Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Monday, June 08, 2009

Africa and Western Paternalism

It has become a commonplace in intellectual circles these days to state that the West, namely Europe and North America, are gradually dying; that we are in a time of transition, and that the center of power, wealth, and culture is shifting to the East. Some of us are late to the party, however, as the death of the West was prophesied long before now. As far back as 1948, Richard Weaver, in his landmark book Ideas Have Consequences, stated in his opening sentence, "This is another book about the dissolution of the West." This is a great source of fear for some, but for the Christian there should be no fear. God is Sovereign, and has promised to bring His plan for the world to completion, even through what appears to us to be the darkest of days. For that matter, to assert that the West has nailed everything intellectually and culturally is a manifestation of a Perfectionist spirit, which I suspect comes not out of the Wesleyanism from which we derive the term, but rather from Roman Catholicism, which has largely been the backbone of Western Culture since Constantine. If the Church is infallible, then who can help but look upon all other cultures with pity? But neither the Western Church, nor the culture it built, are infallible, and so one can't be surprised that declension should take place, as God strengthens the Church in other parts of the world.

Now I don't want to be misunderstood. Not all cultures are equal. I do believe that a larger measure of grace has been shown to the Western church, though we are selling the blessings we have been given down the river day by day. But as a believer in Providence, I recognize that all that is good is given by God, and no man or civilization has room to boast in itself. In addition, God is still in the process of maturing the Church, both in the East and the West (Ephesians 4), and so to assert that we in the West have arrived is arrogant and unbiblical. Lastly, as we say in the South (that is, the Southeastern U. S.), even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while, and so even non-Christian cultures can stumble upon truths which the Church either has forgotten or should have seen. And the fact that this happens should serve as an embarrassment to the Church, causing her to search and strive more diligently for Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

It is also worth pointing out that the shift of culture toward the East is simply following the growth of the Church. As the Western missions movement has prospered over the past few centuries in the East, cultural seeds have been planted in those places, all while Western culture has gradually withered.

The West hasn't always dealt with the rest of the world in the most admirable of ways, however, though the sort of self-flagellation and attribution of blame to the West that takes place is usually over-the-top, and at times simply untrue. What I find especially interesting, though, is how Western Paternalism is implicit even in those who think they have succeeded in evading it. This came to mind as I was considering the May issue of New African Magazine recently.

I've picked up a couple of copies of New African over the past few months. Whereas I'm not often familiar with the individuals mentioned in it, I've still been able to see a different angle on Africa, along with getting an idea of how Africans (some, at least) view American and European culture.

I haven't been surprised to find that they don't always take to us so well, and the May issue of the magazine contained a couple of articles that highlighted that in intriguing ways. The first, written by a woman named Akua Djanie, is entitled "My problem with giving children their rights". She believes the problems of children in Western culture, which she fears are gradually creeping into African culture through the influence of Western media, stem from the notion of "children's rights". By the term "children's rights", she makes it clear that she does not intend to imply that children are mere property, or that the sort of abuse that children in parts of the world are subjected to is okay. Nonetheless, those things that the West often terms "rights" are far from such, according to Ms. Djanie. "As a child," she states, "the only right I had was the right to be fed, clothed and educated." She detests the disrespect that Western children feel free to express toward their elders, saying, "Imagine a child in Africa answering back to their parents and using swear words? God forbid Africa should ever turn out like that."

While this has been spread to Africa through the media, she says, "In countries such as the UK and America, I blame the state for the way children have turned out." She also sees individualism as a chief problem: "African society should not get to the stage where our individual needs overshadow all else."

Whereas those in American pop media often claim to be concerned about social issues in Africa (a claim which I'm sure is sincere for some), Ms. Djanie sees the sort of "culture" portrayed in Western media as a key problem: "As a parent raising young children in Africa, it frightens me the way we so blindly copy Western culture. Every time I go out with my sons, I lift up their shirts to make sure they are not dressed as American prisoners, with their trousers hanging from their hips. I don't allow my sons to leave the house with their underwear showing." She even goes so far as to ban certain types of Western-influenced African media from her home: "Because my children are under 18 years old, Nigerian movies have been banned in my home because I believe they portray the negative side of African culture. Films portraying guns, films with foul language and sexual scenes are also not allowed." The timing of such a criticism is particularly interesting, for at the same time that New African chose to print an article that condemned, the BBC magazine Focus on Africa, in its April-June issue, chose to publish an article promoting the Nigerian movie industry.

She closes her article by reiterating her belief that the state has no say in the raising of children: "I hope the day never comes when the state takes over control of our children in Africa. Because although they may think they are doing them a favour, they are in fact doing not only the children but the whole society a great disservice."

So while the Western governments, along with the United Nations, are asserting the rights of children, claiming that these things are good and necessary, and something that needs to be pushed upon the rest of the world, at least some in Africa are accusing us of missing the point. As I read Ms. Djanie's article, I see a Biblicism that has disappeared from American culture, though we had it just fifty years ago. Whether or not she is a Christian, I do not know. But the article certainly gives one reason to think that she is.

In the same issue is an article about a new book on economic aid, entitled Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is Another Way For Africa. Written by Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian woman who has worked for both the World Bank and Goldman Sachs, the book asserts that the financial aid that non-African countries have given to African governments has proven "ineffectual and downright harmful". Among other things, Moyo claims that aid "reduces a recipient government's accountability to its citizens" and "chokes the entrepreneurial spirit". Those of us in the West who have already said these things could elaborate this way: when you teach a person to be dependent on you, you teach them to be lazy. Economic growth doesn't take place, nor does personal growth. People become ingrateful. And when a person implicitly trusts a government of fallible people, power corrupts and the government in question more and more takes advantage of and abuses the citizenry. This has been understood in the West, and at one point was well known. And yet this fact must not generally be known by Africans, as the article states that this "is not a totally new argument, but it is new to a general public in the West whose charitable impulse is to help, and generally believes that aid is beyond criticism and the only way to address the problem of poverty."

The article goes on to discuss alternative ways of bringing money into African countries, ways that do not include accepting aid. The details of this are no doubt debatable among economists. My point here, however, is simply to note that not all Africans think we are doing them a favor when we simply send money to their respective governments.

For that matter, the practice itself seems to me to be a manifestation of the Western Paternalistic mindset. In the West, we have worked hard, using the resources we have to build a great culture. I think it is rather insulting of those in the East to suggest that they need us to baby them in order for them to flourish equally well.

Now I’m not naive enough to think that a couple of articles from a magazine somehow mean that these perspectives are widely held in Africa. I would expect that there, just as in the United States, many if not most people have never even thought these issues through carefully. Nonetheless, there’s something to be said for the fact that these articles were printed in what claims to be “The bestselling pan-African magazine”. These things should be considered carefully by us, in the way we regard the East, and therefore in the policies our government promotes and which we support. If the prognosticators are correct, this may be a sign of good things to come outside of the West. Meanwhile, our hope in this is that God might show us in the West more grace, that the spiritual and cultural darkness that appears to loom before us might not actually overtake us.


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