Africa’s Challenges

Photograph Source: Tsidoti – CC BY-SA 4.0

I started traveling to Africa at the beginning of the 1980s. From the beginning, Africa caught my interest and my imagination. In search of a better life, my Lebanese grandfather left Lebanon and went to work in Transvaal, which was then a province of South Africa, where my father was born. Decades later, I went on public health missions to several African countries, which was a big advantage to understand the continent’s problems, since it allowed me to go to places that tourists never go and see situations that they never see.

I realized that there are two Africas: one, normally portrayed in the media, a land of poverty, disease, and war. And another Africa: a vital, energetic continent of hard-working men and women, a continent of beautiful children and young men and women, a continent of humor, and a continent of hope. How can one explain that a continent so rich in natural resources and people of entrepreneurial nature is in such dire straits? Although Africans also play a role, a history of predatory colonialism has caused the continent to stagnate. As the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”

The effect of international aid

In more than half a century, Africa has received as much as $1.2 trillion, distributed unevenly across the continent. This enormous sum has been tainted by paternalistic policies instead of helping the countries create strong civilian and governmental institutions, and infrastructure, and develop their natural resources. “Money from rich countries has trapped many African nations in a cycle of corruption, slower economic growth, and poverty. Cutting off the flow would be far more beneficial,” said Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian-born international economist and author with extensive knowledge of Africa.

Seventy percent of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa is under the age of thirty, and over 60 percent of the unemployed are also young, although many of them work in the informal sector. Because of Africa’s few employment opportunities, the number of available jobs for young people is limited. Many people are unable to find the funding needed to start a business, a situation made more difficult because almost two-thirds of those looking for jobs live in rural areas.

UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) have recommended that governments, international financial agencies, and the private sector develop policies to create jobs and ease youth transition from school to work. Many young people remain in poverty because of a lack of jobs and of a social safety net.

Health situation

In addition to economic and employment concerns, the health situation in African countries continues to be worrisome. To problems such as malnutrition and chronic diseases, one can now add the highly infectious and deadly Marburg virus. Marburg has recently killed more than 12 people from Tanzania and Equatorial Guinea, on opposite sides of the continent. Most African countries’ health infrastructure -although much improved after the HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and COVID-19 epidemics- will probably be unable to contain the virus if it becomes a large-scale epidemic.

Many diseases affecting both children and adults could be addressed with minimum resources if they were employed strategically. Diarrhea and respiratory infections, measles, malaria, and malnutrition represent the greatest threats to children’s health. Malaria is the leading cause of death among African children under five years old. In addition, it is estimated that African women are approximately 175 times more likely to die during childbirth and pregnancy than women in industrialized countries.

Health problems are made worse by the lack of health professionals, a problem due in part to the continuing exodus of doctors and nurses to industrialized nations. Health problems are aggravated by the scarcity of drinking water. High mortality rates in Africa arise from preventable water-borne diseases, which particularly affect infants and young children. Among them are typhoid fever, cholera, giardia, dysentery, and hepatitis A. If people in Africa were able to practice safe sanitation and hygiene, and have potable water, those diseases would not exist.

How to help Africa

In the last two decades, China has been providing aid to several African countries. Unlike the one provided by other countries, aid from China has been centered on building infrastructure including roads, schools, stadiums, and health centers. By using mainly Chinese personnel in their projects, China has had a tighter control over how the funds are spent. This is a critical factor in a continent of widespread corruption where foreign aid is often squandered.

As a result of mismanagement, foreign aid to the region has not achieved the expected results. To be effective, aid must bypass corrupt governments and find local partners such as non-governmental and religious organizations with a proven track record of efficiency and honesty. On my missions in the continent, I was able to see that, in most cases, there are no mechanisms to monitor how aid money is spent.

For too many years, Africa has been a photo-op for movie and music stars, whose patronizing behavior disregards Africans’ capacity for solving their own problems. Given the right conditions, Africans have the talent and knowledge to lead their countries toward greater development. The U.S. has the chance to focus its efforts to help build infrastructure vital to the progress of African countries, something that China has been doing for decades. Competition with China, however, should not be a competition for war but for peace and progress. Now is the time for African countries to develop their enormous potential for growth.

This piece first appeared in Meer.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”