How are things in Africa at the moment?
“The virus isn’t as widespread there as it is in other parts of the world. Only a few cases have been reported so far. On the one hand, you can expect that the virus will really run amok once it gets there. In some areas there are cases of malnutrition and medical facilities that are far below standard. In Ethiopia there are less than 50 IC beds available for a population of more than 100 million people. This is matter of grave concern. On the other hand, it is a continent where 60 percent of the population is under the age of thirty. This might cause the virus to spread in a very different way than it does in our case and instead lead to far fewer casualties. But we simply have no idea.
“What we can already see is what the political response is. There are a number of governments that, in anticipation of the virus, made the leap to adopting very strict measures extremely quickly. Out of all proportion, if you ask me. In Congo, for example, there was one known coronavirus case of someone who had been to a conference in France. But the president nevertheless locked down the country for weeks from one moment to the next. A PhD student of mine lives with his family of five children in Bukavu, in the east of Congo. But at the moment when the lockdown was declared, he was in a province several miles away for work while his wife was in Kinshasa. Entire families are being torn apart by these types of measures.”
And this is a family that are doing relatively well. The repercussions are disastrous for a substantial part of the African population, don’t you think?
“There is a huge informal economy. People live from day to day. A lockdown basically means no money. As there is no safety net whatsoever. At the same time, it’s not clear how people will behave if the government closes the country down. When the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte asks us on television if we can please stay at home, we do it. But in many African countries, nobody trusts the government. They think: yeah, whatever. Moreover, all sorts of fallacies about this kind of virus are being circulated. We saw that with Ebola. People didn’t believe it existed. Instead of taking patients to the hospital, they were kept at home and hidden away. Because they knew: If we take them there, we will never be able to see them again.
“I think it’s really unwise to have such an extreme top-down response in countries like Congo, who involve the police and army. You should make use of existing institutions like schools, churches, and women’s organisations. If you close these down, you won’t be able to contain this crisis.”
You have been scrutinising how governments, aid organisations and NGOs respond to humanitarian disasters for quite some time now. What are the most significant things that go wrong?
“The idea that was prevalent back in the 1980s and 1990s was that aid agencies had to completely take over things. Aid was top-down, hierarchical and internationally organised, whether it was from the United Nations, Doctors Without Borders or Oxfam Novib. They all had their headquarters in Europe. After a disaster they were flown over and came to sort everything out. There was very little confidence in the local communities, owing to the bizarre assumption that when you’re hit by a natural disaster, you’re no longer able to do anything yourself and are relegated to being just a victim. When in fact: If you were a baker yesterday, you are still one today. Then someone else shouldn’t just come in and provide food for the whole village, because then your business is bound to collapse.
“That approach attracted quite a bit of criticism, but especially from the margins, from aid workers who saw things go wrong and from scientists like me. That criticism has become mainstream ever since the turn of the century. The World Bank, the UN, major donors, The Netherlands, England, the United States – they have all changed their narratives. They now say: We have to build on the strength that people have themselves, on their resilience, so to speak. The prevailing idea has become that people can help themselves; we just have to support them.”
Have we gotten better at helping people?
“On the one hand, yes, we have. Plenty of experimentation is taking place, and that leads to wonderful things. However, we must be careful now that we don’t go overboard when it comes to that faith in self-reliance. Or that we lose touch with our natural instinct ‘that you’ve got to help refugees’ and end up abandoning people in need. Enormous levels of indifference are emerging towards people who are trying to reach Europe from Africa and are now stuck in Libya or on Lesbos. It’s almost as if some people are thinking: “Fine, drown in the Mediterranean for all I care, you shouldn’t have gotten in a boat like that in the first place.”
Do you still believe in international solidarity?
“I hold on to my optimism, but that’s more a matter of choice. The German-American philosopher and author Hannah Arendt once said: In times of the worst crisis, it is not the leaders and their ideas that help us get through it, but the fact that all sorts of people in all sorts of places keep tiny lights burning. Like a flame that relentlessly keeps on flickering. That’s what keeps me going.”
What does this pandemic mean where inequalities between rich and poor are concerned?
“This ever-increasing inequality has been known for quite some time already. Corona has put it under a magnifying glass. In that sense, the pandemic doesn’t create inequality, but it does provide us with a lens to see how that inequality manifests itself in all sorts of ways on a daily basis. It is a bitter truth that corona is caused by the cosmopolitan elite who make a lot of money, spend a lot of money, and fly a lot all over the world as well. And that those people who are economically worst off will suffer the most.” The same goes for the climate crisis. That was created by rich countries, by rich people. And who pays the price? Poor countries, poor people. Perhaps these crises help to highlight this inequality, so that the world thinks: We have to do things differently.”
You and 170 other scientists from eight Dutch universities published a manifesto last month calling for this crisis to be seen as a wake-up call. The world needs to become greener and fairer. Would you mind explaining that?
“Capitalist societies are obsessed with growth. That growth means that we are plundering the earth as a result. The world needs to be organised in another way; and sustainability, in the broadest possible sense of the word, must be the guiding principle in this. In our view, this concerns ecological sustainability as well as social sustainability. In fact, social tensions that arise as a consequence of this vast inequality aren’t sustainable either. There is a huge group of people who do not have any sense of belonging, who have nothing and are constantly being kicked out from somewhere and in the meantime have no idea how to get through the next day. That’s so unfair and unjust. But aside from that, it’s also a real threat to the world order.”
What do you mean?
“This relates to the large influx of refugees we’ve seen in recent years, but also to the riots in the suburbs of Paris. Inequality leads to all sorts of conflict, social unrest and crime.”
The African continent has also become a lot richer though, hasn’t it?
“Some conditions have definitely improved since I first came to Africa in the 1980s. Yet there is an ongoing heated debate surrounding this issue. There are effectively two schools of thought. One says: Poverty has declined, because although the differences between rich and poor have increased, people at the bottom of the ladder have become richer in absolute terms. However, according to the other school of thought, there is so much hidden poverty that the figures and models which are being used are invalid.”
A complex conclusion might also be: capitalism, whereby we plunder the earth of its resources, is actually the best way to lift the underprivileged and dispossessed out of misery.
“That may be true, but there’s no question that this could be done more fairly. There is a very small group of people, 1% of the world’s population, who have half of all the world’s money. How much wealth would be created if they were to pay between 35% and 50% tax, just like you and I do? That would enable us to organise as many IC-beds as we need around the world. Corona confronts us with a dire need for resources which demands public intervention. These resources can be obtained by growing even faster, by ransacking the earth’s resources even more. But I think we should share the available resources more fairly. I would passionately advocate for higher taxes for companies and wealthy individuals who, up until now, have always found very creative ways to dodge any tax systems out there.”
Thea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies. She has been conducting research on humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts in conflict and disaster zones for over thirty years. She has worked in many countries including Rwanda, the Philippines, Angola and Lebanon. This spring she was awarded a grant from the European Research Council worth 2.5 million euros. Together with 170 colleagues from various other universities, she signed a manifesto calling for the corona crisis to be harnessed as a means to radically overhaul our (global) economy.