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Economics column: Finish the unfinished business of Africa’s development 2006-07-19
James Blignaut

*Part-time professor in Economics, University of Pretoria, director of Jabenzi & Beatus & affiliated to GreenGrowth Strategies, three companies aiming at making rural development in southern Africa a reality.



I’m writing this essay from Awasa, capital of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region, Ethiopia.  It’s a work-related trip.  All work and little play – the usual old story - but it is a memory-building experience and is certainly worth the effort, time and expense.

            The purpose of the visit, investigating the best way to invest in both people and nature simultaneously, stated alternatively: Investing in both human and natural capital.  I’m here on invitation of one of the project leaders of the team from the University of Vermont, USA, and we’re the guests of the Green Awasa project, initiated and organised by the Awasa Children’s Centre (which is a HIV/AIDS orphanage) and the Awasa Children’s campus (which is host to a performing arts group).  The project is the dream child of a theatre director in the USA who is convinced that art is the best way to communicate a message and educate people concerning an issue.  For the past 6 years the circus has prepared and staged shows mainly concentrating on AIDS awareness.  Now it is time to tackle the environment and environmental degradation.  Something has to change.  It is not good enough just to talk about environmental degradation, something needs to be done to illustrate an alternative.  But is such an intervention necessary?

            Awasa lies in the Great Rift Valley almost 300 kilometres south of Addis Ababa.  The trip from Addis takes about 5 hours.  The road, which is the main road going to Kenya is, unlike many others in Africa free from potholes.  It is, however, highly concentrated and populated with all forms, shapes and sizes of transportation vehicles, making a cruising speed of more than 80km/h, except for short distances, almost impossible.  Only one generation ago one would have been travelling in a forest for most part, today there is hardly any vegetation left except for the occasional Australian exotics like Gum trees.  Changed land use and hence land conversion from forest to dryland crop production is the order of the day.  But the soils for most part are very sandy and poor – the small and semi-bleached maize plants with their almost leave-less stems being a telltale sign.  As the soil productivity declined and population pressure increased, more and more land was converted towards cropping, creating an ideal condition for a dustbowl.  Large stretches of barren and scorched land surrounded by impoverished people whose greatest need is to catch the next fish or bird, irrespective its size, greets the traveller; a socio-ecological disaster.  Being a casual observer, but having travelled southern Africa extensively, I have not yet seen the negative interplay (or cycle) between poverty and environmental degradation so strong.  These two elements are mutually reinforcing – a vicious and evil cycle – a curse of which the effects are clearly visible on the faces and living conditions of the affected.

            One more casual observation, similar to those made in various African cities such as Maputo, Kampala, Lusaka, and Lilongwe: abandoned or unfinished projects.  Buildings started, but not completed; roads constructed, but unfinished and/or not maintained; projects started, but stopped before fulfilling their vision or potential; businesses opened, just to be closed again; and, sad to say but still very true, families started, to be abandoned.  Development, it seems, is a start-stop-start affair, hence people are busy, in reality they are VERY busy (the town centres are beehives of activity), but the people remain poor  - very poor!  The moral of the story: Do not start what you cannot finish.  But how do you know what you will be able to finish and what not?  How much is this a case of being blown around by the winds of change and not being able to provide any resistance?  Or is it a case of being so vulnerable, so exposed, so desperate, that resoluteness bows before opportunism?  And as each person starts yet another, to be unfinished and abandoned business/project, the accumulative environmental, psychological, economic and aesthetic impact (the footprint) of unfinished businesses becomes larger and larger, making it increasingly more difficult for the next person to start his/her project, increasing the likelihood of that one to be unfinished and hence abandoned.  The vicious cycle deepens.  The barriers to development are ever increasing, and that while the commercial world are happily consuming more day after day.  Central to this theme, however, are the people of Africa.  Let me share the tale of one person I’ve met here, let’s call him Jack.

            Jack has had a Sudanese father and a Kenyan mother.  During his early years they lived in southern Sudan.  His father, a farmer, was forced to go to war fighting the government forces from the North.  He never saw his father again.  He was five.  Due to government-induced bombings, his mother, with all the siblings and other people fled to a refuge camp in Ethiopia (1988) – many died en route.  During the Ethiopian civil war (1991) the Ethiopian army attacked the Sudanese refugees; Jack had to flee, yet again.  His mother flew to Uganda; he ended up in Kenya.  There he attended school – a refugee and functionally an orphan.  But then help came.  He, together with a couple of thousand other Sudanese refugees, was offered to go to the USA (2001) to study and to start a new life.  He is currently busy with a degree in environmental studies and has returned now, with the team, to the province where he has been a refugee more than 15 years ago, participating in seeking solutions for the problems his former hosts are currently facing.  High on his agenda, however, is to be re-united with his mother after more than 15 years of separation.  He located her from the US, but now it is time to find her again, and just in a couple of weeks’ time he will do so.  But Jack is one of the “lucky” ones.  He still has a mother, he has an excellent education, and in two months’ time he will be a USA citizen.  There are millions of his peers with no hope of a better future: economic and ecological refugees in their own county.

            This brings me to the conclusion: Development is about hope.  With no hope – all work and activity is hopeless.  It is hope that instils a resoluteness to fight, persevere, and complete the task at hand.  It is hope in tomorrow that will enable us to finish the unfinished business of Africa’s development.  All we can do in Awasa is to bring hope, and may we be able to finish at least this one task.



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