Dust from our Eyes

Joan Baxter is a journalist and anthropologist probably best known for her BBC World Service reporting from Africa.  Her 2008 book, Dust from our Eyes, came to my attention after I heard an interview with her on KUOW (the University of Washington public radio station) last year.  After a quarter-century of living, reporting, and traveling in Africa, Baxter had come to form some strong opinions about what Western culture did right and wrong when it came to “helping” Africa.  The title of the book reflects a proverb, in Baxter’s paraphrase, “…if you want to help your neighbor out, who’s got some dust in his eye, you should stop and take the dust or the straw out of your own eye, so that you can see well before you go to help your neighbor.  And I thought that that was a very apt proverb given the number of people who head off to Africa thinking they’re going to ‘help Africa’ without really having a clue what the problems might be, and the sources of those problems, which very often actually have their roots not in Africa, but in other parts of the world, particularly in the last 20 years in the rich west.”

I went into this book thinking it would be a “how-to” guide for doing good aid work in Africa.  As Baxter pointed out in the interview I linked above, much of the aid work that has been done there over the last decades seems to have (in many cases) done very little good (and in some notable cases even done lots of bad … more on that later).  The book begins with some background on Africa, and I expected that anytime soon the background would end and Baxter would delve into what she believes to be “good” aid work.  This never quite happened, though.  The book is essentially made of snippets of her own multi-decade experiences in Mali, Cameroon, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and so on.  She leaves to the reader the task of parsing from her experience what “good” work is really about, mostly through her examples of western exploitation and the “non-profit” work that often ties in with it.

I found Dr. Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power had this same sort of approach, where he never quite comes out and says “we should manage inequality by employing higher standards of care for those whose agency has been constrained,” but rather shares his own experiences and observations, leaving the reader to employ critical thinking to conclude what the proper method might be.

As with Pathologies of Power, I find it best simply to share with you some snippets that I feel give a flavor of the book.  These are just random pieces of her book, but they struck me as noteworthy and representative of the book’s content:

*Every child in the west learns about the holocaust perpetrated against the Jews in Germany, but few school curricula delve into the holocaust in the Congo during the period it was the main source for rubber and ivory for Europe and North America and was the personal fiefdom of the Belgian King, Leopold II.  An estimated ten million people died during that period of colonial plunder in the Congo, roughly half the population.  The term “crimes against humanity” would be coined by George Washington Williams when visiting the Congo.

*White people, it is often believed, are always rich, cannot move without a vehicle and do not know how to walk or work physically.

*More Ghanaian doctors work in New York than there are Ghanaian doctors in Ghana itself.

*Despite the abundance of fruit grown in sub-Saharan Africa, it is impossible in most countries to find any indigenously produced fruit juice.  Soft drinks such as Coca-Cola and Fanta, and now the new caffeinated ‘energy’ drinks made by the same companies, are to be found everywhere.  Yet local fruit such as watermelons, mangoes, oranges, guavas, papayas, tamarind and a wide variety of indigenous fruits now known on the world market, can often be found rotting in roadside markets because of seasonal surpluses.

*Quoting Thomas Sankara, “Why do we import apples from France into our country that is overflowing with tropical fruit that we can’t sell? One apple costs more than a dozen mangoes.”  Burkina Faso’s president Sankara (whose reformist policies I personally find quite interesting) would later be executed in a coup; his death would be listed as “natural causes.”

*Sub-Sahara Africa is the only part of the world where the absolute number and percentage of the extreme poor rose between 1981 and 2001.

*Cameroonians have seen their real-income fall by more than 50% in the past 10 years.

*Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Sierra Leone, and Guinea Bissau constitute the least five developed countries in the world.  They also produce untold riches in gold and diamonds for Western corporations.

*One single mine in Mali she visited would eventually generate 1.5 billion US dollars in gold.  A single gold ring can produce 20 tons of mine waste (I’m scared to do that math on how many tons of mine waste a billion dollars of gold will create).  Of a World Bank loan of 150 million dollars for that company to start the mine in Morila, one-hundred thousand dollars had gone to building schools and roads (0.07% reinvestment).  A Malian mine worker is quoted, “[w]e read on the Internet that AngloGold has pronounced that Morila is the most profitable gold mine in the world, and yet most workers here get no lodging or training, or even health care.  In South Africa, AngloGold is paying for the anti-retrovirals for its staff that are HIV-positive, and here they take all our medical costs out of our salaries.” Mine companies often pay only hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in lease fees.

*She talks about “rutile,” a white compound used in paints, plastics, ceramics, medicines, sunscreens, toothpastes, welding rods, aircraft, golf clubs, tennis rackets, and contains 95% titanium dioxide.  Sierra Leone’s deposits of rutile may account for as much as 30% of the world’s supply, and the U.S. government lists it as a “strategic metal” to be stockpiled by the U.S. defense department.  Visiting Sierra Leone’s ‘Sierra Rutile’ mine she found 13 dislocated communities, 3,200 persons of which have been resettled, and 190,000 hectares of farmland that is now spoiled land associated with the mine (and will almost surely be left in that condition by the mine’s owners when the mine finally stops producing).

You may wonder what all this has to do with doing non-profit aid work in Africa.

“As a result of what western leaders and investors say they are doing in Africa, and what they are really doing, many in Africa have become suspicious about almost any Western involved in their countries — even when it is genuinely altruistic and benevolent, done by NGOs with long and proven track records.”  She recounts during the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire common people believing the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders personnel were really foreign agents or gun-runners.  Humans tend to form stereotypes and it’s illogical to expect Africans to be any different.  If your only exposure to white persons is that they bring you ineffectual “aid” while exploiting your natural resources, I can understand the hesitance!  She spends some time talking about the failings of the “green revolution” in the 1960s and 1970s, how it ultimately left Africa much worse off, and agriculture “experts” now are advising Africans to plant trees in their barren fields (fields that were once full of old growth trees; trees they cut down on the advice of “experts” in the 1970s).

She details how 80% of Western aid comes right back to the Western countries, in the form of hiring experts or bringing in Western labor to build projects.  She takes up the case of Mali and Burkina Faso’s cotton farmers who were greatly impoverished by the 2002 Farm Bill in the United States, where a subsidy of $230 per acre (as much as a Malian makes in a year) was attached to cotton farming.  This drove the global price of cotton through the floor, and Malian farmers ended up oweing more for pesticides than their cotton was worth.  The cotton subsidy was worth (to US farmers) three times the entire USAID budget for more than 500million people in Africa.   In 2001 (before the farm bill!) Mali received $37M in US aid dollars but lost $43M because of US cotton subsidies.  The farm bill was eventually ruled illegal by the WTO, after Brazil lodged a complaint.  A few more interesting facts: the United States dolled out $7 billion to its own farmers in farm subsidies in 2007 (apparently necessary because it costs three times as much to grow cotton here, partially due to inefficient farming methods); on the topic of false aid, Joan Baxter cites an ActionAid study that says nearly 90% of U.S. and French aid can be considered “Phantom Aid.”

Ultimately Joan Baxter does a good job of detailing how the West exploits Africa, keeps greedy and ineffectual leaders in power (and expels those who seek to help their own people at the expense of the west), and how many aid organizations really just further this perception as their emissaries live tax free, with $5,000/month rent assistance, and drive expensive 4WD Land Rovers equipped with air conditioning, while surrounded by the people they are “helping” who live on less than $1 per day.  The book is her personal accounting, and is chock full of her personal opinions — she is not a disinterested party, and it must be read with this in mind, however I find it difficult to take more than slight issue with anything she’s written. This may be partially because I am not an expert on most of the topics she addresses (for instance, it’s hard for me to say whether the original green revolution went astray or not … her arguments seem convincing, but not being an expert I don’t know the other side).  On some of the topics she addresses that I do know well (e.g. malaria), I can certainly nit-pick some of her arguments, but I don’t find them to be without merit.  Most of her assertions are annotated and supported by the end notes that begin on page 369.

As a tool for understanding the context of Africa … that is, what we are stepping into when we head to Ghana, and how we will be perceived, I believe this book will be quite useful.  If you’re not traveling to Africa and you just want to learn some of what your television hasn’t been telling you (e.g. a civil war in Côte d’Ivoire occurred coincident to the Iraq war but was essentially unreported in Western media) this book is equally useful.

One Response to “Dust from our Eyes”

  1. […] to where the money went (if anywhere, a problem endemic to the aid process, somewhat covered in my Joan Baxter review).  So as not to end this on a bad note, let me say that I did enjoy the film, and that anything […]