Eradicating ‘cultural poverty’

Development Policy05 Feb 2008Francis Nyamnjoh

On reading through the IOB evaluation report I’m particularly struck by the emphasis on the sectoral approach to aid. It is as if normal life is lived in disconnected segments, and as though the successes scored in one sector cannot be cancelled out by the failure to address the needs in other sectors. Of course, it could always be argued that no single donor has resources enough to intervene simultaneously across a broad spectrum of sectors. But even so, this begs the question of what informs the choice of sectors and, even more important, what quantity and quality of research should inform the choice of sectors in order to guarantee successful outcomes.

In this connection, while efforts and resources committed to the MDGs and the eradication of poverty are commendable, it could just be possible that we have focused too much on certain forms of poverty to the detriment of others. One area that has been underprovided for is what I would call, for want of a better term, ‘cultural poverty’. There is not enough investment in cultural production and knowledge of Africa by Africans, even though much of what exists as knowledge in this regard is pregnant with prejudices ill-informed by the lived and dynamic realities of Africans.

In the Netherlands, and elsewhere in Europe, knowledge of Africa beyond the popular stereotypes is very poor, and it is hardly surprising that this could be a factor accounting for ‘the fact that donors still tend to push their views and visions’ while paying ‘lip service’ to ‘ownership’. This could also be the reason why donors have all too easily embraced ‘the need to score successes on the most important indicators of the MDGs’, to the detriment of effective long-term aid. It could also be the reason why the Dutch government should spend as much as €565 million on education in Africa in eight years, and yet have little to show for it beyond increased access. As the report indicates, there has been little improvement in quality of education to match increased access, and the focus has been almost exclusively on primary education.

With little investment in higher education to encourage research and knowledge production, it should surprise few that donor–Africa relations and interactions are often under-informed by scientific insights and expertise. Yet the Africans are blamed for their failure to drive donor-supported development initiatives to fruition. Hence, when the report talks of corruption in partner countries ticking like a time bomb, to this should be added the danger posed by corrupt or inadequate scientific knowledge about Africa and African realities in donor circles.

There needs to be commitment to policies informed by (natural and social) scientific knowledge of Africa and its realities, acquired through collaborative research between Dutch and African institutions. Donors should not shy away from topics such as ‘urban poverty’ because these ‘appear more complex than other sectors’ as policy areas. Finally, such profound knowledge of Africa should yield qualitative indicators of success, the inadequacy of which in the current funding model has led the evaluators to conclude that ‘the attention given to figures threatens to overrule insights.’

Given that perceptions are shaped and reshaped over time, conscious efforts should be made to develop policies aimed at eradicating ‘cultural poverty’ on Africa, both in and out of that geographical space called Africa. The policies should be such that they encourage the production and consumption – in Africa, the Netherlands and the rest of the world – of cultural products created by Africans who are crying out for the space and means to tell the story of African creativity in dignity.