A United Africa Part One: What is standing in the way?
This may sound ludicrous, particularly if you were born after the year 2000, but can you imagine getting through the workday with an internet connection that is so slow it barely supports your Gmail account? What if, in addition, your job and the organization you work for could not exist without the internet? Well, Kiva is just such an organization and Accra, Ghana has a remarkably slow internet connection. For Kiva fellows based in West Africa internet roadblocks can be frequent and significant, leading many to scream at their computers wondering, “Why they can’t I load just one borrower profile?!?!” After just such a frustrating experience I set out to understand why the internet is slow here and to explore its effects on Kiva’s potential and the unity of the African continent.
This blog will be presented in two parts. In part one I will discuss the geopolitical barriers to a United Africa. In part two I will discuss the telecommunications barriers to a United Africa. In both I will present the implications of these barriers on the success of Kiva.
I must confess that even after hours of devoted study I’m still not an expert in this field. Yet, I have found some interesting information and linkages that I will discuss here in these blog posts. I hope that you, the reader, will post comments to further this discussion and our collective understanding of this issue.
Since its inception, Kiva has done a fantastic job linking lenders and borrowers across the world. Yet, the majority of lenders are based in more developed countries, while borrowers are in less developed countries. Remedying this imbalance will require changes to both the supply- and demand-side of microfinance. On the supply-side, Kiva is doing an excellent job providing microfinance to poor people in developed countries, such as the United States. Yet, the demand side is a little more tricky. Lenders in the developing world will need both capital to invest and adequate bandwidth to search borrower profiles, transfer money, and ultimately make a loan. Kiva and works diligently to democratize the provision of capital across the world. Yet, the second barrier to lending out of the developing world, poor internet connectivity, cannot be solved by Kiva alone…
I began thinking seriously about the issue of connectivity in a somewhat roundabout way–focusing first on the impediments to a more united continent. During my second day of field-visits, a loan officer took me to a local food stand to purchase some “red-red” (beans, rice, and plantains–and some other unidentifiable ingredients–cooked in palm oil and served in a banana leaf, see photo above). In the car he graciously turned on the BBC, which was a welcome respite from the near constant bumping of club music that infiltrates almost every aspect of my life here (in particular, P Square’s “Chop My Money”–see video below). We heard a BBC news update from Syria and I compared al-Assad to Napolean and Gaddafi. To this, my loan officer friend responded that Africans actually like Gaddafi because he stood strongly for African unity. In addition, he believes it was fear of the potential power of African unity that led NATO to get involved in Libya and led the CIA to sponsor the coup that ousted Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah.'
My gut reaction to the thought of CIA-backed coup in Ghana was laughter. What strategic interest is there for the US to do such a thing? Well, as it turns out, the US mostly likely did do such a thing in Ghana (according to the only former CIA agent who is talking, John Stockwell) and probably in several other African countries. Yet, upon researching these actions, it seems that they were not meant to prevent a united Africa, but rather a Soviet-Africa alliance.
And what of the more modern-day NATO intervention in Libya? What did that have to do with African unity? True, Gaddafi gave a lot of lip-service to African unity, but I don’t think that his record of employing up to a fifth of Libyan citizens as government informants and executing and torturing dissidents on national television did very much to further the cause. Thus, a “fear of African unity” explanation for helping overthrow Gaddafi comes up short. One can readily distinguish undertones (and perhaps overtones) of a fear of Asian unity in the US’ efforts to ally with non-China countries there. Yet, the same is not true in Africa. For the most part the US seems to be allying with anyone and everyone in Africa who isn’t harboring or supporting terrorists, regardless of their potential to further a united Africa.
So, if the Western powers aren’t blocking African unity (at least militarily), who is? My first answer to this question relates to the “True Size of Africa” map (see image below). This map is one of my favorite visualization tools and was graciously offered to the public with no rights reserved by Kai Krause. It tells us that the total land area of the African continent is 30.2 million km2. Thus, it is larger than: the 69-year-long USSR (22.4 million km2); the ~230-year-long Ottoman Empire (5 million km2); the 54-years-and-counting European Union (4.3 million km2 ); and the ~160-year-long Mongol Empire (24 million km2). Only the largest empire yet known to humans, the 400-year-long British Empire (33.7 million km2), was larger than the continent of Africa.
As you can see on the map, it would take the combination of the total land area of China, the US, India, Mexico, Peru, France, Spain, Papua New Guinea, Sweden, Japan, Germany, Norway, Italy, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Greece to equal the size of the continent of Africa. Though you could come up with a completely separate list of countries to demonstrate this point, for the sake of argument let’s stick to this one. Among these countries, there are myriad alliances (the UK and the US), former sparring partners (Italy and Greece), foes-turned-friends (Germany and France), and frenemies (the US and China). Also on this list are countries mired in current unity fiascos, like the Euro crisis.
In short, Africa is very big. Africa is bigger than almost every historic alliance and almost every historic alliance has failed. Personally, I am hopeful that the future of geopolitics will be one of stronger and longer-lasting alliances. Yet, the insights gleaned from this map (as detailed above), explain why a continent-wide alliance (such as Gaddafi’s proposed United States of Africa) is a difficult proposition. Even ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) covers only 5.1 km2 of Africa–about 1/6 of the continent. The closest thing to a United States of Africa is the African Union (AU), based in Ethiopia. To the best of my understanding, the African Union acts like a continental United Nations, promoting development initiatives, lending peacekeeping troops, and coordinating Regional Economic Committees (like ECOWAS). Though the AU is a step in the direction of unity, it lacks the power and buy-in to prevent regional conflicts, such as the one between Somalia and Kenya.
The anti-unity implications of the size of this continent deter the advent of a united Africa and Africa <—> Africa lending and borrowing (among other things). However, sheer size is not the only impediment–in my next post I will discuss the causes and implications of a slow internet connection on more local lending and borrowing and, therefore, the success of Kiva.
Stay tuned for part two of this blog post: Why is my internet so slow, why are my phone calls so expensive and what can be done about it to unite Africa, enhance Kiva, and speed development?