When I was a 10-year-old child growing up in Burkina Faso, some French people came to my village school and gave us pencils and notebooks, although we already had some. From what they explained, I understood that we were poor and therefore they had come to help. After class, I ran home, sobbing as I broke the news to my dad: “Dad, we are poor”. I was shocked. My dad looked at me with love and softly said, “don’t worry Assita, it’s OK if we are poor”, which technically was not an answer.
The thought that we were poor and in need of help from particularly poorly dressed foreigners never occurred to me. I had never felt the way those the French visitors made me feel. Perhaps this is the story we repeat to the kids today, instead of telling them what they could achieve. We tell them they do not have wings and that someone else will help them fly; on their own, they never will. Perhaps one even keeps telling that story, even when the kids grow up. After all, the aid illusion is about 60 years old. When will we have the courage to move from the 1960s to the 21st century, and realise Africa’s potential?
“The EU thinks that only money solves problems in Africa, but it is time to recognise that too often, money ends up in the wrong pockets”
Today, I am a grown woman, free and self-reliant because I have always believed in independence and listened to other voices, not those who discouraged me from spreading my own wings. I was born and grew up in Burkina Faso; I know the importance of the stories and the belief in one’s own abilities. A change of mentality on both sides is crucial but long overdue.
Every time European leaders came to Africa and announced huge cheques under the press spotlights, families watched the news and wondered where the money would go. How would this change our lives, other than creating something called ‘African debt’. My last memory of such a moment was seeing the late French President Jacques Chirac sign some reportedly big cheque; huge amounts of money would be poured into Burkina Faso for development. I saw these images so many times, with so little change in society.
Unsurprisingly, when Commission President von der Leyen waved a cheque in Dakar one week ahead of the EU-African Union summit, I had a sense of déjà vu. It breaks my heart as a person and infuriates me as a European politician. It is once again just another signature, just another gesture, some nothingness branded as a major upcoming change. What an eternal lie.
The EU thinks that only money solves problems in Africa, but it is time to recognise that too often, money ends up in the wrong pockets. It increases corruption and fails to achieve good governance and sustainable development. In EU-Africa relations, we must aim for a healthier dynamic based on geostrategic perspectives and equal partnership. We must switch from bridging budget gaps to providing genuine incentives for growth; switch from providing aid to building trade capabilities and entrepreneurship for mutual prosperity.
“What Europe is currently doing is clearly not working. It seems that not much is being learned and not much attention is being paid to people or to reality”
Such shift in mindset and policy will also be positive for Europe. I think Europe is making a strategic mistake by dealing with Africa in such a conservative way, as if we were still in the 1960s. Save the European taxpayer some money, because now their money goes to von der Leyen’s blank cheque to some of the African leaders who are bullying their people. In my country of birth, Burkina Faso, I see a Russian flag flying, but I also see that the jihadists are gaining ground.
Islamism and autocrats are taking over the region, and that hurts enormously and threatens Europe at the same time. It is also strategically important for Europe to not to put all our eggs in one basket. Now we are overly dependent on China, for example, but we should cooperate economically much more with Latin America and Africa.
What Europe is currently doing is clearly not working. It seems that not much is being learnt and not much attention is being paid to people or to reality. On the contrary, European leaders must take responsibility themselves. Europe needs to stop paternalism, go back to working together, trading and sharing best practice; it needs to think about a serious defence policy. Today, we are not able to protect our values in West Africa, not in Ukraine nor anywhere else.
If the EU wants to become a true global player, it must take its relationship with Africa seriously. We must put an end to the nanny diplomacy and build real partnership with African countries. Otherwise, I don’t see the difference with racism on a global scale. How can it take so long for smart politicians to understand that Africans are capable of being partners and have talents and potential just like all other human beings?