How Corruption Undermines Sustainable Development in Africa

For GEOG 1103: Human Geography, I had to attend an outside event related to the class and write a paper about that event. The following is the summary section of my paper.

I attended InFocus Africa’s forum “How Corruption Undermines Sustainable Development in Africa” on October 25, 2018 at 5:30 p.m. in the Main Dining Hall of Headington College on campus. The event began with an African-inspired dinner. Afterward, three speakers presented on the topic. The talks were followed by a question-and-answer segment facilitated by an InFocus Africa member. Unfortunately, I had to leave at 7:30 when the Q-and-A started. 

The first speaker was Dr. Greg A. Graham, an assistant professor in African and African-American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Graham outlined a genealogy of corruption. In the 1990s, a negative view of corruption in Africa was prominent. Development and democracy were seen as positive goals for African states, and corruption impeded those goals. These perceptions of Africa corruption became a justification for government usurpations, as during this time period multiple African military regimes were overthrown by democratic systems. As Dr. Graham pointed out, these ideas and movements came from outside of Africa. 

Dr. Graham then went on to explain African corruption from an internal perspective. Outsiders see Africa as rife with corruption, as if corruption were embedded in African cultures. Dr. Graham argued that African practices are not corrupt, but rather some can facilitate corruption. He then provided several examples including negotiations and gift giving. He also acknowledged the possible downfalls of ethnic solidarity networks and beliefs in redistributive accumulation, mainly nepotism or similar situations.

Finally, Dr. Graham connected his lecture to sustainable development. He proposed that such movements must be organic; they must stem from the people themselves. This brand of solution would sidestep corrupt government systems, benefiting the majority rather than the few. 

The second speaker was Dr. Andreana C. Prichard, an associate professor of African history in the Honors College at OU. Dr. Prichard focused on the corruption of good intentions into unintended outcomes. She analyzed three case studies involving Western-rooted charities in Africa. The first case involved the American charity More Than Me in Liberia. A scandal broke out upon the realization that a charity executive had been raping girls in his care. The organization did not handle the situation well. Officials dodged questions during interviews and refused to admit any wrongdoing beyond hiring the culprit. They would not acknowledge any problematic institutional systems that might have allowed this abuse of power. 

The second case looked at mission orphanages in Kenya. Dr. Prichard began this part of her presentation by defining orphan as a fluid category. When abolitionist missionaries came to Kenya, they predominantly worked with children, taking in those they defined as orphans. In 1898, famine struck Kenya, and many parents practiced pawnship to survive. This meant they exchanged their children for needed resources. The Kenyans expected the return of their children when they repaid their debt. However, the missionaries perceived this exchange as abandonment and refused to return these “orphaned” children. They had been teaching these children Western culture and feared them backsliding into their Kenyan culture. Therefore, as Dr. Prichard explained, the use of orphan became a mechanism for social control during colonialism. Post-colonialism, a redefining of orphan by aid organizations has created a manufactured orphan crisis, which attracts activism and tourism to Africa.

Dr. Prichard’s third case evaluated an American Christian charity, Upendo Kids, in Kenya. Similar to the first case, a staff member was found guilty of assaulting children in his care. Dr. Prichard wrapped up her talk by connecting these cases. These organizations began with good intentions—to help vulnerable people in Africa. They failed to do so because they did not understand cultural context or pay ample attention to harm caused. 

The third speaker was John Michael Koffi, the author of Refuge-e: The Journey Much Desired. A refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo himself, Mr. Koffi’s presentation asked the question, “Whose perspective?” When one considers corruption, whose perspective is one seeing it from? The refugee, the official, or the outsider? He drew attention to corruption’s morality struggles. For example, refugees often pay to be smuggled across borders. This contributes to corruption, but it is necessary for the refugees’ survival and quality of life. Mr. Koffi complicated this example further by highlighting corruption as a reason for refugees’ situations. He became a refugee because a dictator drained his country of resources for personal gain. Paying smugglers seems a small act in comparison, but it still feeds into the corrupt system. 

Mr. Koffi viewed youth as the ones who promote democracy. Young people’s participation could lead to change, according to Mr. Koffi, but corruption pushes them away from government activity. Mr. Koffi promoted more investment in youth in countries with refugee and corruption problems as a solution. 

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