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Innocent Madawo

It's not the Dark Continent Add to ...

When Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, was in Toronto recently, she was accosted by aid advocates and journalists for daring to say Africa does not need aid, it needs investment.

Stephen Lewis, former United Nations special envoy on HIV-AIDS in Africa, said Ms. Moyo's characterization of aid as harmful to the continent's people was "controversial." Mr. Lewis was Ms. Moyo's foremost opponent in a Munk Debate on the effects of aid to Africa.

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In a round of media interviews, journalists such as Anna Maria Tremonti of CBC Radio's The Current seemed to wonder if Ms. Moyo was not biting the hand that fed her people. Marci Ien of CTV wondered whether the London-based Ms. Moyo was not risking being considered "out of touch" or even an African "elitist."

The Zambian native and Harvard/Oxford-educated economist argued her case convincingly to those like her, people with an African background such as me. While we are eternally grateful for the aid our motherland continues to receive, we also should speak up about its biggest shortcoming - the never-ending giving of fish to the man without the requisite teaching of how to fish.

In actual fact, Ms. Moyo is an arrowhead of a growing movement of African intellectuals and leaders who are seeking to correct the image of Africa as the Dark Continent, where all the bad happens and only Western aid can cleanse it.

After attending the recent G20 summit, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who is considered one of Africa's most progressive leaders, wrote: "Many [Western leaders]still believe they can solve the problems of the poor with sentimentality and promises of massive infusions of aid. ...

"We who live in, and lead, the world's poorest nations are convinced that the leaders of the rich world and multilateral institutions have a heart for the poor. But they also need to have a mind for the poor."

He hit the nail right on the head: Africa is seen only as an object of pity. Ms. Moyo's and Mr. Kagame's calls do not address only the socio-economic well-being of Africa. They are calls to give Africa its rightful identity as a resource-laden continent capable of developing and holding its own among other emergent economies, such as China and the rest of the Asian region.

However, it is my view that as long as the Western world sees and portrays Africa as a hapless mass of people, demands for direct foreign investment will go unheeded forever.

In the West, Africa is seen through the eyes of the Bonos and Geldofs, who pick a tiny corner of extreme poverty in Ethiopia and blow it up on our televisions. The impact of such an image is worse than imagined and is amplified by such messages as the song Do They Know It's Christmas?

Could anyone risk their investment on a continent where people are presumed not to know the existence of the most representative symbol of both commerce and Christianity (the West's dominant religion)? Such a message implies not only a lack of sophistication but a lack of business desire. It implies economic incapability among Africans.

To illustrate the negative impact of these images, I point to my son, who doubts me when I say I grew up speaking English or I watched The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show when I was his age. He wonders how that could be true of 1980s Africa, when it is portrayed as a backward continent ravaged by untold hunger, disease and war.

In the West, children (and adults alike) have no problem believing that if Madonna and Angelina Jolie had not adopted David and Zahara from Malawi and Ethiopia respectively, those babies could have grown up in extreme poverty.

There is a misguided belief that a person has a better chance of escaping drugs and guns in North America than avoiding disease, hunger, marauding wild animals and militias in Africa. This, of course, is a consequence of sheer ignorance borne out of an unwillingness to engage Africa as an equal.

Celebrity advocacy against Africa's poverty has made it easy to overemphasize its political and socio-economic shortcomings, while playing down or ignoring its potential or even success stories.

With the amount of resources Africa has (both natural and human), what it needs more than aid is capacity-building. In fact, it is my view that with the right amount of development aid and investment, the level of humanitarian aid that Africa needs will be reduced to a level similar to Western countries' welfare cases.

But, first and foremost, attitudes must change.

Innocent Madawo is a freelance Zimbabwean journalist based in Toronto.

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