Edward Kissi, Ph.D.
In 1998, my very good friend at Yale University, Anthropologist and Political Scientist James C. Scott wrote a very well-received book entitled: Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. As Obi Nwakanma refocusses the way we think about Africa, I am reminded of some of James Scott's arguments in his book. That "formal schemes of order are untenable without some elements of the practical knowledge that they tend to dismiss." Here, Scott puts "local knowledge" at the center of State thinking about Society. But as Scott admits "certain kinds of states, driven by utopian plans and authoritarian disregard for the values, desires, and objections of their subjects, are indeed a mortal threat to human well being." (p.7.). So much has been said in our forum about the authoritarian regimes and the havoc they have wrought on African societies. We have learned from that. Perhaps we need to refocus some of our attention on the "values, desires and objections" of subjects or society.
Let us divide "the African people" into two. First, ordinary traders and peasants eking out a living in remote African villages without good drinking water, accessible roads and whose human condition is worsened everyday by the disease-causing organisms in that environment. Let us call them the "Rural and poor Africans." Second, Africans who live in cities and urban areas with some formal education and others who by circumstances well-known to them live abroad and constitute a resourceful diaspora. Let us call the second group of Africans "The African Elite."
For generations, the African elite, like Scott's "State" has reflected on the conditions of the African poor and thought of plans and programs to improve their condition. In many cases, the elite tend to think for the poor as the State plans for society. Often caught in the frustrations of some urban imagery of the rural and other elite representations of the poor and poverty, many of the elite thinking about rural conditions and their solutions are guided by emotion. Very often, the emotion is based on what I would call "simplified comparisons or analogies." Such comparisons often involve equating the fortunes or successes of particular countries in the world (United States; Thailand; Singapore) with the fortunes of an entire continent (Africa). While such comparisons may inspire, they do not inform because they often overlook two important things in the fortunes of societies. First, the natural ecologies in which particular human societies exist and what may be possible or difficult for its human inhabitants to attain. Second, the values, aspirations and objections of the people whose conditions "The State" or "The African Elite" seek to improve.
It may not be easy or it may require a large infusion of money, equipment and expertise, which a society may or may not have, to transform a society located in a natural terrain of valleys and mountains and whose soil structure is naturally porous into an agrarian nirvana overnight----one whose roads and highways are paved with ashphalt. Such a terrain of valleys and mountains driven by criticism to "develop" and shamed to improve its human condition may have two or a few choices. To tax its poor inhabitants into exhaustion to secure the necessary funds to turn its mountains and valleys into streets and alleyways similar to Las Vegas to merit praise. Or the society's elite living abroad whom fortune has blessed may have to ask themselves one question. In the absence of a locally-generated progress funds, and the reluctance of the society's inhabitants to be the world's contemptuous beggars, what responsibility would that society's elite have to provide the capital necessary for the schemes and projects needed to improve conditions of the poor in that particular society?
What if that society eager or driven to transform itself by its own bootstraps has what Scott calls "values, desires and objections" that pose a mortal threat to itself. Let us suppose that that particular poor rural society's chief value is that its sons and daughters abroad who have capital to expend look rather to family and clan than society and citizens at large? What objections may family and clan members wave in the face of that society's most determined philanthropist to sacrifice the comfort of family and clan for the goodness of the entire society? What values and customs may be broken in that process, and what sanctions may the village elite philanthropist suffer? Or how may a society begin to rethink its bounded values and aspirations at a period in time when the deprivations and poverty of the many in that society overshadow the well-being and "success" of a few in it? And how should those who think about societies for a living measure "poverty", "deprivation" and "success" in such a society?
The Moderator of this forum once posted an article published in the Washington Post entitled: "A Changing Continent: The Africa You Never See." In it the author Carol Pineau praised some of the successful developments in particular African countries. But as our deliberations in this forum sometimes suggest, there is an Africa that we choose not to see. Perhaps, for some of us, until the entire continent---from Cape Town to Cairo---has come to look like individual countries such as Singapore, India, China, the United States, Australia etc, we would never recognize the African effort or be satisfied with the success Africans continue to make.
We need not overlook the morbid portions of our continent. But we need to ask ourselves: How should we measure the success and failure of Africans in their society-building efforts. Kwame Nkruma once said to his critics that "those who judge us merely by the heights we have achieved would do well to remember the depths from which we started" (Kwame Nkrumah, Dark Days in Ghana, p.76).
Anytime I arrive in my village in Ghana from the United States, I wish I could reproduce for my village a pocket-version of Florida with its ashphalt highways, industries and theme parks. In my own thoughts about the condition of my village, often in the framework of comparisons I make to Tampa, New York, Amsterdam, London etc, I forget the different context of values and ecologies in which Tampa, New York and Amsterdam came to be what they now are. I often ask myself what is needed to make my village look like New York and is that practical, feasible, possible under my village's peculiar cultural and ecological conditions? Or are my desires utopianism bred by my own frustration with myself as I look at New York and compare that to my village in Ghana. Yet, even in the midst of their poverty, as I am inclined to describe it having lived in North America since 1989, the people of my village appear not in the mood of trading what they have for something else. But won't they cherish good water, electricity and a theme park and good roads?
As I have become part of the African elite preoccupied with thinking about Africa; what is wrong with it; what needs to done about it, I ask myself: Are comparisons of countries with a continent helpful in the way I should think about Africa and its problems and needs?. Should I burden my thoughts about the problems and successes of the entire continent or I should look at what individual societies and nations are doing for their people? Should I assume that nothing is worthy about Africa until all the 54 countries and their remote villages have come to resemble the United States, Singapore, Las Vegas or New York? How should I measure the success of societies: by their Gross National Product; by their Crime Rate or by their Societal Contentment Index (how many in that society define their needs and aspirations in modest ways that make them use their limited resources for what they really need) And how can I expand their joys and needs by pursuing what they really need and what is possible within the natural environment in which those people live.
Perhaps we need to refocus the way we think about "Africa." It is the size of the United States, India, China and Australia combined. It has more than 800 million people living there. Perhaps we need to refrain from imagining it as a country easy to mold by pursuing particular set of projects and principles that all inhabitants approve and aspire to. We may be "seeing like a state." We can choose to focus on what individual countries are doing within the contraints of their culture, aspirations, ecology and history and celebrate that, or we can choose to push ourselves to an emotional fringe of supposing that nothing has worked in Africa meriting praise and some sigh of relief until all parts of the continent are functioning well. It is not the entire Asia or Europe that is awash in prosperity. Only some countries. And Europeans and Asians do not descend into despair over the condition of their continent as Africans do. And let us beware the comparisons and analogies we draw as we think about Africa.
As a human being, I sometimes wish I have what my neighbors possess. But individual nations may not necessarily aspire to the heights of others, but rather define and pursue what is possible to them. Sometimes, it is better to be creative and innovative without being imitative.