Secular Missionaries: Americans and African Development in the 1960s (Culture and Politics in the Cold War and Beyond)
University of Massachusetts Press, 2010
256 pp., 34.95
Faith in Schools: Religion, Education, and American Evangelicals in East Africa
Stanford University Press, 2009
248 pp., 28.79
David A. Hoekema
Americans in Africa
How much foreign aid has flowed from Europe and North America to promote the development of sub-Saharan Africa in the half-century of African independence? Here is one answer: "500 billion dollars." This may be too high: does it include military aid disguised as humanitarian assistance? It may be too low: non-governmental organizations have contributed many billions. And of course other governments, such as Japan, have been major donors. But it's in the ballpark.
Here is another answer: "Far too little, and it should be doubled." In 1970, the leaders of the developed world set a modest goal for international humanitarian aid: just 0.7 percent of gross domestic income per year. That is less than one-tenth of a tithe. Yet only five nations met the target in 2009 (three in Scandinavia; Luxembourg; and the Netherlands). The United States was not even halfway there, ranking fifth from the bottom among the thirty wealthiest nations (source: OECD Development Statistics Online). Africa needs far more help building schools, digging wells, staffing clinics, and building housing for its poor. So argue leading economists such as Jeffrey Sachs (The End of Poverty; Common Wealth), the leaders of many nonprofits, and U2 frontman Bono.
Here is still another answer to our question: "Far too much, and it's done little good." Widely read books such as Dambisa Moyo's Dead Aid and William Easterly's White Man's Burden advance this position. However good its intentions, Western aid only enriches entrenched lites, pays obscene salaries to expatriates, and blocks progress toward sustainable economic institutions and structures. This theme was sounded nearly forty years ago when Walter Rodney explained How Europe Underdeveloped Africa: foreign aid wears a mask of benevolence over its true purpose of facilitating neocolonial exploitation. Aid achieves nothing worthwhile; what is needed is investment capital. Only through economically viable projects that reflect local knowledge and enlist local commitment will Africa's people escape from poverty, corruption, and autocracy. When expat aid workers no longer drive their Land Cruisers to swanky hotels with suitcases of cash for the president and his cronies, Africa's leaders will need to win the trust of their own people in order to stay in power. Foreign aid only postpones that day.
Which of these answers is correct? All are plausible. The sums spent on development in Africa are staggering, and several nations derive three-fourths of their national budget from foreign aid, yet progress is elusive. Half a trillion dollars could have built a modest house, dug a well and a latrine, and bought a bicycle and a solar battery charger for every family in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet more than half the people of Africa still lack access to water and toilets; rural schools in many countries enroll only one-third of the children; and maternal and child mortality rates are ten to twenty times global averages. Meanwhile Africa's political leaders have amassed huge fortunes through questionable land purchases, embezzled development funds, and rampant bribery. "Don't throw good money after bad" is a sound maxim for nations as well as individuals. (An insider's trenchant account of international aid as a system designed primarily to support international aid workers can be found in Richard Rottenburg's Far-Fetched Facts, which I reviewed in the March-April issue of Books & Culture.)
And yet anyone who visits sub-Saharan Africa—its shantytowns sprawling endlessly within sight of government offices—can see the benefits that governmental and private donations have brought and the desperate needs that remain. Visiting what may be the continent's largest slum in 2001 and again in 2010, I observed hundreds of new communal latrines, electrical lighting in shops at night, and far more children wearing school uniforms. The latrines in Nairobi's most notorious slum were built by the African Medical and Research Foundation, using local labor; electrical wires were extended by the Kenyan electrical utility; and Western churches built nearly all of the new schools. Plans now under discussion to relocate Kibera's 600,000 residents to adequate housing in a nearby area cannot go forward without massive foreign assistance. Similar stories can be told across the continent. Not all assistance reaches its intended beneficiaries. But without outside help, far fewer children would receive an education, far more women would spend half their day walking to fetch water, and thousands more babies would be in their graves. Venture capital will never fund maternal care or vaccination, and no one will make his fortune digging wells. What Africa needs most urgently is not more investment but more aid.
How can we untangle this puzzle? The activist's motto, "Think globally, act locally," cannot help us here. Global answers must be grounded in local and historical realities, not just in theory. To decide whether aid is a bane or a boon, we need to know how and why it began and how it is administered. We need to delve into the ethics and philosophy of development, to be sure, and we need to understand the theology that motivates humanitarian assistance and the mission efforts out of which it so often grows. But such theoretical inquiry must begin with an accurate account of who has given assistance to whom, and why, and how.
Two recent books from university presses can help us here. Larry Grubbs zeroes in on the period of African emancipation, but rather than view it from the African side he offers a richly detailed picture of American policies, successes, and failures in Africa. Amy Stambach's contribution is a highly localized account of the ways in which missionaries have become involved in government schools in East Africa, reflecting and also shaping altered expectations on all sides.
The United States stood on the sidelines and played no direct role in African colonization. But when the United Nations declared the 1960s the "Decade of Development" in sub-Saharan Africa, the Kennedy Administration took up the tune. Grubbs has combed State Department and administrative archives, trying to understand the hopes and images that shaped U.S. policy and inspired dreams of rapid modernization. His book offers invaluable background for the perplexities and ambiguities of African development today.
Many see Cold War polarization as the key to U.S. policy in this period. African leaders who espoused socialism and courted favor in Moscow and Beijing were our enemies, and our task was to undermine their influence and when necessary facilitate their overthrow. Those who preached the gospel of free markets and welcomed international business were our friends, and we invited them to Washington and wrote them large checks.
Grubbs does not reject this picture entirely. Indeed, he frankly acknowledges the tragically misguided policies that anti-Communism produced in the Sudan, the Congo, and Ethiopia. But he also gives due credit to the idealism and optimism that lay behind U.S. Africa policy. An influential writer of the Eisenhower years had written of the "stupendous possibilities" of Africa, "a continent relatively empty of people and yet with great economic promise" because of its natural resources. Civil rights activist and Michigan governor G. Mennen ("Soapy") Williams was named special envoy to Africa and campaigned tirelessly for its economic and political modernization. The new Africa desk in the State Department sought "the best methods of developing prosperity in freedom," and this required preparing detailed economic plans: "the moral equivalent of anti-colonialism." But such plans often shackled U.S. policy to unrealistic objectives, shut out grassroots involvement, and nurtured autocracy.
The favored Africa think tank of the 1960s was MIT's Center for International Studies. An American economist headed Nigeria's Economic Planning Unit after independence—a "classic secular missionary," Grubbs notes, advancing the gospel of economic development and liberal democracy. Nigeria, the American experts agreed, possessed "the most important African economy with the biggest and most hopeful future of any African nation." But their optimism was quickly dispelled by ethnic conflict and a culture of graft, which American influence could not stop and may well have exacerbated:
Though corruption's roots lay in the colonial era, independence brought an explosion of jobs, contracts, tax incentives, licenses, and other entice-ments that made the First Republic a bulwark, not of the "stability" admired by … Americans, but of an increasingly cynical, conservative, chronically partisan, parasitic class. The postcolonial "gatekeeper state" evident in other African nations had an American imprint in Nigeria.
Nigeria's subsequent history of civil war, military coups, and kleptocratic governments gave the lie to visions of its "hopeful future." Nor did development and democracy bloom elsewhere in Africa. In the "decade of disillusionment" that followed, Grubbs shows, Washington abandoned its dream of economic and political development reinforcing each other. Its aid programs now aimed at modest regional goals—and at discrediting dangerous African socialists such as Kwame Nkrumah, whose ouster was welcomed in Washington, "for his successors proved far more pliant and altogether less charismatic."
How did aid donors explain these massive failures? Racist condescension played a part, as many in government lamented that Africans could not handle the responsibilities of governing a modern state. Corrosive "tribalism" and the irrational persistence of primitive religious beliefs were also blamed for many of Africa's ills—ignoring the ways in which tribal animosity and "fetishism" alike had been exploited, and exaggerated, by colonial regimes. In order to achieve their true aims, therefore—the same aims as those of their Western benefactors—Africans must forsake their primitive ways of thinking.
In the Peace Corps, the U.S. government had created an army of secular missionaries for American values, and Ghana and Ethiopia were among the first sites. "We were hell-bent on teaching them to think," recalls an early volunteer in Ethiopia. But lofty ideals often became entangled in diplomatic and political conflicts, and volunteers were sometimes resented rather than welcomed.
In a concluding chapter, Grubbs notes how little has changed in a half-century. U.S. policies from the 1960s to the present see political progress arising inevitably from economic development, but reality has shown otherwise. American offers of advice inevitably slip over into attempts to direct and control. Grubbs draws the sobering conclusion that "it may well be, in fact, impossible for American leaders to imagine, let alone attempt, an aid program for Africa that does not seek to control African thought and undermine African sovereignty."
The "secular missionaries" of Foggy Bottom no longer trumpet Africa's boundless potential for growth and development. But optimism and a sense of a wide-open future still characterize the church workers and volunteers who cross the Atlantic to assist in educational, medical, and social projects. Amy Stambach's study focuses primarily on a group that represents a unique synthesis of religious and secular purposes and communities.
These are young people from conservative nondenominational churches in the United States, descendents of the Christian restorationists of the early 19th century. They come to teach English for a few months in northern Tanzania, a largely Christian area with a Muslim minority. With the approval of regional education authorities, working under the direction of long-term American missionaries, volunteers lead reading, writing, and simulation games in government primary schools. All the lessons begin with Old Testament stories, but they have no explicitly Christian content.
And so everyone wins. The government gains the services of native English speakers it cannot afford to hire. Pupils and their parents gain language practice. Volunteers gain career and cultural experience. Even some of the Muslim parents are thankful for the program, though others wonder whether subtle Christian indoctrination is occurring.
For Stambach, who observed the classes and conducted interviews with all the parties, this instructional program exhibits "a dialectic by which religion and education functionally integrate and derive their meaning from one another, even as they at times stand as antithetical coordinates." And another dialectical relationship emerges as well: between the social construction of religion and the intellectual enterprise of anthropology. Throughout her study, Stambach calls attention to the inherent ambiguities and conflicts that lie at the very core of the anthropologist's task of sympathetic but independent understanding of cultures. She highlights this especially clearly when reporting on the academic courses on cross-cultural communication that are part of the student volunteers' preparation for overseas service. Anthropology in this context becomes a vehicle for Christian witness, elucidating the cultural barriers that must be bridged in order to convey the message of the gospel. But protests against such misuse of the discipline are disingenuous: from its founding, anthropology has been an ally of secularism over religion in the academy.
In effect Stambach offers us two complementary ethnographies, one grounded in contemporary Tanzania and the other examining the conservative Christian subculture of the United States. Both are richly detailed, and when taken together they shed considerable light on the ways in which American and African communities interact today. Filling out her account are briefer descriptions of two other mission projects serving secular ends: the establishment of a Christian academy by a small independent church in western Kenya, among the Luo people; and the creation of partnership links between existing Christian schools in Eastern Uganda and American sources of support.
Each of these contributes to Stambach's assessment of religion and education, even if the composite of northern Tanzania, western Kenya, and eastern Uganda does not quite live up to the breadth promised in her subtitle. Different issues catch her attention in the three cases. The Kenyan school is critical in restoring the credibility of its founder's denomination among local churches, for example; but in the Ugandan case her focus is on relationships to mission churches and their supporters. Central to the Tanzanian case is the question of whether an educational program created and staffed by missionaries can really be religiously neutral—and the more perplexing question of whose decision this should be.
In drawing lessons from her ethnographies, unfortunately, Stambach is sometimes more interested in invoking leading theorists than in explaining what she has learned. "Religion and education are utopian spaces that define and transcend societal norms," she writes in her conclusion, "and they are imaginative forms and institutional tropes that reinforce and challenge social and political differences." Names such as Bourdieu and Foucault recur regularly—every thirty pages or so, it seems—but their theories serve more to decorate than to elucidate Stambach's analysis. What we want to know is more prosaic and concrete: how has education changed religion, and how has religion changed education, in East Africa?
Yet even if her general conclusions are disappointingly vague, Stambach brings a keen analytic sense to her case studies. For example: "The secret that the Luo [of Kenya] see Americans as holding, … and perhaps not even knowing themselves, is that mission Christianity is not only monotheistic but also ethnically monocultural." The Luo wonder, she reports, whether missionaries want to save African lives and souls or simply to sustain the mission environment so that their children can succeed them. Similarly, in commenting on a current debate over the rise or fall of secularism, Stambach offers her own sharply worded synthesis: secularism, she writes, "should not be seen as the antithesis of religion" but rather as "the reorganization of religion with respect to other concepts, notions, and institutions."
Taken together, these two studies deepen our understanding of both the potential and the pitfalls of development aid. The Africa to which we offer assistance is the Africa we want to see, and when realities prove recalcitrant—as they did in the 1960s, and as they do today—we must not cast all the blame on cultural differences. Aid can bring important benefits to the lives of ordinary Africans, but only when its forms and aims reflect local circumstances and build sustainable networks of local support. The story Grubbs recounts gives us reason to be cautious in our methods and modest in our objectives.
Furthermore, aid programs inevitably serve other purposes than those that are publicly acknowledged. This is no less true of Peace Corps volunteers and U.S. agricultural advisers than of young evangelical Christians teaching English in Tanzanian government schools. Moreover, Stambach observes, the supposedly neutral discipline of anthropology is itself complicit in many sorts of evangelism, whether overtly religious or purportedly secular.
However much or little we continue to devote to development in Africa, through government or church, these two studies help us see what it is likely to accomplish and to anticipate what it is likely to mean. We cannot solve all the problems of contemporary Africa by writing checks—or by declaring that we will write no more checks. But we can carry on the debate with our eyes open. These two studies help us to do so.
David A. Hoekema is director of the Calvin College Ghana program for Fall 2010, following a semester as a Fulbright Teacher/Scholar at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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