"There is always something new out of Africa," Pliny the Elder wrote nearly 2,000 years ago. In the wake of the Big IF London rally, modern day Britons could be forgiven for strongly disagreeing with this statement. Some campaigners' rhetoric may have shifted from asking Western leaders to make poverty history to urging them to tackle the causes of poverty, or from urging G8 countries to increase their aid budgets; to exhorting them to curb tax havens to feed the poor with the extra money raised in the process. But the pictures used by most activists, IF campaign members' adverts and media covering the event, were overwhelmingly the age-old images of poverty and famine-stricken Africans.
What I find depressingly familiar about the IF campaign is that underlying this movement is the long-standing misrepresentation of underdeveloped countries in general, and Africa in particular, as places full of helpless individuals in need of salvation. This misconception - and the associated desire for plunder - was the driving force behind past colonial practices. There needs to be more awareness that this myth of "saving Africa" also permeates modern phenomena such as Live Aid, Live 8, and IF.
I'm not arguing that Africa does not have many problems that must be urgently addressed. It certainly does. But so too do Europe, America, and other continents. No earthly place is paradise. However, in the 21st century, we in the West should no longer take the real or perceived problems of Africans as the cornerstone of society's engagement with them. Such an approach is highly pernicious and damaging to African and Western populations alike. On the one hand, it reinforces the idea that Africans are necessarily dependent on Western aid and benevolence. Moreover, aid deprives local populations of control over their leaders, as it renders them more accountable to donors than to their fellow citizens. On the other hand, this age-old approach stifles Western people's imagination, preventing them from devising the new and more competitive African engagement policies they urgently need to develop to avoid losing ground to emerging economies.
The IF and similar campaigns perpetuate and render acceptable the idea that Africans are incapable of tackling their problems themselves. For instance, although Save the Children caters for the needs of many recession-hit British children, David Cameron would never adopt and present a campaign led by Save the Children as cornerstone of his anti-recession policy. He knows that this would be deeply unpalatable to the British people. Yet, the campaigns led by large charities have been accepted as the determinants of the West's engagement policies with Africa for decades. There are, admittedly, many members of African communities involved in these initiatives. But the aforementioned campaigns are, in essence, driven by outdated views which need to change.
Rather than lament the longstanding dominance of the West-Africa relationship by aid campaigners, we need to implement progressive measures that encourage a two-way dialogue.
As the founding member of the think-tank African Peoples Advocacy, I recently published a research paper entitled 'The Demophile Deal for Africa: Blueprint for a new Western policy towards Africa'. This argued that in order to avoid losing ground to the BRICs - Brazil, Russia, India and China - in Africa, the West should develop a new policy aimed at empowering African populations, which I call the "demophile deal for Africa". We should stop viewing Africa as a hapless continent solely dependent on the needs of charity, humanitarian aid and handouts and instead grow familiar with its potential as a land of investment opportunities and growth, and have Africans as key partners in the implementation of the demophile deal.
We are not the first African Diaspora members seeking to determine and influence the West's relationship with Africa. Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and many others did so while studying or residing in Western countries. But we are part of a generation of African diasporans who are proud and eager to acknowledge, proclaim and promote our links to both Africa and the West. Organisations such as African Peoples Advocacy were founded in the UK by members of African communities with British citizenship and British children, relatives, and friends. Our ethos was and will always be the pursuit of policies that are beneficial to African as well as Western societies and we need to engage in a progressive dialogue with Africa that reflects this relationship.
Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell is the Executive Director of African Peoples Advocacy (www.apadvocacy.org) and winner of the 2013 African Diaspora Award in the category of Community Hero.