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Column: 'It is time to re-think what we think we know about Africa'

Clearly, people in Ireland support the principle of overseas aid, but they are not convinced our aid is actually making a difference.

Hans Zomer

THE EVIDENCE IS overwhelming that aid does make a positive difference, but people in Ireland do not realise that developing countries are making huge strides away from poverty.

Earlier this month, new figures from Ipsos MRBI showed that public support for overseas aid remains as high as ever. According to this latest research, three-quarters of people in Ireland think that Ireland has an obligation to live up to its promise to spend 0.7% of national income on overseas aid.

However, a substantial number of people also wonder whether aid is actually working. When asked whether they thought that Africa is worse off today than it was 20 years ago, over half of people said they felt things were not improving at all. Clearly, people in Ireland support the principle of overseas aid, but they are not convinced our aid is actually making a difference.

Yet, there is overwhelming evidence that aid is, in fact, making a massive difference. But people in Ireland are not seeing its impact, and the positive news is not making news headlines.

Over the last 20 years, the number of people that live in extreme poverty has fallen dramatically. UN reports show that in 2010, one in five people in developing countries lived under the poverty line – down from almost half in 1990.

Worldwide, for the first time in history, nine out of ten primary school aged children are now in school. And thanks to overseas aid, the number of people dying of malaria has been cut in half, as has the likelihood of women dying in childbirth.

But UN reports don’t make headlines, and ‘good news is no news’. So most people in Ireland are not seeing the enormous changes taking place in many countries in Africa.

Our image of Africa may be out of date

Among economists, however, the rise of Africa has received more attention. The business world is aware that six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies are African and that the continent is experiencing an economic boom.

Business magazines are talking about the “African Lions” economies and The World Economic Forum estimates that economic growth on the continent will average more than 5 percent in 2014.

More and more countries on the continent are putting behind them the legacies of conflict and dictatorships, and replacing them with democracy, decreasing poverty levels and better health and education systems for their growing populations.

But this is of course not the whole picture.

Despite economic growth and improvements in health and education, almost half of the people in African countries to the South of the Sahara continue to live in poverty.

“While it is encouraging that so many African countries are showing impressive economic growth, we should not forget that much of that growth is based on the extraction of natural resources such as oil and minerals. As we know, economic growth in such sectors can have damaging effects on the lives of the poor and on the natural environment,” says Patrick Paul Walsh, Professor International Development Studies at UCD.

There’s work to be done – but we are making huge inroads.

The recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the fighting in the Central African Republic and the growing food crisis in South Sudan and Somalia illustrate that the continent continues to struggle with huge challenges and continues to see severe human suffering.

And it is only right that those challenges continue to receive the attention of our media and our aid agencies. As long as there are people who are suffering, we have a duty to assist them. Because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is in our own long-term interest.

And when we do that, we should also remind ourselves of the successes we are achieving. The encouraging bit is that we have many examples of what it takes for a country to escape the poverty trap. We know how important it is that developing countries can build up their own democratic institutions and local businesses that are attractive to the global markets.

“Up to now most African countries exported their resources as raw materials. Little was earned and poverty persisted. But they are now beginning to transform them into good quality products that create skilled jobs and better wages for more people”, says Conall O’Caoimh of Value Added In Africa, an Irish NGO that helps market African produce in Europe.

Many business commentators are highlighting that established ideas of Africa need to be challenged.

“As long as our business leaders think of African countries as hopelessly poor and corrupt, they do not see the full picture, of a dynamic and rapidly changing continent. With greater awareness of the changes, Irish businesses can both maximise existing opportunities and contribute to poverty reduction“, says Siobhán McGee, who lectures on business and development at UCD’s business school.

“It is time to re-think what we think we know about Africa”, continued McGee.

Hans Zomer is Director of Dóchas, the Irish national platform of Development NGOs. Through Dóchas, Irish NGOs work together to improve the impact of their work, and to apply their collective experiences to inform government policy and practice.

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Hans Zomer

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