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Africans can do it for ourselves

About the author

Wangari Maathai was a pioneering environmentalist and founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. In 2003, she was appointed the country’s assistant minister for environment, natural resources and wildlife. In 2004, she became the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel peace prize

Wangari Maathai died in Nairobi on 25 September 2011

This is a historic time, when the spotlight is on Africa. It is appropriate for us to recognise and applaud the efforts of our friends, both within the G8 and in civil society, who are trying to improve the quality of life in Africa.

In 2004 the peace prize award of Norway’s Nobel committee linked the environment with democratic governance and peace. I have compared these three themes and the situation they create to a traditional African stool. Just as such a stool needs three solid legs to be stable, so does any stable state. And just as the legs, the body and the basin of the stool are made from one log, so leaders and citizens must together mould the three pillars.

One cannot build democracy in order later to manage resources sustainably and create peace. Managing resources accountably and responsibly, and sharing them more equitably, are essential to nurturing a culture of peace. This in turn is possible only if there is adequate democratic space for everybody; space where the rule of law and the rights of all, including the weak and vulnerable, are respected.

This article is adapted from a statement Wangari Maathai made on 2 July in London at 2005’s African Diaspora & Development Day.

For Wangari Maathai’s foundation, click here

A time for dignity

As I travel across the world, I find that people are concerned about this shift in the concept of peace and security. There can be no peace without sustainable management of resources, justice and fairness. Indeed most of today’s conflicts and wars are over resources: who will access, exploit and utilise them? Who will be excluded? Those who feel excluded, exploited and humiliated can threaten peace and security.

One of the worst outcomes of injustices is poverty. It robs human beings of their dignity. When people are poor and when they are reduced to beggars, they feel weak, humiliated, disrespected and undignified. They hide alone in corners and dare not raise their voices. They are neither heard nor seen. They often suffer in isolation and desperation.

Yet all human beings deserve respect and dignity. As long as millions of people live in poverty and indignity, humanity should feel diminished. This historic time gives all of us, especially those in leadership, the opportunity to reduce poverty.

There is a lot of poverty in Africa. Yet Africa is not a poor continent. It is endowed with human beings, sunshine, oil, precious stones, forests, water, wildlife, soil, land and agricultural products. So what is the problem?

First, many African people lack knowledge, skills and tools to add value to their raw materials so that they can take more processed goods into the local and international markets, where they could negotiate better prices and better rules for trade. In such situations, Africans find themselves locked out of productive, rewarding economic activities that would provide them with the regular income they need to sustain themselves. They are either unemployed or underemployed – and they are certainly underpaid. They may wish to secure a well-paid job, but if they do not have the tools nobody will hire them. Neither will they be able to take care of their housing, healthcare, education, nutrition, and other family and personal needs.

Second, there is economic injustice, which must be addressed not only by the rich industrialised countries but also by African leaders. Africans have been poorly governed. This misgovernment continues to allow the exploitation of resources in Africa without much benefit to African citizens.

Africa’s diaspora and civil society

I commend the African diaspora for believing in small and medium-sized enterprises, which are key to enabling Africans to fulfil their aspirations for jobs and economic security. The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (Unido) reports that 90% of all businesses in Africa are small and medium-sized. We must support this sector and ensure that it thrives.

The diaspora can ensure that this sector grows in the home countries. Africans in the diaspora are estimated to send back some $200 billion to Africa each year. This money assists both their families and the national economy. We need to encourage and sustain this interest and commitment. We need initiatives that are simple, attainable and able to generate visible success in a short time. This creates momentum, trust, excitement and goodwill around solutions that ordinary people themselves own and believe in.

A lot remains to be done. But I am encouraged by the increased willingness of African leaders to commit to gradual improvement of governance, especially through comparatively more free and fair elections, the creation of Nepad, sub-regional political and economic coalitions, and the African Union.

The African Union recently asked me to lead a process of mobilising African civil society. My role is to create an organ to advise the African Union on the best way to involve Africans as active participants in the creation of a new Africa. I was also appointed by the eleven heads of states within the central African sub-region to be a goodwill ambassador for the Congo basin forest ecosystem. These initiatives are evidence of a renaissance that needs encouragement and support from friends, partners and the diaspora.

We must support campaigns to save African forests and biodiversity. The importance of forests to humanity is well-known: ecological balancing; in absorbing carbon; preventing loss of soil and subsequent desertification; safeguarding against floods; acting as reservoirs for genetic resources; controlling rainfall patterns; serving as catchment areas for freshwater and rivers.

Without such green life, humankind would not survive. But many of these services from forests are taken for granted, and environmental degradation continues despite many efforts.

Take the case of the Congo forest ecosystem. 200 million hectares of forest are under threat of extinction, as are 400 mammalian species and more than 10,000 plant species; all this, plus the livelihoods of more than a million indigenous people who depend on the forest resources of the ecosystem.

Africa will be especially adversely affected by climate change. I recommend to the G8 that the Convergence Plan for the Conservation and Sustainable Management of Forest Ecosystems in Central Africa be a priority concern. It is an issue that, like no other, brings together the twin themes of the summit: climate change and Africa.

A lesson from Japan

The G8 countries’ cancellation of the debts of the eighteen HIPC countries is welcome, but I urge that other countries in Africa also be considered. They may be able to make debt repayments, but they do so at the expense of education and healthcare, thus sacrificing the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals.

The British prime minister, Tony Blair, and his Commission for Africa initiative, deserve great credit. I hope that other G8 countries will support his and his finance minister Gordon Brown’s recommendations, especially in the area of debt, doubling of financial assistance and better terms of trade.

It is understandable that governments may sometimes wish to give conditional aid. But a patronising approach to sovereign states undermines their authority, and the respect and trust they can receive from their people. An improvement of governance in Africa means that it would be more appropriate to give untied aid, so as to allow governments to address priorities identified by them and their citizens.

The diaspora is the face of Africa to the world. Its members have a special responsibility to be good ambassadors of Africa by working hard, respecting the law of the land, and being responsible and accountable members of the society in which they live. The diaspora influences the world’s perception of African people.

In many industrialised countries like Britain and Japan, there is a “3R” campaign (reduce, repair, recycle) calling for more sustainable use of resources. Individuals and groups can engage in initiatives, which support the spirit of the Kyoto protocol and sustainable development.

In Japan, a campaign incorporating the 3R is strengthened by the beautiful concept of mottainai (“what a waste!), which urges people not to waste resources but to instead use them with respect and care. Awareness and commitment at a personal level is very important.

These examples are simple and workable ideas that we can practice individually everywhere: recyling plastic, reusing plastic bags, planting trees, printing on both sides of the paper, saving water – all in the spirit of mottainai.

As we continue the struggle on behalf of our people, let us remember that we are not alone. We have friends and we build on bricks laid by our ancestors who laboured and even died so that we, their children, might regain respect and dignity. This is our time, let us give our best.


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