Language & Governance in the African Experience

Notes from The Power of Babel: Language & Governance in the African Experience (1998) by Ali A. Mazrui and Alamin M. Mazrui"

"One of the gross linguistic anomalies of post-colonial Africa, in fact, is that whole classes of countries are named after the imperial language they have adopted as their official language. We do constantly refer to 'Francophone Africa,' 'English-speaking Africa,' 'Lusophone Africa' and the like. Asia, too, was colonized; and yet nobody refers to 'Anglophone Asia' or 'French-speaking Asian countries.' (p. 6)

"… how much of a choice of synonyms do I have when I want to discuss blackmail? Or something sold on the black market? It is true that most of the time when we are using these words we are not connecting them with any racist tradition with associates black with evil and white with goodness. The metaphor is so much part of the English language, beautifully integrated, ready for use unconsciously in a spontaneous flow. As metaphor, black has carried repeatedly, and in a variety of contexts, decidedly negative connotations. White has ambivalent connotations but, more often than not, favourable ones. The connotations have been stabilized that users of the language are unconscious of those wider links with racist traditions. But does not the unconsciousness make the situation even worse?" (p. 25)

"What all this suggests, then, is that language as an instrument of liberation must be based, not on a reversal of values accorded to European versus African languages on the basis of a preconceived paradigm of linguistic determinism, but on disalienation that seeks to pose new terms of reference altogether. For as long as the struggle for mental liberation is defined in terms that confirm to the European ideal of humanity and civilization it will only turn out to be an upward spiral to further alienation and conceptual imprisonment." (p. 62)

"It appears, then, that democracy would develop on firmer foundations on the systemic, economic, social, and cultural planes if African nations pursued language policies that reduced dependence on Western languages, push African languages more towards the centre of the political and economic arenas, and consolidated the use and development of their local languages of wider communication." (p. 107)

"Not using indigenous African languages in the legal process is damaging not only to the rule of law but also, of course, to the indigenous languages themselves. The languages are marginalized in some of the fundamental areas of civil society – law and order, governance and civil liberties." (p. 114)

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Human Rights in Africa

Bonny Ibhawoh's (2018) "Human Rights in Africa" is a long overdue contribution to the human rights discourse. This is not only a critical assessment of the dominant narrative about the origins of human rights as known today, but also a call for revival of knowing histories that are not well known, prioritized or taught. The book outlines the "complicated story of progression and regression, inclusion and exclusion" (p. 119) of human rights across the continent and over time. The book is accessible, which makes it recommended reading across audiences.

Relative or universal rights? "The case for an African concept of human rights is essentially an argument for cultural relativism as a counter to the universalist claims of the modern human rights movement. The premise of this position is that culture shapes the articulation and fulfilment of human rights because of its formative influence on human thought and behavior. Human rights principles are therefore culturally relative to different contexts, and culture informs unique conceptions of human rights when grounded in African moral principles and cultural experiences… On the other hand, some proponents of African values in human rights interpretation premise their claim on an affirmation rather than a repudiation of the universalism of human rights. They contend that the core principles that underpin modern human rights are neither exclusive to Western liberal traditions nor alien to African cultural traditions. These are eternal and universal norms. There is nothing essentially Western or bourgeois about the fundamental rights to life, the right to personal and collective dignity or the right to a fair trial. These human rights principles have normative parallels in indigenous African moral principles and political and social practices." (p. 37-38)

On vernacularization: "the African values argument and the cultural legitimacy argument converge in what may be expressed as the vernacularization of universal human rights. The notion of vernacularizing human rights describes the process by which universal human rights norms are grounded in local communities. It requires seeing human rights in specific situation rather than as the application of abstract principles. Vernacularizing human rights is therefore a constructive process that grounds and expands the scope of human rights in different cultural contexts. It is a process whereby global impulses intersect with indigenous ideas to produce new human rights norms and practices that are relevant to local situations. The process of vernacularization connotes critical local engagement with international human rights norms with the goal of investing them with local meaning that can potentially strengthen recognition and enforcement." (p. 52)

Vernacularization (cont.): "The notion of vernacularizing human rights has been used to describe the process by which universal human rights norms become grounded in local communities. It is a constructive process that affirms and delineates the scope of human rights in different cultural contexts. Vernacularizing human rights requires seeing human rights in specific situations rather than as the application of abstract principles. In this sense, vernacularization refers to the interaction between established international human rights principles and local norms to produce hybridized legal and normative frameworks for human rights protection. This should not be confused with the cultural relativist repudiation of universal human rights, which I discuss in the introductory chapter of this book. Rather, vernacularization is a deliberate process of investing universal human rights with local meanings that can potentially strengthen human rights protection and contribute to the normative application of global human rights." (p. 225-226)

Criticism all around: "The same [criticisms of Enlightenment liberalism] can be said of indigenous African notions of human rights. The scope of individual and collective rights was often limited to community members and restricted by ethnicity, caste, gender, power and status. Prioritizing communal solidarity over individual liberties often implied the exclusion of those considered outsiders, minorities and non-conforming members of the community. The emphasis on communal well-being and the contingent relationship between individual rights and duties also meant that rights were ultimately not conferred based on the intrinsic value of each human being but, rather, based on community membership, and social status and obligations." (p. 47)

Questioning rationales: "Antislavery provided an important legitimizing rationale for colonialism and become part of the "inter-imperial repertoire of idiom and imaginaries of colonial rule." Eradicating the slave trade and granting freedom to those enslaved was a declared mission of many early European adventurers, missionaries and colonialists. Atlantic slavery and the movement to abolish it marked the beginning of Europe's conquest and colonization of Africa, provoking what became known as the scramble for Africa and one of the most pernicious land grabs in human history. Here we confront another paradox of rights discourse within antislavery. Nineteenth-century missionary and humanitarian activism that rallied public support against slavery also provided moral justification for colonization, which ultimately denied millions of Africans their right to self-determination." (p. 83-84)

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Evaluation Landscape in Africa

Thousands of evaluations have been conducted across Africa, producing large amounts of knowledge. However, these reports are not often captured and shared nor are they easily accessible, nor are always made available to the public. There is no search platform, like Web of Science for academic publications, for evaluations. Some donors have created their own databases, but none operated sector-wide. CLEAR-AA tried to address this, and developed a platform, which is updated until 2015, the African Evaluation Database. While much more work is needed, this is a good step. Those involved with the project wrote a book to present the trends of what they have seen: Evaluation Landscape in Africa: Context, Methods and Capacity (2019), edited by Mapitsa, Tirivanhu and Pophiwa. The book is an excellent resource for those interested in this type of material and/or work. As far as I know, no similar landscape assessments are available elsewhere, making this quite a unique resource. 

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(Still) Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment

In the 80s and 90s an emerging set of research began to highlight that much of what we thought we knew about the environment in Africa, was, at best, only partially accurate. This had implications for policy and programs - and in some instances these narratives are still present. "The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment" (1996) edited by Leach and Mearns is one important collection of works that challenges assumptions or partially accurate narratives. The book is a great reference point - and I would argue that Chapter 8 (on soil erosion) remains particularly relevant.

"The driving force behind much environmental policy in Africa is a set of powerful, widely perceived images of environmental change. They include overgrazing and the 'desertification' of drylands, the widespread existence of a 'woodfuel crisis', the rapid and recent removal of once-pristine forests, soil erosion, and the mining of natural resources caused by rapidly growing populations. So self-evident do these phenomena appear that their prevalence is generally regarding as common knowledge among development professionals in African governments, international donor agencies, and non-governmental organizations. They have acquired the status of conventional wisdom: an integral part of the lexicon of development. Yet as shown by accumulating research assembled in this book, these images may be deeply misleading." (p. 1)

Part of the accuracy issue is the origin of these stories, often generalized but of problematic nature: "What is the evidence for the doomsday scenario of environmental decline? Commentators from the first decade of the century through to the present wave of environmental furore have predicted an imminent collapse. The evidence presented in support of these arguments falls into two types: first, anecdotal reports; and second, quantitative data that has been selectively interpreted. Anecdotal information, especially if dressed up in the language of disaster, have been very influential..." (p. 46-47).

In other cases, the narratives simply appear inaccurate entirely: "Since the 1890s, scientists and policy-makers have considered the patches of dense, semi-deciduous forest found scattered in the savannas on the northern margins of Guinee's forest zone to be relics of previously more extensive forest cover. There are about 800 such 'forest islands' in Kissidougou perfecture alone, most concealing at their centre a clearing containing one of the perfecture's villages. The existence of forest patches amidst savanna has suggested the penetration of savannas southward into the forest zone as a result of vegetation destruction by farmers. A century after its first elaboration, this interpretation of a landscape half empty of forests continues to drive repressive policies designed to reform inhabitants' land-use practices.This received wisdom concerning the forest-savanna mosaic refers to historical processes, but is not founded on historical data." (p. 105)

On the implications: "In the wake of the 1985 famine, the Ethiopian government launched an ambitious programme of environmental reclamation supported by donors and non-government organizations and backed by the largest food-for-work programme in Africa. Over the following five years, peasants constructed more than one million km of soil and stone bunds on agricultural land and built almost half a million km of hillside terrace. They also closed off more than 80,000 ha of hillside to most forms of use to foster regeneration of naturally occurring species, and planted 300,000 ha of trees, much of it in community wood-lots. Today, in retrospect, it is clear that much of this effort was wasted or counterproductive." (p. 186)

On the negative incentives that continue false narratives: "Scientists are just one set of actors in the 'soil erosion game', a game in which it is advantageous (a) not to admit you do not know the answer; (b) to make unverifiable assumptions so that, if your answers provide bad advice, blame does not attach to the professionals; and (c) to exaggerate the seriousness of the process in order to gain kudos, prestige, power, influence and, of course, further work." (p. 141)

This book was long before social media, but some relevant reflections on the new ways information is shared and accessed: "Paradoxically, the more rapid circulation of information may actually increase the tendency towards simplification and convergence in the substance of popular discourse about environment and development, as a way of dealing with information overload." (p. 26)

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