Africa “beyond its post-traumatic stress” Towards a New Policy Discourse on Africa
“Why do white people always have the need to do good? Why is Africa always looked at in a charitable way? Why do we always have to come and help?”, Koert Lindijer thinks out loud.
While other countries like France and Germany are engaged in strategic discussions about their relationships with Africa, the Netherlands seems to be lagging behind. In light of the upcoming parliamentary debate on the new Dutch Africa strategy (to take place after summer recess), the recent foodFIRST ‘Vijverbergsessie’ on June 29th, titled “Africa “beyond its post-traumatic stress”: Towards a New Policy Discourse on Africa”, focused on the government’s new Africa strategy for 2023-2032. The session featured Koert Lindijer and Dorette Corbey as speakers. The dialogue demonstrated once again that it is clear that we need to move away from traditional development cooperation policy. But what role could or should a Dutch Africa strategy have in this new context?
Koert Lindijer is correspondent in Africa for public broadcaster NOS and newspaper NRC. He spoke from his many years of journalistic experience on the continent and reflected on his 40 years as correspondent and the events and changes he had observed. Dorette Corbey spoke next. Corbey is a member of the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV), co-author of AIV advisory letter 36 ‘The Urgency of a New Africa Strategy’, and former member of the European Parliament, shared insights from the AIV-advice. The session closed with dialogue among the speakers and the the 60 attending participants.
Key takeaways and policy insights:
- Africa is not a country. We need to question whether having a Dutch “Africa strategy” that lumps all 54 African countries together is appropriate.
- Move away from a paternalistic approach and towards a more equal and collaborative relationship with Africa.
- Work as much as possible outside the realm of power (political elites and governments).
- Avoid continuing government-to-government Official Development Assistance (ODA). These efforts often serve self-enrichment and disregard the well-being of citizens. Instead, there should be more focus on local initiatives and regionalization.
- Africa can save itself and does not need us. Where the Netherlands or Europe could still make a meaningful contribution is for example the establishment of a liberal political system.
- Think coherently and be self-critical of the effects of Dutch policies on Africa. We must thoroughly assess our trade policy, agriculture policy, and food policy to mitigate unintended negative consequences for Africa.
- Engage in dialogue with Africa to explore common and shared interests in topics such as security, agriculture, infrastructure, climate, and migration.
- Write the Africa strategy from Africa – be present there. Look beneath the surface to understand what is happening in society and how you can adapt and respond to these changes.
Speech Koert Lindijer
“I am . . . ”, Lindijer says at the beginning of the dialogue, “a bit depressed”. Looking at Africa, things are not going well, he explains. While in the past, around the 1980s, terrible wars broke out because people resisted the central power, nowadays wars mainly take place within the centres of power. And it is worrying to see that within those centres of power, Africa is in a very bad state. However, he points out, once you move away from that centre, we see a completely different continent than in the 1980s.
First of all, there has been a decrease in psychological dependence on the West at the central level. In the 1980s, it was about ‘us’ and ‘them’ in development aid. It was about technological progress and the belief that it would lead to emancipation. There was no mention of freedom or democratic rights. We need to question whether anything has changed in this paternalistic attitude, Lindijer notes. Around the turn of the century, Africa began to change rapidly and became both psychologically and economically less dependent on the West. Women’s emancipation greatly improved, the attendance of education increased, and there was more space for the individual. Partly due to new technology like the internet, the collective sense of unity decreased. We saw how old communal Africa transformed into a consumer society where we all want to have the latest artificial hair from China, just like how people in the Netherlands want the latest iPhone.
Lindijer emphasizes that there are so many positive developments happening outside of the centres of power; the wisdom and cleverness of the youth, and the technologies being utilized. All of these are local initiatives that don’t come from the government but from the people themselves. So, he suggests, we need to listen much better to the initiatives that are happening outside of the centres of power and avoid the governments as much as possible.
Although the psychological and economic dependence on Europe has significantly decreased, Europe still maintains relevance in certain areas, such as freedom. But, as Lindijer humorously illustrates, “We no longer mourn when Queen Elizabeth dies, that time is over”.
However, whether this awareness has permeated into the new Dutch Africa strategy is still uncertain. The excessive use of the words ‘equality’ (56x) and ‘natural resources’ might well indicate the opposite and will have a counterproductive effect. Lindijer wonders aloud, “Why do white people always have to do good? Why is Africa always looked at in a charitable way? Why do we always have to come and help?” He explains that there is so much energy and knowledge and expertise in areas like technology on the continent itself. This constant desire to help may still carry a paternalistic connotation. He states, “Africa doesn’t need you,”, aside from some food aid here and there. We must realize that we are not indispensable, but perhaps we can still play a role together. According to Lindijer, this thinking should be the foundation of the Dutch Africa strategy.
So, what role could that be? Universities like Wageningen could still contribute to the food and agriculture topic. However, it is important to determine to what extent the agricultural techniques being brought to Africa are already being implemented. Another area where the Netherlands or Europe could still play a role is in promoting Western liberalism, freedom, and addressing corruption (for example through journalism).
Lastly, when asked about his opinion on the fact that we have an ‘Africa strategy’ here in the Netherlands, where all 54 African countries are lumped together, Lindijer responds sceptically. The reverse would never be the case. We talk about Europe as individual countries, we don’t talk about Europe as a bloc.
Speech Dorette Corbey
That we should no longer look at Africa as an object for development aid, and that we are, to some extent, already doing so, is evident from Dorette Corbey’s speech. Corbey emphasizes that in the past, the AIV advice on the Africa strategy was solely in the hands of one of the four subcommittees of the AIV, the development cooperation committee. This division of labor has now been completely abandoned by the AIV, and the other three committees (the European integration committee, the peace and security committee, and the human rights committee) are also involved.
Like Lindijer, Corbey argues that having an “Africa strategy” is actually a bit strange. Not only because all 54 countries cannot be lumped together, but also because it implies that we want to have something to say about Africa, comparing it with our desire to alter education with an education strategy. Although, at the request of the government, the AIV provided an advise letter for the new Africa strategy, it did question whether it fitted into the new approach, admits Corbey.
The AIV advise starts with the optimism that arose in Africa around the turn of the century. There was supposed to be great interest in Africa and the continent’s prosperity was expected to increase significantly. Now, 25 years later, we can say that although interest in Africa has indeed grown, the problems that we saw in Africa in previous decades are far from being solved. There are still enormous debt burdens, high food prices, lack of access to electricity, violence, and corruption. In short, Africa is not ‘at peace’ as expected around the turn of the century, explains Corbey. Africa continues to suffer from the global division of labour, which still has a very unfair element.
Where Lindijer is ‘depressed’, Corbey more cautiously states that some pessimism in this context is indeed justified. However, she also believes that some optimism is warranted. “The world has changed considerably”, Corbey explains. She refers to the global commodity chains, that made it difficult for Africa to produce profitably, which are undergoing significant changes. Europe wants more strategic autonomy and seeks to be less dependent on global commodity chains, especially with regard to China and the US. Therefore, Corbey explains, we now try to form strategic partnerships with Africa as we try to reduce the one-sided dependence on China. Global cooperation and global chains are being reshuffled, which can offer some opportunities for Africa.
What could or should be the role of the Dutch Africa strategy in this context? Corbey once again emphasizes that we need to move away from the traditional development cooperation policy that projects Dutch priorities onto Africa. She further states that a much broader orientation is needed in terms of security, geopolitics, the functioning of global labour division, and climate. We must continue to acknowledge that Europe no longer holds the same position in Africa as it once did, and that there is some resentment towards Europe. The Dutch Africa strategy should focus on finding new, complementary, and shared interests based on equality. While equality exists on a human-to-human level, it does not exist when looking at economic chains or financial positions. The question is how to achieve these equitable relationships.
Furthermore, the AIV advice expressly examines the vulnerable food situation in Africa. There is a high dependency on food imports, which is projected to continue increasing due to population growth. To address this, strides need to be made in the African agricultural sector. If the agricultural sector functions well, people can engage in urban production, industrialization can occur, and individuals can be freed from working in agriculture, allowing for other pursuits. However, why has the agricultural sector in Africa struggled to develop? The development of Africa’s agriculture sector did not keep pace with the simultaneous growth of the population. As a result, Corbey explains, the development of African agriculture had to occur at the same time European agriculture was well-advanced. Huge amounts of food surplus were dumped in Africa, making it nearly impossible for Africa to develop an independent agricultural sector. Although discouraging the African agriculture sector was never a deliberate strategy, there was significant negligence of the external consequences of these policies.
Therefore, Corbey emphasizes the importance of coherence, which is mentioned frequently in the document alongside equality and natural resources. We need to carefully screen our trade and agricultural policies in the Netherlands for unintended negative consequences for Africa. This should actually be the number one strategy, focusing on achieving coherence. And, she adds, food should be an essential part of that coherence.
In conclusion, we need to seek shared and complementary interests. This can only be achieved by engaging in discussions with African partners, addressing what Africa brings forward, and ensuring that there is a good revenue model for Africa.
Conversation with the audience
The first point raised was: according to Lindijer, we must stay away from the central government. But what does that look like in reality? How does it work for schools, taxes, infrastructure – should it all be privately managed? Lindijer brings some nuance to his statement, saying that it chiefly concerns the relationship between the Netherlands, or the white world, and Africa. In the relationship with Africa, the Netherlands should look less towards the central government. Africa should start thinking for itself whether a liberal democratic system is the right path, and more emphasis should be placed on regionalization. We need to change our way of thinking so that we do not constantly end up with corrupt government.
Another participant agrees with Lindijer and Corbey that we must leave the paternalistic approach behind. However, we still carry responsibility, especially when it comes to climate issues. Particularly in the agriculture sector, which is heavily impacted by climate change, we need adaptation funds. And if we want to avoid central governments, how do we ensure that the money reaches the right people? Has the AIV considered decentralized financing mechanisms?
Corbey responds by acknowledging that the support of African initiatives focused on adaptation is important. But it is more important to act from the perspective of preventing greenhouse gas emissions. She uses the example of international aviation, which needs to implement various compensation projects that could take place in Africa, Latin America, and other countries. But the projects require good auditors and go beyond central governments, shifting the responsibility to those who claim the reduction. This has the potential for success, but it requires thorough verification and implementation.
Lindijer adds that he sees a lack of attention on the ground for climate deterioration. He explains that in African governments, there is a strong emphasis on looking outward at the international level, attributing the climate issue to developed countries and expecting the outside world, especially the West, to solve it. Even though livestock owners have traditional adaptation methods, there is a significant lack of action from the top-down approach.
Another participant suggests that Africa has many well-educated and self-aware entrepreneurs, but that they lack financial support. How can we ensure that good loans reach them? Lindijer mentions that such loans already exist in Kenya and provides examples. Corbey acknowledges the importance of funding and financing mechanisms and points out that these can be part of the complementarity and shared interests mentioned earlier.
Finally, a participant says that despite all intentions, large development organizations often cost a lot of money and therefore are not the most effective. Is the solution not much closer than we think, and can’t we simply give money more directly to motivated Africans with start-up ideas or enthusiastic outsiders to set up joint projects? Lindijer reacts sceptically to this proposal, wondering if this is the exact charitable thinking that we should move away from. In closing, Corbey advises the audience to reflect on whether we have been negligent in areas, and how we can make our own policies more coherent. Secondly, the Dutch government should consider how we can reach shared and complementary interests with Africa on topics such as agriculture, infrastructure, climate, and security. Lindijer advises writing the Dutch Africa strategy from Africa itself, and not from a study room in the Netherlands. Lastly, he re-emphasizes to abandon the idea that we have something to bring to the “pitiful” continent of Africa, and to be much more humble. Look at what people are doing there, and build on that.