Richard Dowden: Want to help Africa? Then get off their backs

From a speech at the Royal Geographical Society by the Director of the Royal African Society
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The Independent Online

Because Africa looks poor and has weak institutions, we imagine that Africa is weak. We think it needs saving. We like to believe that if we bring our money, our knowledge, our skills to Africa, we can lift it out of its misery. Our strength, wisdom and kindness will lead Africans out of darkness and into a better world - a world like ours.

This is the missionary approach to Africa and it's quite prevalent these days. Its roots lie in the Christian missionaries who marched into Africa in the 19th century. Much of the colonial service had a similar idea when Britain and other European countries tried to rule Africa. Its successors today are the aid agencies, the modern missionaries.

The problem with this approach to Africa is that it has not worked. Billions of pounds worth of aid has poured into Africa in the past 50 years. I suggest as a starting point that the development of peoples, of societies, can only be done by those people themselves. It cannot be done by outsiders. Outsiders can support, but they cannot impose - unless they want to take over the governance of the whole continent. We've tried that - it was called the British Empire and it didn't work.

So stop feeding money to European cows and spreading it on fields of cotton and corn that can be grown far more cheaply in Africa. Get rid of the agricultural subsidies that make a mockery of our proclaimed faith in the free market. Stop keeping African goods out of our markets. Allow Africans to earn a living in the world. We should, in short, get off their backs.