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How can Africa “aid” the West and the world to change course?

At a time when the Western model is struggling to inspire any kind of wisdom or exemplarity to younger generations concerned with social and environmental justice, it's time to reverse the paradigm and look to what other cultures have to offer our globalized society

Africa, a continent long relegated by public opinion to the status of a mere recipient of “aid” – and “lessons” – from the Western powers, has in its ways of being and values enough to inspire a much-needed change of course in the West and the world, especially in a context of “polycrisis” such as the one that hangs over our future.

A multiple crisis, as highlighted in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 which explains that the cumulative impacts of many emerging and interconnected risks (societal, environmental, economic, geopolitical and technological) may collectively evolve into a polycrisis centered around natural resource shortages by 2030.

Lesson on solidarity: a generous Africa (not in search of generosity)

It is common to attribute the West’s malaise, at least in part, to the culture of individualism it has adopted as part of its conception of modernity. The egocentric individual atom thus evolves, almost without ties, in a materialistic world that is becoming increasingly dehumanized. It’s a sad vision of society where indifference to others, the degradation or absence of solidarity, and exclusion inevitably reign. It took a pandemic to remind us of the values of community and to experience a certain surge of solidarity, so unusual that it was perceived in the West as an exotic phenomenon.

On the other hand, it is striking to see the extent to which solidarity and generosity are rooted in African culture and daily life, even and especially in situations of need and precariousness; this continent possesses a sense of sharing that cannot leave one indifferent.

While the media are constantly talking about migrants at Europe’s doorstep, it is worth remembering that Africa alone hosts “more than a third of the world’s forcibly displaced people, including 7.8 million refugees and asylum seekers and 23.6 million internally displaced persons”, according to a report by the African Union (April 2022). And the continent welcomes them with its usual compassion.

“Despite their own economic, security and social challenges, Africa’s governments and people have kept their borders, doors and hearts open to millions of people in need […] seeing Liberian farmers share their seed rice to feed Ivorian refugees.” – excerpt from a statement by the UN Secretary-General in 2019, at the 32nd African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, where the African example was hailed as a reference for solidarity.

Another illustration of African generosity which we rarely hear about – perhaps because it doesn’t fit in with the “development aid” discourse – is that of the huge amounts of remittances sent by the African diaspora to their relatives in Africa. Flows to sub-Saharan Africa and the MENA region have reached $53 billion and $63 billion respectively by 2022, according to a World Bank press release last November. The same observation applies more broadly to the “Global South”, where these transfers amount to more than $590 billion annually, based on the Global Philanthropy Tracker 2023, far exceeding all forms of international aid combined – notwithstanding the different uses to which these donations are put -. The report also highlights the remarkable rise in diaspora transfers during the Covid crisis, in contrast to other sources of aid.

A generous Africa, and not in search of generosity as some narratives would have us believe. Indeed, the voices expressing Africa’s desire to deal on an equal footing with the world’s powers are becoming increasingly numerous, even in ruling circles. As was the case at the Summit for a New Global Financing Pact last June, where one of the African heads of state asserted that “Africa should never be seen as a continent that needs generosity.”

Lesson on sober innovation: from consumerist bulimia to frugal and ingenious living

The Western concept of industrial and technological progress, and of success in modern, globalized society, has historically been inextricably linked with outrageous productivism and consumerism. An energy-intensive and resource-hungry model that feeds ever more superfluous needs, exacerbates social injustice, alienates the individual – not least digitally – and leads straight to climate and ecological disaster.

Faced with the impasse, some leaders in the North are only just beginning to recognize the “existential threat”, to set horizons and objectives, and turn towards values such as frugality.

Now if there is a continent that can give lessons on frugality and management of scarcity, which the world will be increasingly confronted with, it is the African continent – and the Global South more broadly. A basic premise that seems to be forgotten these days, and which characterizes the very essence of African innovation: to innovate whenever there is a real need or necessity to be met.

A stroll through a sub-Saharan metropolis is all it takes to see examples of inventiveness that are, no more and no less, an integral part of the African way of life. The pandemic also revealed the ingenuity of Africans – often with the means at hand. From the Ghanaian shoemaker’s solar-powered hand-washer to Angola’s self-diagnosis tools and Morocco’s artificial respirator, the continent has accounted, according to the UN, for almost 13% of innovations in the various fields involved in the pandemic response, while R&D spending on medical technologies in Africa, with rare exceptions, is almost negligible.

It is therefore about maintaining the ability to innovate with frugality or Jugaad innovation, a concept explored by N. Radjou, J. Prabhu and S. Ahuja in a book of the same name, which explains how industrialized countries and their organizations can draw inspiration from the pioneering model of certain emerging economies, in India and Africa in particular, which excel in the art of “doing better with less”.

In the same way, while there is a revival of interest in the West, notably in France, for so-called low-tech solutions, i.e., integrating technologies that are frugal, resilient and accessible to the greatest number, Africa has the potential to be a leader in this field, for the needs of its own market, and then export this know-how to the countries of the North, in a logic of reverse innovation. The opportunity is enormous, given the absence of barriers to entry, the only assets required being creativity and common sense, which African youth are not lacking.

Low-tech thus provides an alternative to the excesses of modern technology or the unnecessary uses of digital technology. As the main African challenge is that of socio-economic development, which is essential to lift populations out of endemic poverty and precariousness, African engineers and decision-makers will show discernment and resort to so-called high-tech, certainly more energy- and resource-intensive, as long as their use serves their continent’s development objectives in fields such as industry, health and education. Perhaps it is worth remembering that not all the remedies for the evils of our times are technological in nature. Technosolutionism, particularly in the climate field, is now being profoundly called into question; the answers are sometimes simply to be found in our way of being and conceiving the world around us.

Lesson on peace and symbiosis with nature

It is surprising that, through certain media, Africa has become systematically associated with war and insecurity in the common imagination. A stereotype that the continent’s new generations are determined to correct. This is somewhat ironic when one considers the history of destruction and violence that has accompanied the rise of the world’s powers. No need to go back to the genocide of indigenous peoples; the after-effects of colonization and conflicts fuelled by economic interests remain present to this day. Not to mention the barbarism of the wars waged in Europe as recently as in the last century. This is, of course, a completely different scale and intensity.

But if we are to look to our common future, especially in a context of multiplying crises, we need to draw on ancestral wisdom to inspire a culture of peace between people and in harmony with nature. The traditions of Africa, cradle of humanity and land of prosperous empires, are rich in lessons in this respect.

Opposing nature and culture is not African. “Historically, in Africa, the relationship with the environment is not an instrumental one; rather, it is a symbiotic relationship, a “relational ontology” distinct from the “dualistic” ontology of secular, capitalist, and liberal modernity”, according to Arturo Escobar, a Colombian decolonial thinker. Let’s not forget that the extractivist approach to natural resources in Africa came with colonization; the rationale for decades of anarchic exploitation was to “develop” land that was considered little used or unused by local populations. This reality has only changed form after independence in resource-rich countries where populations continue to live in misery.

Today still, as the continent bears the brunt of the climate crisis, African communities are drawing on the know-how they have inherited, cleverly using nature to resist and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Such solutions have considerable benefits, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which estimates that protecting forests and mangroves alone could avoid $500 billion in annual climate-related losses.

“We must become aware of the paradox that the increase in our power goes hand in hand with the increase in our debility”, wrote Edgar Morin in Changeons de Voie, 2020, analyzing the techno-economic progress of today’s world. While Western civilization has certainly made some positive contributions which we do not deny, it has also seen major drifts, which many thinkers, both in the North and the South, have been criticizing for decades. At a time when this model is struggling to inspire any kind of wisdom or exemplarity to a younger generation concerned with social and environmental justice, perhaps it’s time – especially in the context of “polycrisis” – to reverse the paradigm and look to what other cultures have to offer our globalized society, to “aid” it to get its development back on track. In this sense, Africa has so much to teach us in terms of solidarity in adversity, sober ingenuity, peace, joy of living and humanity simply.

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