West Africa Is Dying - Europe Is Sleeping

Locust plagues, poverty and million environmental refugees in Africa: An efficient European Marshall Plan would help Africa out of its current misery. Proceeding in this way would simply be a matter of European self-respect, argues Franz Alt

Man presenting two locusts to the camera (photo: AP)
In the locust crisis, "Europe is once again letting down its neighbouring continent," says Franz Alt

​​A plague of locusts: it may sound harmless, but in reality it is something so dreadful that it can take the lives of millions of people. When the plague began, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome called for the small sum of nine million dollars to fight the locusts in West Africa between Chad and Senegal. But the international community was not willing to donate the sum.

Now, nothing can be done to stop the catastrophe: four-fifths of the harvest in Mauritania have been destroyed and the situation in Mali is very similar. The locusts have since eaten their way from Senegal to Nigeria and Chad and left an inconceivable trail of destruction in their wake.

Locusts - the alien armies

They could even reach the crisis region of Darfur in Sudan; or press their way through Saudi-Arabia to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The war of the locusts is becoming global.

The French sent one herbicide-spraying airplane to Senegal to combat the foreseeable horror. A perfect example of a drop in the proverbial ocean. The USA has "more important" things to do in Iraq than to fight locusts in Africa. And Europe is once again letting down its neighbouring continent.

One swarm of locusts consists of up to 100 million hungry insects. In August alone, over 200 swarms passed from Senegal to Mauritania: that means billions of "enemies", as the people of Mauritania now refer to them.

A locust eats approximately its own bodyweight in food every day. Many farmers in West Africa believe that "there will be no harvest this year". Millions of Africans have virtually nothing left to eat.

In such a situation, is there anyone willing to get involved in a Marshall Plan for Africa? Klaus Töpfer, the head of the UN's environment agency in Nairobi, recently pointed out - and not for the first time - that there are already several million environmental refugees in Africa. Most of these refugees are people who have migrated in search of the next source of water.

The shortage of water is mainly the result of the greenhouse effect, for which the industrialised nations of the Western World are mainly responsible, not the Africans themselves. An African pollutes the air with only one-twentieth of the coal, gas, oil, and petrol burned by a Central European.

There are fewer passenger cars in all of Africa than in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. This is why Klaus Töpfer, Germany's highest-ranking politician in the United Nations, says: "We are guilty of environmental aggression. We will one day be overrun by environmental refugees if we don't take action quickly."

Increasing migration to Europe

The first indications of this wave of migration were seen this summer in the Mediterranean states of Italy and Spain. In the final days of July alone, over 1,000 emigrants from Africa tried to set foot on the dry land of Southern Italy after an adventurous journey in barely-seaworthy dinghies. How does Europe deal with them?

In future, whenever a cargo ship comes across shipwrecked people in the Mediterranean, the captain is supposed to look the other way and make for the open seas as quickly as his boat will carry him.

The fact that in doing so he would be breaking international Christian marine law and would be guilty of failing to give assistance would probably get him into less trouble than the captain of the ship Cap Anamur, who recently spent five days in prison in Italy for helping people that had got into a life-threatening situation.

Europe's interior ministers know only too well that hundreds, if not thousands, of people drown every year while trying to flee across the Mediterranean to Europe.

Nevertheless, Italy deported the 37 Cap Anamur refugees, and German Minister of the Interior, Otto Schily, is calling for the African problem to be solved in Africa. Europe, he says, must not abandon Africa. Sounds promising. It is, however, nothing more than a smokescreen to mask Germany's inactivity.

The governments of Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder repeatedly announced that Germany's development aid would be increased to 0.7 per cent of gross national product. Nothing of the sort has ever happened. Today, Germany only gives a good third of the promised sum: namely 0.28 per cent of GNP.

Germany's President, Horst Köhler, said in his inaugural speech that Africa would be the litmus test for European humanity. The fact of the matter is that millions of people in Africa are dying of thirst and hunger every year while Germans debate the pros and cons of bottle refunds and whether the insurance company will pay for their dentures.

Poor Africa getting even poorer

But affluent Europe is not best served in the long term by poor Africa getting even poorer. It is 25 years since the ship Cap Anamur rescued over 10,000 boat people from the South China Sea.

At the time, the viewers of the German television programme report donated over 20 million marks to help the shipwrecked boat people and put them back on their feet for a new life in Germany.

There is little of that solidarity left today. Four years ago, the world community set itself the "millennium goal" of halving the number of hungry and starving people in the world by 2015.

Since then, there can be no doubt that in Africa, the continent on Europe's doorstep, this target is far from being reached. By the end of 2004, approximately 26,000 people in the countries of the third world will have died of starvation every day.

No political will to combat the misery

The four wealthiest people in America have more money than the world's billion poorest people. The US military alone currently uses up more financial resources in the space of 32 hours than the United Nations spends on peace and humanitarian missions in an entire year.

Anyone who analyses this situation can reach only one conclusion: there is simply no political will to combat the misery of the African problem. Here too, it is true to say that we will reap what we will sow.

Aid for Africa is not only a question of the Christian principle of loving your neighbour - and those living far away from you - as yourself; it is a question of political astuteness. Those who want to combat terrorism effectively have to learn that bread and education are more important than bombs!

Acute water shortages, infant mortality, AIDS, an appallingly poor educational system, an acute lack of energy despite an abundance of sunshine: Africa is suffering from these symptoms more than ever before. A recently published UN study states that 42 per cent of all Africans living south of the Sahara are drinking water from contaminated sources.

The water from these sources is polluted with worms and other disease-causing agents, thereby increasing the risk of deadly epidemics for millions of people. The UN study estimates that contaminated water causes the death of one child every 8 seconds. This misery is another cause of the current wave of refugees.

The case for a new Marshall Plan

Just like the USA organised the successful Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after the Second World War, Europe can and must set up a Marshall Plan for Africa. We owe it to our neighbouring continent not only because all major European countries had colonies in Africa in the past: most importantly England and France, but also Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and even Germany - albeit to a lesser extent - in South-West Africa.

Paying zealous lip service to a colonial guilt alone will not purge the sins of the past; practical aid for Africa in this catastrophic situation is necessary.

In 1960, President John F. Kennedy grabbed the imagination of a generation with his idea of a "peace corps": were Europe to subscribe to the idea of a "Marshall Plan for Africa", similar emotions could be triggered. One thing is certain: Africa will not make it of its own accord.

Hundreds are dying every day in Sudan. And this figure will continue to rise unless the UN succeeds in pushing through a decisive concept.

The Security Council's resolutions on Darfur to date have been ineffective because Russia, China, the UK, and France are doing oil business with the government in Khartoum.

Yet again, oil - the lubricant that keeps the current world order up and running - is more important than the human right to life and the rescuing of over one million refugees.

The Ivory Coast, once the motor of the West African economy, is today torn apart by ethnically motivated orgies of violence. In Liberia, a broken country with a beautiful name, tens of thousands of child soldiers between the ages of 10 and 16 are waiting for their next battle.

The country's prospects are bleak. In Congo, new battles for regions that are rich in valuable natural resources have erupted. Latent tension is simmering just beneath the surface in Nigeria. Mali and Burkino Faso are hopelessly impoverished. Does Africa no longer have the strength to heal itself?

It is true that the West has always encouraged the continent to assume more responsibility for itself. It is, however, also true that Europe cannot turn its back on a part of the planet that it for centuries exploited in order to enrich itself.

European human capital for Africa's development

An effective Marshall Plan for Africa cannot, of course, be based on the doubling or even tripling of development aid that would be placed in the hands of corrupt African governments.

European human capital for Africa's development would, so it seems to me, be much more valuable. Above all, the young people of Europe must discover Africa.

Two examples: German electricians and technicians could replace decrepit pipes in many African countries, thereby ensuring that less clean water is wasted. In Nairobi alone, a better water infrastructure would ensure 40 per cent more clean drinking water.

Alternatively, in view of the fact that current energy sources are gradually being exhausted and their production increasingly expensive (it must be said that the current oil and petrol prices are already out of the reach of most Africans), and the fact that Africa has so much sun, wind, and biomass, it would make sense for Europe to train hundreds of thousands of young people in Europe and Africa to tap into these sources and make them available for Europe and Africa.

It is conceivable that Europe's industrial nations could buy solar-generated hydrogen from Africa instead of waging wars for oil.

The environmental benefits of such a trade would be huge for both continents. Helping Africa help itself in this way would also help the world combat the greenhouse effect, which is a threat to us all.

An efficient European Marshall Plan for Africa would be useful if it concentrated on the following vital areas: water, energy, and efficient agriculture. This would help Africa out of its current misery. Proceeding in this way would simply be a matter of European self-respect.

Franz Alt

© Franz Alt/Qantara.de 2004

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan