Examining the role of foreign aid on the development of a hopeful Burkina Faso
By Denyce Blackman
In one commune in Burkina Faso, a scatter of dark children’s eyes gleam as they see a familiar figure approaching. They join together in jest to shout excitedly behind the resident of the village passing on his bicycle.
“TU-ba-BU! TU-ba-BU!” Their teasing eyes watch him calmly ride pass but their rhythmic chants continue to echo his trail. As always, he hears them, and gives them a quick wave.
Patrick Maloney, the 24-year-old American, understands the stir that he generates. In the Burkinabé language of djula, “tubabu” means “white person”. The variation ‘’tubabuke” means “white man”. Patrick, the blonde volunteer who’s the strangest face in the commune of Lanfiera, is accustomed to both. When volunteering in other countries with high black populations like the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Barbados and Nicaragua, he also receives a unique reception.
“People look at you like; Wow! Hi, hello! Welcome!”
We can assume that these experiences are shared by white foreigners serving among the majority black population in West Africa. Patrick is only one of the more than 220,000 Peace Corps volunteers who have been deployed by the U.S. government since 1961 to respond to aid requests of about 140 countries.
According to their official website, a plump 45% end up working on the African continent, while the remaining 55% are spread across Latin America (23%), Asia (12%), Eastern Europe/Central Asia (10%), The Caribbean (4%), North Africa/Middle East (3%) and The Pacific Islands (3%). Racial minorities make up a slight quarter of the volunteers. That means that helping hands are usually white, but locals don’t need data to see that.
“When we [Burkinabés] imagine people giving large amounts of aid to the country, we picture white people,” says twenty-four year old Burkinabé Zachee Bonogo. “And not only in Burkina, but in many West African countries the white man is seen to be rich.”
Zachee studies medicine at the University of Ouaga in the capital Ouagadougou. Having spent some time working with white American volunteers as a translator, Zachee iterates that his people remain on the lookout for visitors bearing gifts.
“When people see [the volunteers], the first thing they ask about is money!” he exclaims.
According to The Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) programme, Burkina Faso received US$9.5 billion in official development assistance (ODA) between 2003 and 2012, making it the 26th largest recipient worldwide. The EU institutions were the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to Burkina Faso in 2012 (US$36 million), followed by Germany (US$16 million) and the United States (US$14 million). Another US$85 million of humanitarian assistance provided by EU institutions between 2003 and 2012 made up just 19% of all humanitarian aid for that period.
Donations this large must be commended when they serve to show solidarity, improve citizens’ standard of living and ensure basic human rights in a given country. As there are two sides to every donated coin, we can also highlight that these contributions may be reinforcing the White Saviour prototype held by many black and non-white nations in Africa and its diaspora, many of which are nurtured by similar volunteer programmes and international funding agencies.
The quandary is this.
Not only does this portrait of an ever-present, mighty, white compass portray black nations as lost and powerless without it, but the romantic idealization of the pale philanthropist tends to create a disregard for local alternatives, thus creating a cycle of unsustainable dependence – perpetuating the case of arrested national development.
That isn’t to say that Burkina Faso cannot claim heroic stories of self-won political or economic advancements.
The legendary Thomas Sankara gained presidency of Burkina Faso and did a thorough and controversial sweep of neo-colonialistic powers during his reign from 1983 to 1987. During that time, his government vocally rebuked foreign aid, pulled away from the grip of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and fought for the reduction of illegitimate debt. As president, Sankara reclaimed all land previously held by elite landlords and returned it to his people, nationalizing all land and resources. His mission was to see the rise of an anti-imperialistic, autonomous nation with enviable agricultural, health and educational sectors. It was during his tenure that the Peace Corps were cordially un-invited to volunteer in Burkina Faso. Eloquently put by Sankara’s regime, the cessation was to be effective immediately “because the Peace Corps’ programmes no longer coincided with Burkina Faso’s development goals.” Ouch.
Independent of foreign aid, not only was Sankara able to pull the nation from a national food shortage to total food sufficiency, but the country had attained a surplus, largely through the reclaiming of land and agricultural reform exercises. His government constructed a national railroad, factories, schools and medical dispensaries in every community.
Foreign aid returned with the very next president, who staged the coup d’etat in which Sankara was assassinated. Blaise Compaoré immediately axed all manifestations of Sankara’s vision and clung to the helm of government for 27 years through four questionable elections before being overthrown in an uprising in October last year. Needless to say, the country has been struggling to salvage its economic and developmental gains.
“Burkina Faso is among the poorest countries in the world,” laments Zachee. “It doesn’t have enough resources to cover its budget for development. And 75% of the people live in villages where they cannot get clean water and just a few people are educated.”
He sees a Burkina Faso that is nowhere near the dream of Thomas Sankara, who once said “Our country produces enough to feed us all. Alas, for lack of organization, we are forced to beg for food aid. It’s this aid that instills in our spirits the attitude of beggars.”
“Without support or aid, I am not even sure that Burkina will exist,” Zachee says. “This belief that the Westerners have of our country is correct. Even we, Burkina people, are aware of it. It is a country which needs support in almost all the domains – education, health, sanitation, and so on.”
In 2013, Burkina Faso was ranked 124th in the world on the GDP (PPP) index, according to the CIA World Factbook. However, looking at GDP real growth in 2014, it has ranked Burkina Faso at a high 22nd in the world, with a 6.7% growth rate. Speaking positively, this may mean that there’s nowhere to go but up.
However, we have to wonder how much can be accomplished if the country is unable to take a firm Sankaran stance. What is more worthy to be fought for than what a country’s citizens demand for themselves? Does its prolonged reliance on foreign aid signal that its wings are now clipped?
As it seems, a wounded nation is a sitting duck for those who believe they are West Africa’s shining beacon.
“I feel like everyone who’s gotten into this field [of overseas volunteerism] kind of started out buying into that story of the white hero and wanting to be that great white hope.”Patrick reflects. “I’d be lying if I said that that wasn’t at least part of the motivation, but now that I’m here and I see this culture, it’s one of the things I’ve been most conflicted about.
“I’m not always the biggest proponent of the current culture [in the U.S.A.]. So much is wrong and we have so much consumption and health issues and so on but you come here and it’s totally a different place. Everyone’s happy. Things are tough here and people have to work hard but you don’t find a lot of people with depression. They’re all eating natural foods and nobody’s obese, but because it’s poor we’re supposed to come in and provide health and economic development. A lot of the time I feel that what we’re encouraged to do is to make them like the West.”
Indeed, there is something slightly disconcerting about the suggestion by a then U.S. Congress representative that would become a precursor for the Peace Corps as it is known today.
In 1951, John F. Kennedy put forth that “young college graduates would find a full life in bringing technical advice and assistance to the underprivileged and backward Middle East … In that calling, these men would follow the constructive work done by the religious missionaries in these countries over the past 100 years.”
Although the Peace Corps is widely-accepted as an exercise of pure goodwill, the charge of “backwardness” by the man who would go on to sign the bill as president 10 years later indicates a sense of superiority that would continue to cast intimidating but impressive cultural and economic shadows over the beneficiaries for years to come.
Patrick sees it every time a Burkinabé wistfully speaks about finding prosperity in the States, or proudly discusses the huge foreign grants thrown into their community projects. He and Zachee both agree that education of the Burkinabé is essential for the country to receive its own medium to long term prosperity.
Currently, literacy rates run low among Burkinabé girls – with a 13.7% literacy gap between the sexes. However, although Burkina Faso currently has one of the lowest overall literacy rates in the world – sitting in 2015 at 36% – current World Bank figures also show that school enrollment has maintained a steady increase since 2002, a positive indicator.
“Education is indispensable for creativity and development,” explains Zachee, who says he wanted to be a doctor from a young age “And today, primary school and secondary schools are free for all the Burkinabé.” Beyond that, Zachee believes government investment in existing key sectors can eventually pull the entire country upwards.
“About 80% of the inhabitants in Burkina Faso are farmers and the tools they use are not modern. I think the government should have good policies for the agricultural domain. Also, consuming what we produce here and transforming [raw materials into other products] will hasten our independence. This was a plan of Thomas Sankara before he was killed. ”
Certainly the absence of such a strong Burkinabé leader with vision has been missed since the death of the nicknamed “African Ché Guevera”, and Zachee affirms that many African countries are in a similar position. And although he believes it will take some time for his country to stand without crutches, he remains confident that it can regain its stride.
“I think Burkina is moving toward a complete independence, both financially and politically. It will take much time but surely one day it will be able to meet all its needs. We are trying to use efficiently the resources we have and to develop human capacity and self-employment. So there is hope.”
In the time of his presidency, Burkina Faso adopted as the national anthem a song written by Thomas Sankara. Known as Une Seule Nuit (One Single Night ) or L’Hymne de la Victoire (The Hymn of Victory), it gives a prophetic weight to those striving for an autonomous Burkina Faso.
“Against the humiliating bondage of a thousand years
Rapacity came from afar to subjugate them for a hundred years.
Against the cynical malice in the shape
Of neo-colonialism and its petty local servants.
Many gave in and certain others resisted.
But the frustrations, the successes, the sweat, the blood
Have fortified our courageous people and fertilized its heroic struggle.