Africa’s development conundrum
It goes without saying that postindependence Africa is afflicted by a plethora of ostensibly intractable challenges. These range from poverty, unemployment, civil conflict, multiple inequalities, poor social services, poor infrastructure, and slow technological advancement, among other things.
Furthermore, despite her miniscule contribution to global warming and its associated phenomena significant of which is climate change, Africa remains the worst affected and most vulnerable habitat to these malignant forces.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also shown, how, sudden and shock intensive crises of such magnitude can trigger and multiply ordinary people’s (in particular marginalised and vulnerable groups) experience of marginality, precarity, sickness and ultimately death.
As prominent economist Joseph Stiglitz observed, the pandemic “goes disproportionately after the poor, especially in poor countries…”
While some of these afflictions are patently traceable to the colonial era and its multi-pronged legacy of iniquities and inequities, the patrimonial excesses and obscene pillaging of national resources by indifferent and inept post-independence governments, have had no less significant impact.
Given this state of affairs, the question about Africa’s development imperatives and needs at this moment remains begging.
Notably, what is evident in national, regional and continental versions of the continent’s development goals is the tension between a desire for economic growth and the protection of the environment.
This presents a conundrum in thinking and implementing development policy on the continent given the immanent irreconcilable tension in the two goals and the dire consequences of failing to address either or both of them, especially as this pertains the welfare of those in the lower rungs of society such as indigenous social (minority) groups and women.
This conundrum is complicated by a persistent inexactitude in the very understanding of development, as this has implications on especially indigenous populations whose ways of living are not in harmony with modernist approaches to development, which are moored in the principle of economic growth.
In Africa, economic growth is largely based on the extractive industry, whose modus operandi is to explore and exploit natural resources over and below the earth’s crust, the human cost be damned.
This approach puts both the corporate entities involved in these activities and governments, whose economic and political goals are contingent on the success of the former, in direct conflict with indigenous populations whose way of living is intimately bound with the natural environment which, at once, constitutes their habitat, source of livelihood and produces their cultural air.
The indigenous peoples’ predicament is also compounded by changes to the climate as a result of human action.
For instance, according to a 2019 report, Megatrends in Africa, produced by the Finnish Foreign Ministry, “the mean temperature rise for Africa is around 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial time.”
A more significant observation in the same report is that “land cover change” is a “key driver of anthropogenic climate change in Africa” and that it is caused by “agricultural land expansion at the cost of forests and bushlands.”
In Sub-Saharan Africa, it notes, cleared agricultural land has “increased by 57%, with a yearly increase of 2.3%” between 1975 and 2000.
The unencumbered, if not excessive, pursuit of modern development in Africa thus, arguably pushes extractive activities into the heartland of indigenous peoples’ habitus, which effectively disrupts their ecologically balanced co-existence with the natural environment around them.
Inevitably, this disruption constricts indigenous people’s habitat, depletes the natural resources with which they are co-dependent and erodes their cultural practices by reconfiguring the physical world with which such practices are entangled.
To adequately conceive the multifarious and intertwined challenges dealt indigenous groups and women as a result of narrowly conceived development interventions thus, one has to view social problems resulting in particular policy choices regarding development, the environment and culture as justice questions, proper.
By so doing, we will be able to analyse the confluence between distributive, cultural and political factors whose overlapping and mutually reinforcing apparatus contribute to undermining the dignity of marginal groups such as indigenous communities and women.
For instance, in their contribution to Climate Justice Central, Susan Nakacwa and Faith Lumonya, argue that, “the missing link in ongoing climate actions is the nonrecognition that climate change is a social issue. Climate action must be linked to the social justice struggle and center those who consistently remains (sic) invisible in the world.”
An intersectional approach, developed and popularised by black feminists, provides a cutting-edge tool for analysing – in the words of Susan Nakacwa and Faith Lumonya, “the lived experiences of indigenous African women and other minoritised communities in the analysis of the causes and effects of climate change. It recognises that climate change disproportionately affects these marginalised groups which already face other forms of discrimination based on their gender, socioeconomic class, race, ethnicity, nationality, ability, sexual orientation, and age”.
Notably, Namibia has made significant strides in protecting the socio-cultural and economic fabric of indigenous groups such as the San and Ovahimba, by infusing specific redemptive provisions to this end in the constitution and establishing government departments that are expected to formulate and implement programmes aimed at the empowerment of these groups.
This is important, since as researchers Ben Begbie-Clench and Noelia Gravotta (2020) observe, the San and other indigenous groups in Namibia “continue to face extreme marginalisation, and have lower overall indicators than other Namibian ethnic groups in many areas, including economic development, educational attainment and political representation.”
Also, as with other indigenous groups elsewhere in the world, Begbie-Clench and Gravotta (2020) note that indigenous groups in Namibia also experience “pressure from encroachment into their lands in the forms of illegal settlement, illegal grazing and illegal fencing continues to be high. On communal land where San are a minority, their representation and participation in land-related decisions, tenure rights and complaint resolutions tend to be limited.”
According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), Zimbabwe, where the San and Doma indigenous groups make 0.03% of the population, “does not recognise any specific groups as indigenous to the country” which suggests that their marginalisation begins with this brazen denial of recognition, itself a key predicate for their other claims to justice.
To this end, the continent needs to think deeply about the best way to bring about development which allows all its people to leave a rounded dignified life, while at the same time protecting the environment which is so intimately connected to the very existence and survival of current and future generations both in Africa and beyond.