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Is political correctness deadly to Africa?

By Kyle Mills
web posted March 30, 2009

First of all, I don't want to be misunderstood here. I have nothing against a healthy amount of sensitively with regard to the subject of race. In the U.S., increased empathy has gone a long way to clearing out the obnoxious and destructive behavior left over from a time that is thankfully becoming history. In fact, I'd never given the PC movement much thought at all until I moved to Africa to research a book.

In many ways, political correctness is just another luxury made possible by America's wealth and stability. Obsessive self-censoring and blinding ideology is little more than an inconvenience to most Americans, with no potential to cause a child to starve, die of disease, or be killed in an endless civil war. Of course, the reluctance of the media and organizations like the NAACP to frankly discuss the problems plaguing African-Americans may contribute to the persistence of those problems, but that's another article.

Africa is in trouble. After more than fifty years of aid totaling over two trillion dollars, the continent may actually be worse off than it was before. One might think that this history of failure, combined with the incredibly dire circumstances many Africans find themselves in, would create a massive push for change in the way the West approaches aid. Amazingly, this doesn't seem to be happening. If anything, the philosophy of "if it's not working, do more of it" is gaining strength, advocated by economist Jeffrey Sachs and his cadre of A-list celebrities.

Sachs's strongest focus is the treatment of AIDS in Africa, though he's quick to point out that he has no idea why the disease spreads so quickly there. What's interesting about this isn't that he doesn't know, but that he doesn't seem particularly interested in finding out. Could this be because he's afraid he might discover something that could cause him to be shunned by his fellow academics, a group which enforces political correctness with the zeal of the Spanish Inquisition?

What if he were to discover that Yakubu Usman Abubakar, a Nigerian AIDS worker, was on the right track when he said, "We live in a polygamous society where divorce is common and condom use is low?" Or even worse, what if Sachs found that black people are genetically more susceptible to the disease, thus running afoul of the great pillar of political correctness: Race is a purely social construct.

I suspect that would be the last time he ever got a ride on Bono's private jet. On the other hand, with real-world information on transmission dynamics, he might be able to actually do something about one of the most devastating humanitarian disasters in history.

Another, perhaps even more corrosive, aspect of political correctness is the tendency to conflate the criticism of black people with racism. This increasingly common error has made it impossible to paint the Africans as anything but victims of circumstances beyond their control. So we end up with a litany of explanations for the problems in Africa that wouldn't pass muster in a seventh-grade term paper. Consider two perennial favorites:

Tribal animosity is the result of colonialists carving up the continent with no thought to demographics. Once again, we find the Africans helpless -- this time when faced with their own bigotry -- and suggest that they should have been separated. Interestingly, the South Africans came to the same conclusion many years ago. The Afrikaans word for segregation is apartheid and it wasn't any more just there than it was in the U.S.

Violence is the result of poverty. Of course, it's almost comically simple to find examples of poor countries that aren't violent at all. In fact, you don't have to go any farther than Botswana. Or, if you prefer to travel through time instead of overland, we could just turn the clock back a few hundred years to a time when almost everyone was uneducated, living in poverty, and lacked access to even rudimentary medical care.

How do you resolve a problem if you don't have the courage to realistically define it? How will the Africans find the momentum to create solutions for themselves if they're constantly being told that they're too poor and uneducated to make intelligent choices?

Foreign aid could be a powerful force for good and we should remain committed to it. But the West's increasing comfort with avoiding tough questions has the potential to doom Africa to another century of crushing poverty, disease, and war. It's time to take a hard look at what's causing the continent's problems and why our efforts to fix them have gone nowhere. I won't lie to you. In the beginning, it will be a frightening, lonely, and fruitless task. Those first brave souls will be painted as racists. They'll be endlessly ridiculed. And they'll no longer be invited to sit around plush Nairobi hotel lobbies pontificating about the plight of Africans.

But does fundamental change ever come without courage? Without hardship? Without resistance?

What if donors extended their incredible generosity to include spending the time it takes to understand the situations they're providing the money to fix? What if they traveled to Africa and looked around for themselves? And what if they demanded the same level of efficiency and verifiable results that made them wealthy enough to write those checks in the first place?

Africa is waiting. ESR

Kyle Mills, author of Lords of Corruption, is the New York Times bestselling author of nine books, including Darkness Falls and The Second Horseman. Growing up in Oregon as a Bureau Kid, Kyle absorbed an enormous amount of information about the FBI, which he incorporates into his novels. He and his wife live in Wyoming and enjoy rock climbing. To learn more about Lords of Corruption please visit www.lordsofcorruptionbook.com. Visit Kyle Mills at www.kylemills.com.


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