by Maggie Gilman
“Nation Building, Globalization, and Decolonizing the Mind;” this is what I spent my fall semester tackling while studying in Namibia and South Africa with the Augsburg’s Center for Global Education (CGE). Southern Africa, as I came to know more deeply, has a complex history of brutal colonization, including the first genocide of the 20th century that no one really knows about (the Herero Genocide), the reign of Apartheid, the “transition” from Apartheid, and now its present issues with gender based violence, discrimination, and poverty.
Much like the U.S. and its struggle against racism even after the civil rights movement, Namibia and South Africa’s Apartheid is not dead. Though no law allows it, and both countries have the most progressive constitutions in their history, you can see Apartheid very much alive in where and how money flows, who lives in what neighborhoods, and the way many people still understand “black, coloured, and white.” South Africa tried to remedy the situation with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), but many, including Nelson Mandela, will admit that it did not do nearly enough to bring about healing within the country. Conversely, Namibia hasn’t had anything like the TRC, and either way, today both countries are still running half-blind trying to deal with the trauma of their recent past.
This is not to say that there is nothing good happening in Southern Africa. I met many people who are working diligently against the gender based violence epidemic, with orphans and vulnerable children, people trying to unify and heal a country with many languages, traditions, and cultures. There are also those who are desperately fighting to resist the tentacles of the World Bank and IMF, though that is proving to be extremely difficult. When I heard people talk about “progress” and “development” from USAID or different US non-profits/NGO’s, the focus was many times on the “growing GDP” and the endless amounts of money we are throwing at the problems Southern Africa is facing. Now, I am not going to say that the work being done by foreigners and foreign governments doesn’t have merit or positive impact, but I will say that I think most of the time we’ve been completely missing the point.
What does it really mean that the GDP is rising? When you look at that statistic, all you see is the growing wealth of a country; you don’t see that while we congratulate its growing “third world” GDP, Namibia has one of the largest wealth disparities in the world. When the World Bank and IMF think development, they think neoliberal capitalist ideology. They push for (hugely damaging) economic “Structural Adjustment Policies” that force “developing nations” to join the world market, even if it is not in their citizens’ overall best interest. But “something obviously needs to be done!” they say. It’s true that something needs to be done; these so called developing nations are dealing with a plethora of issues: rape, murder, poverty, unemployment, racism, discrimination… Oh wait, that sounds exactly like what the US is still dealing with even as a “developed country,” so how exactly is forcing others to follow our example going to help?
In the end, as my CGE professor said, “it’s complicated.” We’ve all got our own notions on how and why the world should work in certain ways, and we’ve all got our own experiences and agendas. The scary thing is when institutions, especially those who have clear agendas for power, privilege, and profit, refuse to reflect on the serious consequences of their actions, and therefore refuse to change. Have we really figured much of anything out here in the global North? The way I see it, we may have an incredible amount of wealth, but people are still starving, facing violence, unable to access quality healthcare or valuable education, or find housing- every single day in this “developed hemisphere.” So what is development? I think we are all still trying to find it.