I’m sure millions shared my feeling of relief when Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on 20 January 2021. It was a big moment for Americans after the tumultuous antics of the previous incumbent, but it was also massive for those of us in the industrial, democratic West. To have someone in the White House who does not deny climate change, who does not dream of returning to an economy run on fossil fuels, and who once more embraced working with the community of nations to turn around the damage we have done to our planet is a reassuring step in the right direction. The fact that Biden signed the US back into the Paris Agreement on greenhouse gases on his first day in office confirmed that the global crisis was a matter of urgency for him, not something to be put on the back burner until the Covid pandemic is dealt with. Of course, we in Europe would have carried on with or without the US, but it’s great that our American friends and allies will be back in step with us once again.
And it is a huge challenge, but one we cannot wash our hands of. We in Europe led the way in the first industrial age, benefitting hugely from our expanding economies, which generated undreamed of wealth. Subsequently, we were joined and then overtaken by the US and, more recently, by China. But whatever our position on the economic leadership board, there is no denying our responsibility to lead the way into a greener, sustainable future.
This brings me to the theme of this article: European involvement in Africa. Please note the neutral word ‘involvement’. We all know that Europeans have travelled to Africa in the past. They even claimed to have ‘discovered’ much of it which would have come as news to the Africans who had been living there for thousands of years before the first European set foot on the continent. And they would probably have been very much happier had the Europeans not made their intrusive ‘discovery’. But that is history. Those of us who come from any of the European colonial powers acknowledge the guilt and greed of past generations, but we can’t change the past; we can only make sure we never make the same mistakes again.
My case for our African involvement in the twenty-first century is not in any way modelled on the dominate-destroy-exploit colonial model. Far from it. At the EU Tech Chamber (EUTECH) Chamber, we have a coherent philosophy of mutually beneficial collaboration, whereby our technology can be adapted and applied to African problems in ways that will develop, rather than drain, the continent’s vast natural resources and enhance the prospect of growing sustainable economies to the benefit of all. This is not to say that those providing the technologies will not make a profit, but each initiative will be assessed on its potential to benefit African stakeholders and the host community.
There are those who can see no benefits to be gained from anything tainted with capitalist intent. These sceptics have a noble alternative model for improving living standards: give help to the needy, using governmental foreign aid and funds collected from generous donors in the rich countries. No one denies the value of charity; no one would want to stop this flow of goodwill from the haves to the have-nots. But to see Africans merely as have-nots is a terrible if unintentional example of patronising complacency, based on the (perhaps unspoken) assumption that Africans are incapable of helping themselves.
Africans know what is possible. They see the lives we live in the West. Many may live in shanty towns, but they have mobile phones; they watch television; and they see our cars, motorways, shopping malls and housing. Their ambitions don’t stop with getting improved sanitation and replacing tin roofs with tiles. They want a better life, and they deserve it, which is why so many thousands set out on the long and perilous journey to come to Europe to claim their stake.
To make that journey takes extraordinary mental and physical strength, huge bravery and a lot of luck. Even for those who make it, there’s no guarantee that they will get what they want and if they so, it’s only likely to happen after lengthy periods in a camp possibly identical to the shanty towns they have left. This is clearly madness. These are the very people who need to be building a future for their own countries, and that is where European technology comes in must come in because without it, Africa might not get the future it deserves.
Some critics say that Europe had its chance in Africa and failed. Leave it to the Chinese, who seem to be doing a lot of impressive and benevolent work across the continent with their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Since 2000, China has provided US$143 billion in loans for infrastructure and other projects, and half of that money has come in the last four years.
As my regular readers know, I am far from anti-Chinese. However, according to many, political motives underlie their BRI. We talk of ‘soft power’ a great deal these days, and while it’s certainly far more preferable to the hard power meted out by the old colonial regimes, ‘soft power’ is not without strings especially as huge debts mount up to ensure dependence far into the future. And if the benefactor is blind to the impoverishments associated with non-democratic governance, the benefits to the poorest in society will be hard to discern.
We at the EU Tech Chamber believe that emergent technology carries with it great responsibilities, which we embrace as duties. We wish to expand into the surrounding markets beyond our shores so that we can share not only technological advances but also our values, which are embodied in the democratic principles that are the foundation of everything we hold dear in Europe.
These are not values we would ever impose on others. That wouldn’t be democratic. But we can demonstrate that we live by them and uphold them in our own highly successful cultures. Markets could and should be so much more than a bargained-for exchange of goods and services.
But coming back to economic realities, what do we have to offer, and why should Africa be interested? That last point is important. Barak Obama’s half-sister, Auma Obama, is a Kenyan activist who feels that the foreign aid model has outlived its time. ‘Young people,’ she says, ‘need to understand that they should take their destiny into their own hands’. That doesn’t mean they should reject help or that foreigners shouldn’t offer it. In fact, she believes that ‘people from different cultural backgrounds can and should talk to one another and complement and enrich one another’. But she thinks that the driver for development should come from the home team. As she humorously advises those offering support: ‘Don’t teach people to fish. Ask them if they want to eat fish first!’
Of course, development is a lot more complicated than that, but we believe that when shown the choices available to them, Africans will enthusiastically choose sustainable options. At the moment, too many African countries are playing catch-up with the West using the old, unsustainable methods, such as open-cast mining and industrial farming models reliant on deforestation and short-termism, which results in desertification and more misery further down the line. Defenders of this version of ‘progress’ will argue that the rich countries of the West used this brutal technology, so why shouldn’t they? Their countries shouldn’t be expected to stay undeveloped to save the planet for wealthy nations.
And they shouldn’t. Africans have the same right to a high standard of living as Europeans, Australians, Americans, and Canadians. But we in the West are having to make dramatic changes to the way we do things, to cut our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gases. The stark fact is that the human race does not have time for the developing world to undergo the same hugely damaging evolution from the outdated, carbon-reliant, oil-lubricated, plastic-spinning culture that we inherited from the twentieth century. And fortunately, the developing world does not have to, because the new, innovative technologies focused on sustainability are already available and are getting smarter and cheaper to produce year on year.
Let’s remind ourselves of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015: ‘A blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all’. There are seventeen of them, all interconnected some more specific than others. Two that we at EU Tech Chamber are particularly focused on are (9) Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure and (11) Sustainable Cities and Communities.
The innovative technologies that Europeans are developing can provide clean, sustainable energy, making coal-fired power stations, which belch out fumes that pollute the air that people breathe and add to the greenhouse effect, redundant. Feeding the world’s growing population is of course a priority; ending hunger is one of the most important SDGs, but if it can be done sustainably and it can then surely that is a better option than a culture of cultivation that leaves vast swathes of land infertile and useless. And then there are the forests. For decades now, we have been bombarded with dire warnings that every year an area of rain forest the size of Belgium, or Denmark, some other small country, is being lost to the chainsaws. It sounds terrifying, and of course it is, but we have to fight fatalism and defeatism and forge a way forward with a variety of collaborative reforestation schemes that will produce lasting benefits not just for the planet but for the local communities who, in constructive partnership, will do the work on the ground.
Let me introduce you to (or remind you of) the Great Green Wall. We all know that the Great Wall of China is visible from space. The same will be true of the Great Green Wall, only on a different scale, because when completed, it will stretch from one side of sub-Saharan Africa to the other. Check it out online: an 8,000 km line of hope snaking across the widest part of the continent, replacing arid desert with newly planted trees to create the single biggest living structure and by far the most ambitious man-made structure in the history of the planet.
This wall will benefit not only the people of the Sahel, though it is creating jobs and a sustainable environment for millions, but also the entire world. I don’t know how many Denmarks and Belgiums it will equate to when it’s finished, but it will go some way to restoring the planet’s carbon-cleansing forests.
It is a huge project to which I will return in a future article, but I will end by registering EUTECH’s contributions at either end of it in Senegal on the western seaboard to Ethiopia all those 8,000 km to the East. In collaboration with the local workforce in both locations, we are helping restore the existing desert to a viable seedbed for new trees, which will, in turn, produce a sustainable habitat for biodiversity and offer input into the local economy. Because no one says you can’t cut trees down they’re very useful we just have to be careful not to cut down all the trees and to replace the ones we do remove.
We live in a perilous age and face astonishingly demanding challenges. So what do we do? Shrug our shoulders and give up, thinking at least the good times will see us out? Of course not. We have our children and grandchildren to think of. We owe it to them to guarantee them a sustainable future. And with amazing collaborative projects such as the Great Green Wall, our generation can begin the turnaround so desperately needed to secure the future and improve it for everyone on this planet we call home.
Board Member – EU Tech Chamber Chair Finance Commission