the problems in their societies and soliciting help in a public setting.I have a personal ideology of self-empowerment for Africa, and in the words of Booker T.Washington, we need to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps”.More importantly, it is the restoration of our continent’s self-esteem and value that should be realised and actualised.President Thabo Mbeki said, “The beginning of our rebirth as a Continent must be our own rediscovery of our soul”.My dear friends, the African soul is rich, lively, creative, strong, generous, and beautiful.* Tega Shivute is a 2006 candidate for a MA Degree in Economics and International Trade at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford, USAZambia’s transition to multiparty democracy has been accompanied by fundamental economic reforms in an effort to establish a liberal political economy.Zambia remains a country with great scholarship on cultural anthropology and has set precedence in Africa when it prosecuted in court its former president Chiluba for corruption.However, President Mwanawasa’s speech read like a World Bank poverty-reduction strategy paper, and I wondered to whom this information was targeted in an audience primarily composed of students.We certainly were not an International Monetary Fund (IMF) team deciding on a lending package for Zambia and scrutinising its economic performance.Another aspect of his address which did not quite fit was during the question-and-answer session when President Mwanawasa would pepper his answers with phrases like, “we are poor”, “we want to be assisted”, “come to our rescue”.I felt like he had a begging bowl. The “we-are-poor-and-helpless” rhetoric by prominent Africans makes me uneasy.I believe this perpetuates the already destructive and damaging dominant stereotypes about Africa.It endorses the negative ideas that we Africans (and non-Africans as well) have of Africans: that we are helpless victims incapable of our own salvation.This mentality, I believe, is one of the most counter-productive and self-imprisoning attitudes that we can have about ourselves and is one of the greatest impediments to African progress. It is easy to lambaste the western media who is always depicting Africa as a place of endemic disease, entrenched poverty and protracted conflict.It is easy to criticise books with titles like ‘The Shackled Continent’ and ‘Africa Unchained’.But when an African statesman is perpetuating the very stereotypes we are trying to discourage, I feel especially pained and see ourselves backtracking.I see Africa as a place of vast wealth, under-tapped potential and great opportunity. Perhaps I am being too harsh, naive and unfair.Perhaps there is nothing wrong with asking for assistance.Perhaps it is difficult for President Mwanawasa because after all, Zambia is a country with some of the lowest Human Development Indices in the world.And it is true, the Millennium Project Report mentions the need for an increase of 126 billion dollars worth of aid over 2003 levels to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.So I cannot refute the fact that aid is necessary for poverty reduction.I guess that what I’m uncomfortable with is the obsequiousness.I would like to see our leaders negotiating and bargaining for aid, not begging for it.Aren’t our leaders supposed to inspire? I do not see President Bush, or any other national leader, on an official tour talking about the problems in their societies and soliciting help in a public setting. I have a personal ideology of self-empowerment for Africa, and in the words of Booker T.Washington, we need to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps”.More importantly, it is the restoration of our continent’s self-esteem and value that should be realised and actualised.President Thabo Mbeki said, “The beginning of our rebirth as a Continent must be our own rediscovery of our soul”.My dear friends, the African soul is rich, lively, creative, strong, generous, and beautiful. * Tega Shivute is a 2006 candidate for a MA Degree in Economics and International Trade at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford, USA

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