Friday, 20 May 2011

The Secret Challenge of Africa

Since the ambiguous effects of structural adjustment and economic liberalisation, the focus of donors has been on addressing corruption. The fight against corruption has been precisely that—a fight against—but the central problem of the continent is a lack of consensus over what to fight for. The secret challenge facing Africa is identifying morally good political conduct.

Apart from funding practical projects and electoral commissions, money to aid the democratic process has gone towards civil society groups. The underlying argument of promoting civil society’s leverage on governance rests on the political philosophy of the founding fathers of the US, where Lord Acton’s “power corrupts” hypothesis is avoided through the deployment of strong checks and balances. In Kenya, for example, this emphasis has been seen through the international support for the new constitution. Across the continent, young people who want to make positive change have followed the routes of civil society NGO work rather than direct participation in politics. The aim is to tame Leviathan.

The defect of this approach is that there is a great deal of knowledge in Africa about bad practice (e.g. the ratings of Transparency International) but no consensus on what constitutes good practice. Edmund Burke famously said that “evil occurs when good men do nothing” and so too, in Africa, we may say, evil occurs when good men only talk about evil.

The suddenness of the challenge of what exactly is good practice has been shied away from for two reasons. First, the continent is in a state of intellectual flux; we are in conflict as to whether understandings of goodness lie in ethnic history or the progressivism of modernity. This is seen in the conflict between group rights and human rights (e.g. the land debate in Kenya and Zimbabwe and the citizenship debate in Eastern DR Congo), and in the tension between systems of social security as based on extended family, and as based on the state. Secondly, there is wise reluctance amongst researchers and international commentators to push normative debate onto a people stained by the drama of colonial political theory. What was good used to be what was white, and now, suffering from the embarrassment of such idiocy, Western commentators are left saying that goodness is when you are not corrupt or, better still, please just avoid badness and you’ll be okay.

This reluctance to identify morally good political conduct is the key dilemma facing the political roots throughout the continent and, in turn, causing and maintaining a breakdown in governance.

The answer lies in sustained and considerable support for the study of history, anthropology, theology and philosophy amongst emerging young elites. This suggestion appears at first daft: to help fight poverty and stop corruption, should we really be paying African students to do PhDs on Plato and mud huts? The reason why it is of direct and urgent importance is that an understanding of goodness can never be cheaply purchased. A common conception of good behaviour is always the product of the full journey of a people. It is to travel far and to then have the courage to look back and to consider what we held in common those times we triumphed. The new who are entering the national stage need a supporting platform if they are to stand on the shoulders of their giants.