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Africa wants to develop

City Talk

Pay a visit to a developing country – previously known as “third world” or “underdeveloped.” During the last two years I have spent time in Uganda, which fits that definition. I’d call it “poor”: Uganda’s per capita Gross Domestic Product was $331 in 1997, and 70 percent of the population earned less than $1 a day.

     If you spend time talking with politically and socially active Ugandans, you will find that what they want for their country and communities is “poverty alleviation.” Even Ugandan environmental professionals who ensure that the rivers and lakes still produce drinking water, or that human waste is neatly confined to sanitary systems, or that forests are managed sustainably, will tell you what their country most needs is poverty alleviation. And for poverty alleviation, you need development.

      “Development” — the word raises the hackles of environmentalists in the US, but it is not a dirty word in Uganda even in environmental circles. Development is seen as beneficial, whether it comes from small private investors, transnational corporations, or the World Bank.

     Development in Uganda means more houses and hospitals, more and better tarmacked roads, electricity and drinking water piped to homes, streetlights, computers and cellphones. Along with these improvements come water treatment works, power generation stations (a new dam on the Nile financed by the World Bank being seen as the most affordable option), a few more manufacturing facilities — and concrete all over the lush green verges to make roads and sidewalks so people don’t get their clothes dirty in the rains. “Don’t do it!” some of us cry. “Uganda is so beautiful in its unspoiled state.”

     But this is a hard sell to the Ugandans. How can you say to people who run out of food, have no access to some basic medicines, or who cannot get a good night’s sleep because they are spending their time cooking, washing or just getting where they need to go, that they cannot share our luxuries? Who would swap their lives in the suburban US to go and live in a Ugandan village for more than a few weeks’ vacation? Plenty of Ugandans are lining up to go in the other direction, and permanently.

     To build all that development infrastructure, minerals would be extracted, fossil fuels burned, and trees cut down. As factories pump out products, they will pump out by-products, just like here, all adding to the global need for resources.

      “But the planet can’t afford it,” you may say, and quite correctly. We’re already cutting down forests and producing carbon dioxide faster than the Earth can reabsorb it. But people in Uganda want to develop their country. They are certainly not going to cut back on resource use. Why should they? Would we notice if they did? Who’s leading the way in cutting back? Us?

     Of course we can’t cut our use of resources. There’d be a recession; jobs would be lost; more Americans would slip into poverty.

     Would poor Ugandans recognize the US version of “poverty”? I wonder.

     Uganda wants to increase its per capita consumption of natural resources to alleviate poverty. The UN concurs. And if wise, it will develop — to quote the 1989 Brundtland report that laid the framework for sustainable development: “to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” That means wise development; socially just and environmentally responsible development; for want of a less-hackneyed term, sustainable development.

But who are we to tell them how to do this?

   

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