Fight against poverty – challenges and prospects

Sudan, Africa’s largest nation, was the first African state to be independent in 1956.

The country occupies a special place in the African narrative and with the impending formal split of the Christian South to form yet another independent African state, it must be accepted that the challenge of creating a unified and consolidated front to deliver the true promise of independence has proved elusive.

On July 9 2011, Southern Sudan will be formally proclaimed as the 54th African state. From Sudan the wind of change visited Ghana and then many other states that raised the flag full of promise only to find poverty a permanent feature of the post-colonial experience.

What is ironic is that relationship between poverty and post-colonial Africa has been entrenched and despite domestic and external strategies to reduce its frontiers, poverty undermined the promise.

In fact, a backdrop of a pervasive dependency syndrome has regrettably underpinned the post-colonial experience.

It is easy to hold the view that Africa is poor because the past condemned its prospects of riding the wealth ladder forgetting that the war against poverty is a multi-faceted one requiring different leadership skills, strategies and tactics.
No amount of propaganda or even rhetoric will push the frontiers of poverty back.

Contrary to the promise, the frontiers of poverty have expanded and many African states find themselves with no magic bullet to fight the battle against poverty.

The independence struggle produced warriors and yet the post-colonial experience has failed to provide the kind of leadership to address the bread and butter issues.

In the fight against poverty and inequality, key ideological questions need to be addressed but regrettably Africa has yet to find its own idea that can inspire hope and in so doing promote social cohesion and an inclusive approach to development.

A divided Sudan is unlikely to deliver the promise that inspired Africa’s founding fathers to see the struggle for civil rights as a unifying and borderless cause requiring the subordination of natural ethnic-based solutions to development.

There is no doubt that the Almighty was generous to Africa and yet native Africans find themselves at the bottom of the opportunity ladder, groping for salvation from without while the resources in its belly cry out for exploitation by non-Africans largely because no consensus exists as to what kind of Africa we want to see.

It is easy to blame State actors, who are drawn from the poor majority, for the unacceptable condition that Africa finds itself in.

The post-colonial state was born from the womb of a society informed by a libertarian approach that holds the view that the only legitimate rights are purely negative ie rights that never make it possible to have access to the resources of others without their consent, which consent was historically neither sought nor granted.

Whereas the consent of native Africans was never sought and obtained, the premise on which the libertarian ideal is founded was not applicable given the history of Africa to allow the allotment of material resources in full property to single owners without invoking the equation of race.

The relationship between race and property cannot be ignored in dealing with the causes of poverty in Africa.

With respect to Africa’s resource endowments, a self-serving view was held that blacks did not suffer any violation of rights from colonialism as no theft could conceivably be alleged since the resources were not protected by defined and legitimate rights.

In the case of minerals, a view was held that they remained hidden from the eye for any native African to legitimately claim proprietorship to an asset that they played no part in creating.

The establishment of state finances in all African states by compulsory taxes for upholding the law created a constitutional order that sought to protect and crystallise historically illegitimately acquired rights.

The post-colonial experience has shown that it is not easy to erase experienced misfortunes.
We can debate about the ills of the past and the injury caused but that will not feed the present-day stomach.

In trying to better understand the nature and consequences of past negative rights violations, it is not helpful that an attempt is made to cure the injury of the past by exclusively dwelling on it at a time when people need to look up to something that gives hope.

Africa’s past is pregnant with pain and misery. However, its unconsumed resources and potential, if correctly managed, provide hope. It is from our actions and deeds that the promise can be converted into a better and brighter life for the majority.

The reasonable option for many African states at independence would have been to make a clean sweep of the past and to seek to bring about equality and justice through social engineering rather than using market principles.

Although the fight against present poverty cannot be divorced from the past violations, the impact of post-colonial violations on poverty cannot be ignored.

It is common cause that the transfer of property rights in post-colonial Africa has largely been a game that has been played outside the worldview of the majority.

The State has been converted into a predatory super-persona easily manipulated by a few informed by narrow and parochial interests, particularly in Zimbabwe.

To the extent that the colonial state was established to uphold the law of the day and ensuring the protection of human (white) and illegitimately acquired property rights, the expectation was that the post-colonial construction would overcome the injustice of the past in the form of rectification justice.

No rational person would argue against the need for rectification and distributive justice in post-colonial Africa but the devil lies in the details of execution.

The first step in the climb of native Africans is the hardest as our parents had no assets to bequeath to us to prepare us for the challenges of today.

The asset allocation practices in post-colonial Africa have created their own distortions and inequities that will require fresh revolutions to cure.

The challenge that post-colonial Africa finds itself in is that the neglect of negative rights has the tendency to create conditions of such economic inefficiency that social and political rights are themselves weakened.

The choice made by many post-colonial administrations to increase the human capital of the poor by investing in education is not misplaced as this has proved to be a reliable addition to the endowments of victims of past injustices.

The few Africans whose social mobility has been facilitated by education have advanced their personal causes in a manner that has inspired more hope for the poor than any initiative driven by either aid or social engineering projects implemented by the state.

The ghosts of the past tell us that looking back can cure poverty and yet the whispers of tomorrow tell another story.

We need a fresh look at poverty by moving away from the anti-anything strategy to a pro-something approach that celebrates success and prosperity.
My experiences have taught me not to trust anyone with too much power.

The conversation about the war against poverty must focus on what we can do for ourselves and not what others can do for us.

Mutumwa Mawere is a businessman based in South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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