Africa: If Oprah Can't Fix It, Nobody Can

Top-down solutions don't work.

Oprah (Winfrey) is a member of that elite group of celebrities who, like Madonna (Ritchie) and Elvis (Presley), require but one name.  Forbes magazine has ranked her as a billionaire for some years now, and she has been called the richest black American (of either gender), richest celebrity on TV, richest female entertainer... the list goes on.  Suffice to say, she is well-heeled.

Furthermore, as proprietress of the highest-rated talk show in TV history, she commands an audience of many millions.  Her clout is such that being featured on the Oprah Winfrey Book Club is almost a guaranteed express to the top of the bestseller lists for any author.  She's been ranked as the world's most influential woman, and hobnobs with the rich and powerful of the global elite; but her personality is in some way able to reach across barriers, connecting with people who are neither black nor female nor wealthy, nor even American.

Having lifted herself by her own efforts from the grinding poverty of pre-civil-rights Mississippi, Oprah has not forgotten her roots, and the path upwards: education, and hard work.  As she said when donating $1 million to Morehouse College in 1998, "The door to freedom is education, and to see these young men to lead lives of scholarship, leadership and public service."

It would be a noble thing if Oprah had simply used her wealth and influence to promote education for the poor in the United States, as indeed she has done in countless ways.  But more than simply helping America's poorest, she wants to help the world's poorest - and that means Africa.

In 2002, she announced plans to build a school for girls in South Africa, funded by her charity arm.  This eventually became Oprah's Leadership Academy, a boarding school for girls in grades 7-12.

Unlimited money, unlimited visibility, unlimited clout - what could possibly go wrong?  But Oprah reckoned without Africa.

Initially, parents complained about the grave restrictions placed on their daughters. Apparently, their communications by phone and e-mail were heavily regulated, and visits were limited to two hours on one Sunday a month.  While there could perfectly well be a good explanation for these rules, it does raise potential questions about exactly why the girls were not being permitted more extensive contact with their own families.

Then, on November 1, South African police arrested former dormitory employee, Virginia Mokgobo, on charges including assault, indecent assault and soliciting under-age girls to perform indecent acts, with at least seven alleged victims.

Oprah was clearly aware of some troubling issues at the school, having previously placed the school's principal and other staff on leave a few weeks prior to the arrest.  After the news broke, she flew to Africa in tears, apologizing to the parents for letting them down.

Let us hasten to say, in no way has there been any evidence of abuse, involvement, or anything derogatory regarding Oprah herself.  As far as has been reported, she has behaved in an exemplary fashion throughout -- by funding the school in the first place to the tune of $40 million; by personally interviewing candidates; and by her continuing involvement in all aspects of its operation.  It's clearly a personal hobby very close to her heart, and we can only wish that others would follow her example.

The point here is not to criticize Oprah's good-heartedness or charity.  It's to underscore the fact that, simply put, "saving Africa" does not work when it involves non-African saviors.

How many billions of dollars have been sent there for food aid?  Yet every year, there are more famines.  In past decades, vast sums were spent on development aid, yet the continent is poorer than ever.

Now we see honest attempts at providing a solid education for poor girls - something which could not possibly be opposed, subject to no budget constraints, and with the direct personal involvement of one of the world's most wealthy and powerful people.  Yet even that ends in an appalling disaster involving employees of the school.  Was it because the school could not afford better employees?  Or could not pay for background checks?  Of course not; something else was at work.  We cannot help but see a pattern here.

There are observers that demean Africans for some "inherent inability" to succeed and thrive, and even some groups that claim blacks as a whole are "less evolved" or "less intelligent".  Of course, these claims are absurd, and can be dismissed out of hand based -- at the very least -- on the many, obvious examples of successful, sophisticated black professionals throughout the US and across the world.  Oprah herself is black, and she has done nothing but good throughout this situation.

The problem, as Martin Luther King might say, doesn't lie with the color of skin, but with the content of character.

A quick look at the continent of Africa shows an almost limitless array of total misgovernance, corruption, and kleptocracy over the last 50 years.

President Charles Taylor of Liberia, used the gruesomely accurate phrase "He killed my ma. He killed my pa. I'll vote for him anyway!" as his official campaign slogan in the 1997 election.  He won by a landslide.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe took what once was Africa's most prosperous independent nation to a place where local bus fare is $1.6 million.

In Somalia, there has been no functioning civil government of any kind for 15 years.

Even in South Africa, generally considered to at least function, President Thabo Mbeki refuses to admit that HIV causes AIDS, making an effective anti-AIDS campaign somewhat problematic.  All his government officials, including the minister of health, are now afraid to state what everyone else in the world has known for twenty years.

Africans as individuals are not naturally and inherently deficient in character compared to other peoples, even if character were proven to be genetically determined.  But for a wide variety of historical reasons, Africa lacks the long tradition of self-government and good governance that is found elsewhere in the world.  And when unimaginably huge sums of unearned money come raining down from heaven -- whether they be in the form of foreign aid or of oil export payments -- on a society that is utterly unprepared to handle such amounts, bad things happen.

It has become so common for third-world countries with large exploitable mineral reserves to be destroyed instead of being helped, that the phenomenon has received a name: "oil disease."  And even African intellectuals are calling for an end to traditional foreign aid.

What can be done to help Africa?  The only successful schemes involve working from the bottom up, not the top down - for example, Muhammad Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, has improved the lives of millions of the world's most impoverished people through making tiny "microloans" to them.  They use these microloans to purchase something to improve their earning capabilities - a sewing machine, a more efficient manual water pump - use the increased revenue to pay back the loan, and are then permanently better off.  While seven million people's improved lives is a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions in dire poverty, it's a good start, and certainly more successful than anything else which has been tried.

Non-Africans must eventually recognize one thing for sure: Parachuting in with gazillions of dollars -- no matter the good intentions or unlimited resources -- simply doesn't work.  If Oprah can't do it, nobody can.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
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