This is Mark Doyle’s initial post.
About ten years ago I was driving through Ghana – on the road from Accra to Cape Coast – with a Ghanaian journalist. We were putting the world to rights, as one does, as we cruised atop what was – at the time – a nice new tarmac surface.
Our conversation turned to Africa and my travelling companion let forth a litany of woes about poor leadership, corruption, etc etc. Then he put his head in his hands (don’t worry – I was at the wheel doing the driving) and he meboaned; “Oh, what is wrong with us Africans?!”.
Since I knew there was nothing wrong with my intelligent, dynamic, driving companion I said: “Well, there’s nothing wrong with you!”. To which he retorted: “So why are we all so poor then?”
For some reason I never forgot that conversation and now I’ve just started work on a three part series for BBC World Service Radio with a ridiculously ambitious title – “Why is Africa Poor?”. I don’t expect to answer the question completely – if it were that easy, I guess, Africa wouldn’t be poor any more. But I do intend to have a stab at it – to try to formulate the question creatively, at least, and to illustrate some of the possible answers.
The programmes won’t be broadcast until late August but BBC Producer Neal Razzell and I have already made one reporting trip for the project – to southern Sudan – and we’re planning a second trip now, probably to Liberia and somewhere else.
I first proposed the title to BBC Editors in 2007 but it didn’t get past the competitive “commissioning” process BBC journalists have to go through to get their ideas on air. This year, it did.
Neal has been trying to give the ridiculously ambitious idea some shape by defining the conflicts – political, military, social, economic, even psychological – which may be part of the answer to the question. He’s come up with three subsections – which may end up being the thematic balast for the three programmes.
It’s all on the drawing board, and the programmes will ultimately be dictated by what we find on our travels, but Neal has identified three sets of conflicts:
Africans Versus Africa: This is the daily struggle Africans have in a naturally hostile environment. We might end up looking at endemic tropical diseases, for example. Personally, I sometimes think it’s a miracle anything gets done at all in some places – what with half the population suffering from malaria at one point or another.
Some places are just so hot…or so flooded…or so dry, or just such downright steamy, pestilential swamps that my hunch is they automatically make people poor. Maybe we will find out if my hunch is correct.
Africans Versus Non-Africans: Here’s where we might get into colonial exploitation, slavery and the rest of it. What are the financial implications of this? What are the psychological scars and how can they be measured, if at all? In this category we may also look at foreign actors – are they “investing” in Africa or “exploiting” her? Or both?
Africans Versus Africans: It seems pretty clear that war makes most people poor – although of course some people benefit from it. But conflicts of all sorts might come in here – bad leadership, for example, and corruption are a form of conflict imposed by one set of people on others. Personally, I haven’t met an African yet who will not say bad leadership is one of their major problems. But if that’s the case why is African leadership so bad? Is it something to do with “Big Man Politics” or “Tribe” or Ethnicity? Do any of these things actually make people poor?
Wish us luck. We’ll need it – these are big questions.
Luckily for me, most of my job is to ask questions – not to answer them. But this time round I seem to have saddled myself with a bit more responsibility than usual with that absurdly ambitious title.
But maybe you know the answers? If you do, please, please let me have them on the back of an envelope as soon as possible because the day when I have to start writing the scripts is looming….