Tuesday, March 28, 2006

In the Shadows of Iraq and Iran: Africa - The Lost Continent

If you observe the radar screen of daily news events, many of the stories registering on the screen are about two countries: Iran and Iraq. Every day there is an inundation of news stories splashing all over television, internet screens and on newspaper and magazine pages reporting, analyzing and debating the myriad issues pertaining to Iraq and Iran. As well, there is a labyrinth of concomitant issues from the wrongdoings of the president and his henchmen to the gamut of related legal proceedings. Missing from the radar screen is the devastatingly tragic plight of the people of Africa who have suffered the effects of war, poverty and disease for over one hundred years most, of which can be attributed to the empire-building nations of the North.

Despite imperialistic ambitions of these Northern governments, people respond but only when, for example, the photograph of a starving child from Ethiopia appears on their television screen evoking their generosity and compassion. On the other hand, the public fails to comprehend that hunger in Ethiopia doesn’t only occur when the fickle images on their television screen piques their generosity, that the historical context belies popular myths and that there are 54 other countries in Africa suffering a similar fate.

Even Live8 concerts, organized by Bob Geldof to raise awareness about conditions in poor countries to pressure the G8 nations to commit themselves to more aid and debt reduction, were detrimental to the cause of social justice. Geldof and Bono infused the G8’s plan for reducing debt and alleviating poverty with legitimacy and reassured people that there was finally light at the end of the debt tunnel. The truth is that for every dollar of debt relief, countries would lose one dollar in aid and at the same time, any aid increases would require liberalization and privatization. The deception effectively removed poor nations from the radar screen.

Moreover, the public is generally unaware of the extent of disease, hunger and lack of clean water which are rampant throughout the continent and are largely responsible for the misery, suffering and death of the people of Africa. The underlying problem of high child mortality, early life expectancy, hunger and disease is the lack of equitably distributed wealth generated by economic growth which has been siphoned off to the wealthy nations of the North resulting from their imperialistic policies and control over world institutions such as the World Bank and WTO.

Apart from these policies, other factors that result in starvation and death for millions are the natural disasters such as drought and famine which are no strangers to many African countries. Currently, a major catastrophe is engulfing East Africa where 6.25 million people are at risk of starvation in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti. The World Food Program reports that assistance from the outside world is sadly lacking for the people of Eastern Africa where $314 million is needed to alleviate the crisis while the shortfall is currently $225.7 million.

One of the major shortcomings in news coverage in the mainstream media is the lack of context or in-depth analysis. Current news stories about Africa ignore the long-term problems plaguing the region and render impossible any long-term solution unless these problems are addressed.

For example, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) reported in its 2004 report that “Sub-Sahara Africa is the only region where the number of people living in abject poverty has grown in the past 20 years.” According to another UN report in December 19, 2005, “Average unemployment rates have remained at around 10 per cent since 1995, the second highest in the world after the Middle East. The most visible consequence of such high unemployment is growing poverty in Africa. At least 61 million more Africans go hungry today than in 1990.”

Unfortunately, poverty and unemployment statistics are too broad in scope to capture the real scourge of the adverse effects of poverty. In 2001, for example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, 46.4% of the population lives on less than $1 a day compared to Europe and Central Asia where only 3.6% lived on less than $1 a day. (World Bank 2005 “World Development Indicators”) Similarly, 76.6% in Sub-Saharan Africa lived on less than $2 a day compared to 19.7% for Europe and Central Asia. (Ibid)

One of the appalling tragedies of poverty in Africa is that a frightening number of children never reach the age of five. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 175 children out of every thousand failed to reach the age of five compared to an average of six in industrialized countries in 2003. Contributing to child mortality is the fact that only 57% of people in this region have access to clean and safe drinking water. (UNICEF)

Furthermore, poverty undermines the ability of children in Sub-Saharan Africa to ward off diseases such as measles due to the lack of proper nutrition, vitamin A supplements and vaccines. The World Health Organization reports that in 2006, between 216,000 and 279,000 children die each year from measles which could have been prevented by a vaccine that costs less than one dollar or halved by vitamin A supplements. These statistics are alarming given the eradication of this disease in wealthy nations.

Malaria is another major killer in the region where at least 900,000 people die each year 70% of whom are children. (National Geographic) The “African Malaria Report” (United Nations) warns that “Sub-Saharan Africa faces continued malarial devastation unless swift action is taken. Malaria…is the single biggest killer of children under five and a serious threat to pregnant women and their newborn.”

AIDS, the Black Plague of the 21st century has struck Africa. Approximately 30 million people in Africa are HIV positive and the resulting disease, AIDS, has already killed 15 million. Although public pressure has forced the pharmaceuticals to lower the price of drugs which delay the progress of AIDS’, only 50,000 African sufferers have access to them. United Nation’s Secretary General, Kofi Annan, condemns the behaviour of Western powers stating that “We can find over $200bn to fight a war on terrorism but we can’t find the money…to provide the anti-retroviral treatment for all those who need such treatment in Africa.” Compare the number of people who have been victims of terrorism worldwide to the number of people who have died from AIDS in Africa and the horribly perverted priorities of the wealthy nations of the world comes sharply into focus.

Another malady responsible for the political instability, death, disease, hunger and poor economic development in Africa is the curse of civil wars in so many African nations. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has suffered from the worst humanitarian disaster since World War II as a result of a civil war that has involved eight other African nations and foreign powers. Over three million people have died and many more displaced and yet very few people are aware of this ongoing tragedy. The conflict in the Darfur region of Western Sudan alone has claimed 200,000 lives and left stranded over one million refugees. Uganda, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda and Nigeria have also experienced civil wars in the last 12 years.

All these problems are ignored to a large extent by the mainstream media in the wealthy nations of the world, resulting partly from disinterest and negligence on the part of the governments in these countries. The outrageous irony in this disinterest and neglect is the complicity of these imperial nations in these crises through exploitation of natural resources such as oil, gold and coltan and through exploitation of cheap labor such as slave labor in the Congo. To ensure the success of their exploitation, countries such as the United States and Belgium have depended on vastly superior military strength, surrogate forces or support for insurgents to secure the land on which the resources were located or to force unwilling inhabitants to work as slaves. The United States and other wealthy nations have opened Pandora’s Box in Africa, not out of curiosity, but out of greed. They now cold-bloodedly refuse to fulfill the hope in the Box by rescuing Africa from all the evils contained therein.

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