The following article was recently published in the special “Energy, Environment and Politics” Autumn 2006 edition of “European View,” the magazine of the European People’s Party in Brussels. The full magazine can be read online at

As European nations adjust their internal and external policies regarding energy, the environment, and economic development to accommodate the needs and desires of the new European Union, there is a great opportunity to ensure that the new policies will be beneficial to the developing world, and in particular to African nations that were once European colonies.

Clearly, most Africans have not benefited much from the worldwide economic boom that has lifted many in the Pacific Rim and other formerly poor nations out of poverty and into the middle class. Indeed, Africa today has about 13% of the world’s people but accounts for only 2% of world gross domestic product – and the trend is downward, not upward. Reversing this trend will be good news for worldwide economic growth and for the environment. By playing a significant role in turning Africa around, Europe could likewise reap significant benefits.

The answer to Africa’s needs, however, is not more handouts, or even aid forgiveness, as was recommended at the June 2005 G-8 summit in Gleneagles. Rather, it is in creating a new class of entrepreneurs from among the poorest Africans and affirming the value of market principles, a reliance on sound science, and a re-commitment to the Judeo-Christian principle that “all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, [among which] are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

This paper will show that, despite Europe’s presumed good intentions, Africans are increasingly uncomfortable with the vestiges of the colonialist mentality, whether it be environmental mandates or restrictions on economic development (sometimes the two are intertwined). These holdover policies and practices are hurting economic growth – and thus the development of indigenous environmental movements – all across Africa.

Unless Europeans undertake a major change in course, there is evidence that Africa may be seduced by new, possibly less scrupulous, trading partners. Fortunately, there is a path that fits in with the stated desires of many Africans — a new approach to development that focuses on people-to-people, rather than government-to-government, relationships. By taking this path, Europe can greatly expand economic and political freedom in many African nations and also regain prestige and respect among African people themselves ? while also realizing significant financial benefits for individual European investors.

Self-Determination for Europe – But Not for Africa?

As Europeans turn toward creating a common approach to major policy issues, the temptation is to be Euro-centric, especially when addressing issues such as energy, economic development, and environmental policy. Meanwhile, African nations today are beset with major obstacles to achieving the kind of political and economic freedom upon which good societies are built. Among these problems are low savings and investment rates, unstable economic and political institutions, limited quantity and quality of infrastructure and human capital, the prevalence of disease, and negative perceptions on the part of international investors.

History shows that, rather than advancing freedom, a prerequisite for truly constructive development, the demands of Western institutions when addressing these issues have typically downplayed the role of the individual and instead pressured (or allowed) governments to institute policies that further limit individual rights. As a result, the West has become to Africa like the overprotective mother who refuses to let her children grow up and then blames them for not exhibiting all the vestiges of maturity. Worse, Western policies have often left Africans enslaved once again by locally grown dictators (of the sort that first sold their brothers and sisters into slavery).

A major reason, according to economist William Easterly, for the failure of Africa to prosper has been that planners at the World Bank, the United Nations, and other Western institutions of power have never motivated people on the ground to carry out the good intentions formulated in their “marvelous plans.” Easterly’s insights belie the premise, laid down by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, that “the expansion of freedom is … both the primary end and the principal means of development.”

Indeed, many Africans today recognize that the West’s good intentions have had negative results. They see the root cause of these misfires in the failure, both yesterday and today, of the West to listen to the voice of freedom-seeking Africans. Instead, the West has sought to impose its own priorities upon Africa.

Afonso Dhalakama, president of Centrist Democrat International Africa, notes that most of the economic development in sub-Saharan Africa during the colonial period focused on meeting the needs of colonial powers. In the push toward independence that followed World War II, the departing Europeans typically (and blindly) turned over power to communist movements or parties that continued to stifle the cries of most Africans for both political and economic freedom.

Today, there are new threats to Africans’ dreams of freedom, none more daunting than that posed by China, whose president has stated, “Chinese cooperation [with Africa] does not depend on good governance and democracy in African countries.” Dhalakama’s great fear is that Europeans, by insisting that Africans do everything Europe’s way, are opening the door wide for the Chinese to exploit Africa’s resources to fuel China’s development and further frustrate the advance of democracy in Africa.

Dhalakama urged Europeans today to assist Africans in developing political parties that will be responsive to the will and the needs of their own people and to support Africa’s growing economies by undergirding and strengthening national polities. Europe will benefit from providing such assistance, but could lose heavily by failing to strengthen indigenous and free African institutions.

Expressing a similar viewpoint, former Eritrean finance minister Gebreselassie Tesfamichael responded to the June 2005 Live 8 campaign (and the nearby G8 summit in Gleneagles) with these highly charged words:

The fundamental problem in Africa is not lack of resources, but the failure of political leadership. The modern African state is a colonial creation, extractive in its design. Its mission was not to serve the people, but to dominate and exploit them. Despite independence, and despite improvements brought by numerous democratic elections, the nature of that state remains intact.

Tesfamichael also expressed his frustration that the international aid community insisted in imposing its own guidelines for Africa to follow in pursuing development. “We wanted something different. We wanted a partnership rather than a donor-client relationship,” and so Eritrea refused to follow guidelines mandated by the International Monetary Fund. Instead of micro-management from thousands of miles away, Eritrea conducted reforms dictated by the realities on the ground and grew its economy by 7% a year during the period 1992-97.

Cameroonian journalist Jean-Claude Shanda Tonme likewise wondered how Live 8’s supporters had so clearly failed to understand that “Africa’s real problem is the lack of freedom of expression, the usurpation of power, the brutal oppression,” and that none of these problems can be solved with debt relief, food aid, or an invasion of experts.

World energy statistics bear out the perception that Africa’s resources are being exploited today nearly as much as in the colonial era. World Energy Council Deputy Secretary General Jan Murray reported in 2001 that two-thirds of all energy consumption in Africa came from high-polluting and disease-causing appropriate technologies – wood, charcoal, dung, and crop residue – that Europe now disdains. Moreover, Africa’s per capita energy consumption was very low, and most of the commercial energy the continent produces was being consumed elsewhere. In short, little of Africa’s commercial energy was being used to advance freedom on the continent.

Europeans clearly understand the value of energy resources. Andris Piebalgs said in the inaugural issue of European View, “Without reliable, affordable and safe energy, our economy would simply come to a halt. In other words, we depend on energy for our prosperity.” But European policies toward Africa have ignored (or rejected) the potential for building prosperity in Africa based on such a model. Africa has huge reserves of oil and gas and coal and the potential for hydropower and even nuclear power to provide locally usable energy, yet Europe has balked at helping Africans develop these resources.

The West has also taken a peculiarly jejune, yet pharisaic, attitude toward Africa’s manifold health problems. For example, malaria was virtually eradicated in Europe and the United States through the use of the pesticide DDT, but for decades the West has imposed a virtual ban on DDT use for any purpose. Meanwhile, malaria attacks 400 million Africans a year, killing well over a million and leaving countless others debilitated for life.

Semiannual indoor residual spraying of small amounts of DDT is a proven weapon that dramatically reduces the incidence and severity of malaria without harming the environment, but Western financial institutions, in collaboration with environmentalists, have long insisted that Africans rely solely on bed nets and expensive after-infection treatments to fight this killer.

It has taken a worldwide campaign, led by Nobel laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Dr. Norman Borlaug, Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, American civil rights pioneer Roy Innis, and others – sparked by African voices – to effectuate a major change in policy in the United States (in May 2006) on the use of DDT to fight malaria. The World Health Organization has also switched sides on DDT, but the battle continues. Many African nations still fear that the World Bank or individual European nations will not renege on past promises to ban agricultural imports from nations using DDT to protect human lives.

Africans are also at odds with the West over agricultural issues that range from protectionist tariffs and farm subsidies (in Africa as well as the West) that leave African farm goods uncompetitive in Western markets, to the angst over biotech foods. Neither the EU nor the U.S. budged an inch at the recent World Trade Organization talks in Geneva, though changes have been discussed for years.

Economist Thomas R. DeGregori has been a major voice supporting green biotechnology as a way to help Africa raise yields and protect plants from disease. DeGregori argues that media-led opposition to the use of green biotechnology in Africa has deep roots in misguided beliefs about science, agriculture, and food production that go back two centuries. Kenyan biotech advocate Florence Wambugu likewise contends that Africa must pursue biotechnology both to feed its growing populations and to solve its environmental problems. Africans, she insists, “must [be allowed to] participate as stakeholders” in biotechnology and other emerging technologies so that they can have some control over their development and use.

Africa desperately needs to increase its food supply: Malnutrition rates are falling worldwide but are rising dramatically in sub-Saharan Africa. Whether biotech is or is not the way to go, actions to suppress agricultural biotechnology in Africa provide yet another example of how non-Africans are making decisions that affect the very survival of Africans.

On yet another front, the highly acclaimed Equator Principles, which require Western financial institutions to meet the social and environmental policies of the World Bank, may well be discouraging much-needed economic development in Africa’s undercapitalized nations. The Chinese, of course, have not adopted these principles – nor have many rogue nations with which they are gaining influence.

As Africa Develops – Is Anybody Listening?

Thanks in part to the almost universal access to cellular telephones and the Internet, Africa is maturing politically and economically, even in countries where oppression is widespread. As Africans, even in remote locations, gain ready access to real-world information (from war news to stock quotes), the old American pop song becomes applicable: “How you gonna keep ?em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” European influence in Africa is thus at a true turning point. Many Africans are tired of 400 years of colonialism and its ongoing vestiges in the post-colonial era, and others are responding to their cries to “let my people go.”

Europe stands to benefit greatly by supporting increased political and economic freedom in African nations. A major reason is that Africans for centuries have been educated in European academic institutions, learned European customs and languages, and interacted daily with European businesses, governments, and non-governmental organizations. There is tremendous untapped potential.

C. K. Prahalad argues that we must stop thinking of the poor as victims or as a burden and start recognizing them as resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers. Serving the world’s poor will provide wonderful opportunities for innovations that focus on conserving resources through eliminating, reducing, or recycling wastes, because the poor cannot afford to pay for wastage. These innovations can then be transferred to markets in the developed world. Better still, as poor consumers and entrepreneurs gain experience in market mechanisms, they may well be able to transform their societies and economies dramatically in a very short time frame.

Bringing an end to, or even greatly shrinking, African poverty is a daunting proposition. Yet changing the way Europe and the West look at and deal with Africa’s poor requires some major changes in perspective and philosophy – beginning with a re-assessment of the nature of man and of the state.

The American Revolution was largely influenced by the writings of John Locke, whose political philosophy promoted individual rights and limited constitutional government as the basis of freedom and economic security. Building on Locke’s vision, Thomas Jefferson penned these immortal words found in the U.S. Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ? that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Nearly a century later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believing Locke’s worldview would divide humanity by focusing on self-interest, individual rights, and property, set forth his own “Social Contract” in which the “General Will” of the people is embodied in the power of the state. Thus the state can both create and distribute rights to whom it pleases – and is in effect the ultimate authority. In defending the American vision, James Madison agreed that the hearts of men are wicked but believed that in a free society the evil machinations of various factions would be canceled out through the political process, leaving the good to triumph.

Recently, the ideals of Locke, Jefferson, and Madison were incorporated into the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship, an eloquent document which encapsulates a Judeo-Christian view of environment and development, but whose principles are applicable well beyond the faith community. Cornwall states that many people mistakenly view humans as principally consumers and polluters rather than as producers and stewards and thus ignore the human potential to add to the Earth’s abundance. Thus, many oppose economic progress in the name of environmental stewardship, failing to recognize the simple truth that the more prosperous a society, the more likely it is to make environmental protection a high priority.

Cornwall further asserts that free and prosperous (and informed) citizens have the potential for very beneficial management of the Earth’s resources, and that nature does not fully “know best.” This recognition, after all, forms the very basis for holding any faith in beneficial environmental stewardship. Locke and his modern-day disciple, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, would hold that the private ownership of property is a key motivator for sound stewardship of land, water, and other resources. Common sense and empirical data both show that people take better care of property when they have an ownership interest.

Finally, Cornwall argues that some environmental concerns are without foundation or greatly exaggerated, while other critical environmental issues are ignored or downplayed. A major reason for this (for example, eschewing DDT’s benefits in combating malaria) is the failure – whether conscious or unconscious – to consider the environmental impacts on specific human populations in setting environmental policies.

Thus, based upon Cornwall’s prudent perspectives, perhaps the most vital thing that Westerners can do today in Africa is to humbly accept Prahalad’s observation that the poor are “resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers” from whom we can learn much and gain much. Westerners need to stop dictating and start listening to the hopes and aspirations and plans of these thoughtful and energetic human beings who yearn for freedom to build out their own visions for tomorrow. This means Europe and the West must move from a Rousseauian to a Lockean mindset – one that seeks to address the needs of individuals rather than one that pursues political policies and agendas to impose on them.

The stakes are high. African nations could simply allow the Chinese and other like-minded entrepreneurial neo-colonialist states access to its markets, generating economic development but without any commitment to expanding human freedom or protecting the environment. One thing is certain: Africa will not long remain under the heavy thumb of their European “parents” who deny them the freedom to make their own decisions about things that matter.

A New Approach to African Development

Europeans might take a serious look at the new Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a creation of the U.S. State Department. Under this new program, the U.S. has set guidelines for aid eligibility that require nations to meet standards for ruling justly, investing in individual people, and encouraging economic and political freedom (including freedom for women). The rules require nationwide stakeholder meetings to identify in-country barriers to development, ensure the participation of civil society, and make public the intended uses for aid dollars. These reforms should foster greater accountability for those in charge of aid-funded projects.

In Madagascar, the MCC approved a US$110 million grant to help formalize that nation’s land tenure system, modernize its land registry, expand land title services to rural citizens, improve the national banking system, and establish a body that identifies investment opportunities for rural citizens to reach markets and trains farmers and other entrepreneurs in production, management, and marketing techniques.

These are all institutional reforms that address afore-stated problems of low savings and investment rates, unstable economic and political institutions, and the limited quantity and quality of infrastructure and human capital. If implemented, these reforms, which require accountability at every step in the process, should increase the confidence of individual investors that their profits will not be stolen and thus expedite investment and business development.

The Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, an international NGO which works in the U.S., Europe, and other nations on issues of environment and development, is also pursuing a program that utilizes Lockean principles in a constructive manner. CFACT is developing a new international development program that is modeled in large part on work done on a very small scale by faith-based and other charitable organizations on the ground in developing nations, and in part on activities reported on by Prahalad and others. The program begins with encouraging people in local communities to devise their own plans for economic growth and environmental protection and then joining with them as partners and advisors to help them achieve success.

This Social Entrepreneurship and Free-Market Environmentalism Demonstration (SEFED) program builds on the time-honored principle that, unless people who live in developing nations take ownership of their economies and their environment, the next fifty years of foreign “assistance” is likely to be no more successful than the last half century’s efforts. SEFED’s initial efforts have confirmed that de Soto was right on the money when he stated …

The cities of the Third World and the former communist countries are teeming with entrepreneurs … The inhabitants of these countries possess talent, enthusiasm, and an astonishing ability to wring a profit out of practically nothing…. Most of the poor already possess the assets they need to make a success of capitalism.

The SEFED program provides an avenue by which Westerners all too accustomed to dealing with the poor from a charitable, paternalistic viewpoint (or worse, from the old opportunistic exploitation viewpoint) can learn to interact with intelligent, motivated, yet still poor, entrepreneurs and community builders as equal partners, supporting projects conceived of and being developed principally by people whose lifestyles have not included the myriad of amenities to which most Westerners are accustomed.

Conclusion: Time for a Change

In sum, all that is really needed for Europe to reverse four centuries of unfruitful mentoring of African economic, political, and societal development is a change of heart and of attitude – and the actions that naturally should follow such a rebirth of vision. People who can plead for species preservation on grounds that even the least impressive (from our viewpoint) species may hold the key to significant benefits for humankind and the planet should be able to see the same potential in every human being.

There is so much to be gained, both personally and economically, from expanding our horizons and partnering with people who previously may have been overlooked (or looked down upon), and Europeans are in a particularly advantageous position to take full advantage of these opportunities. The time has come and is indeed near past when Europeans (and others in the West) can begin to ask themselves, what do Africans really want and how can we work together for mutual benefit to ensure that they get what they truly need?

The alternatives to this approach all forebode trouble. Inaction or continued (hard-headed) paternalism will surely allow unscrupulous developers to enter Africa, further despoil the environment and further frustrate the desire of many Africans for freedom and respect as full partners in economic development and environmental protection. But a new engagement with Africans at the ground level will enable them to make their own economic and environmental decisions – decisions that, given Africa’s long history with Europe and the recognition that all humanity wants a healthier, wealthier future and a cleaner world, could foster real change for the better.

The keys, then, are, first, the humility to listen to the ideas and visions of the poor; and, second, the willingness to visualize and assist in bringing to fruition the economic growth and increased political and social freedom that will help the poor achieve their goals. The rewards from such an approach can be great – both for Africa and for Europe, too.

Special thanks to CFACT senior policy analyst Duggan Flanakin who greatly contributed to this article.


  • Adam Houser

    Adam Houser coordinates student leaders as National Director of CFACT's collegians program and writes on issues of climate and energy.