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Africa’s Land Use Problem: Is Green Revolution Agriculture a Solution or a Cause?

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It is a myth that the only way to increase productivity on existing agricultural lands is through Green Revolution programmes and evidence shows that they are among the principal causes of unsustainable land use.

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Africa’s Land Use Problem: Is Green Revolution Agriculture a Solution or a Cause?
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By all accounts, food and agriculture were barely on the agenda at this month’s UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland. They should have been. Food production, distribution, consumption, and waste contribute an estimated one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. In production, the majority comes from unsustainable livestock production with another large share coming from unsustainable production and use of synthetic fertilizers. But a significant share also comes from “land use change”, a neutral term for the destructive expansion of agriculture onto new land.

That sort of “extensification” of agriculture can have serious environmental consequences – deforestation, soil erosion, unsustainable water use, etc. Those in turn have important implications for climate change, as a recent UN report highlighted. Land use changes due to agricultural expansion increase carbon emissions from land clearing, eliminate carbon dioxide-absorbing plants such as rainforests, and create greenhouse gases with incoming modern farming methods. According to the UN, they account for about 30 per cent of agriculture-related emissions.

The simplifying neo-Malthusian perspective attributes extensification to growing populations exerting pressure on scarce natural resources. Increasing farmers’ productivity on existing lands in regions such as Africa where yields are relatively low is the mainstream solution. The goal is to foster “sustainable intensification” – growing more food on the same land. With commercial inputs such as commercial seeds and synthetic fertilizers, farmers can intensify their exploitation of existing agricultural land, raising productivity and easing pressures from growing populations to bring new lands into cultivation.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was founded 15 years ago to address the productivity problem. With generous funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations, the alliance set out to reduce chronic hunger and poverty by increasing yields in key food crops through the expanded use of commercial seeds and fertilizers. This is the “technology package” credited with raising agricultural productivity in what came to be known as the first Green Revolution in India and other parts of Asia and Latin America in the 1970s.

Africa’s Green Revolution has largely failed to promote either sustainability or intensification. Evidence suggests that the initiatives, which include high levels of government subsidies for farmers to use Green Revolution inputs, are both failing to raise productivity and contributing to the unsustainable expansion of farming onto new lands.

My research shows that excessive incentives to maize and a few commercial crops have persuaded farmers to shift land out of other nutritious crops while expanding production onto new lands. The result is higher maize production but without significant productivity increases. Meanwhile, we see rising levels of malnourishment and undernourishment as poor farmers fail to benefit from rising productivity but see their families’ diet diversity decline as the diversity of food crops in their fields declines.

Climate change and the unaddressed pandemic emergency are contributing to a deep hunger crisis in Africa. The worst dangers of famine are in areas of conflict such as Ethiopia, but hunger is more widespread. The United Nations has recorded a 50 per cent increase in the number of severely undernourished people in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2006. Underlying that deprivation is a model of agricultural development that is encouraging unsustainable land use and undermining crop and diet diversity.

These alarming outcomes have prompted African food producing organizations to call on donors to end their support for AGRA and other Green Revolution programmes. They call for a shift to agroecological initiatives that have been shown to generate sustainable productivity improvements across a range of food crops, addressing the need for more food and more nutritious diets while easing pressures on unsustainable land use.

Redoubling climate damage

Neither evidence nor entreaties have persuaded Green Revolution leaders that their strategies may be misguided. In October, Mr Hailemariam Desalegn, former Prime Minister of Ethiopia and current Chair of the Board of AGRA, acknowledged the problem. “Over the last two decades, the African continent has registered the most rapid rate of agricultural production growth of any region of the world,” he wrote in an opinion column for African Arguments. “Unfortunately, most of this growth has been through the expansion of agricultural land, not an increase in productivity. With our population expected to double by the middle of the century, our farmers need to continue growing more, while using fewer resources.” He went on to argue that the intensive use of Green Revolution seeds and fertilizers could achieve that. He has urged governments and donors to redouble Green Revolution efforts.

Climate change and the unaddressed pandemic emergency are contributing to a deep hunger crisis in Africa.

The evidence suggests otherwise. In 2020, I carried out a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of Green Revolution programmes in AGRA’s 13 focus countries. AGRA refused to share its own impact data, so I used national-level data on crop production, productivity, and area expansion to determine whether AGRA was meeting its stated goal of doubling productivity for 30 million small-scale farming households by 2020. Because 30 million represent the vast majority of farms in AGRA’s programme area, national-level data from 2006-2018 would reveal whether such a productivity revolution was occurring. I also assessed progress toward AGRA’s stated goals of doubling incomes for those same farmers and cutting food insecurity by half by 2020.

I found the Green Revolution was failing on its own terms. Productivity growth was slow, even for heavily supported and subsidized crops such as maize. More traditional staple crops such as millet and sorghum showed stagnation or decline. My estimate of productivity increases for a basket of staple crops in AGRA’s 13 focus countries showed just 18 per cent yield growth over 12 years, a rate barely higher than the preceding 12 years. Not surprisingly, poverty remained endemic, particularly in rural areas. And rather than cutting food insecurity by half, the number of undernourished people increased 31 per cent in those 13 countries.

The data also revealed that Green Revolution initiatives were not only failing to achieve sustainable intensification, they were promoting the opposite. As the graph shows, between 2006 and 2018 maize productivity rose by only 29 per cent while the area planted to maize increased by 45 per cent in AGRA’s 13 focus countries. Overall, production increased 87 per cent, but mainly because of extensification rather than intensification. Meanwhile, land planted to other staples such as millet and sorghum declined or stagnated, as did yields. My composite staple yield index showed just 18 per cent yield growth. (All data cited here, unless otherwise indicated, are from the United Nations, cited in my Tufts University Working Paper.)

AGRA Progress Report: Productivity and Food Security
This outcome will come as no surprise to those living in AGRA countries where incentives are heavily concentrated on maize. In most AGRA countries, governments provide large subsidies to farmers to buy and use commercial maize seeds and fertilizers. AGRA itself has spent one billion dollars in its 14-years of work, but African governments have been spending up to one billion dollars per year on such Farm Input Subsidy Programmes (FISPs). Some governments also pay above-market prices to farmers for their maize to maintain public grain reserves.

As any agricultural economist can attest, land and investments flow to crops that are subsidized or otherwise supported. That has been true in the United States for decades. Farmers make complex calculations to gauge the relative returns to corn, soybeans, wheat, and other crops based on market conditions and relative levels of government support.

In Africa, maize has received the lion’s share of the support in most AGRA countries, so land and investment have moved more heavily into maize production. Farmers are incentivized to switch out of existing crops like millet, which has seen an alarming 24 per cent decline in production and a 21 per cent drop in yields, and into maize. Hence the decline in crop diversity under Green Revolution programmes. Farmers with access to land are also incentivized to bring new land into production, which allows them to reap the benefits of government support programmes. Hence the extensification of production.

As any agricultural economist can attest, land and investments flow to crops that are subsidized or otherwise supported.

Across AGRA countries, there was a 13 per cent increase in land under cultivation from 2006 to 2018, the majority of it in AGRA’s two principal supported crops, maize and rice. More than 7 million more hectares of land were planted in maize in 2018 than in 2006. Another 3 million more hectares were planted in rice. Those 10 million hectares accounted for nearly all of the expansion in land planted to cereal crops in that time period.

It is hard to argue that Green Revolution programmes did not contribute significantly to this problem of agricultural extensification. That is especially problematic when such input-intensive agriculture is failing to generate the promised productivity gains or reductions in hunger.

Studies in extensification: Zambia and Rwanda

Zambia and Rwanda have both expanded maize production dramatically, but both illustrate the ways in which Green Revolution incentives have led to undesirable outcomes. Zambia was one of AGRA’s focus countries until a few years ago. It left the alliance but has re-joined recently. Zambia provides extensive subsidies for maize production and also buys maize at supported prices for its food reserve programme. As a result, it has the highest levels of fertilizer use among AGRA countries. Between 2006 and 2018, Zambia increased maize production by 150 per cent, making it an apparent Green Revolution success story.

Zambia Progress Report: Productivity and Food Security
But, as the graph shows, only a small share of the added maize came from productivity growth. Yields grew just 27 per cent while the area planted to maize doubled. Millet and sorghum production and yields declined and farmers moved land out of those traditional staples into maize in response to Green Revolution incentives. Two-thirds of Zambia’s 32 per cent increase in land planted to crops was attributable to new land planted to maize. Staple yields overall increased just 20 per cent in that 12-year period. And all that maize failed to stem hunger or reduce poverty. The number of undernourished Zambians increased 29 per cent while extreme rural poverty remained at 78 per cent.

Rwanda has been a poster child for AGRA for years. AGRA’s current president, Agnes Kalibata, ascended to that position in large part due to her success in increasing maize production as Rwanda’s Minister of Agriculture. Between 2006 and 2018, maize production increased 300 per cent thanks to a well-funded and heavy-handed Green Revolution initiative. Seeds and fertilizer were heavily subsidized and farmers were fined if they did not agree to use the inputs.

Rwanda Progress Report: Productivity and Food SecurityAs the graph shows, Rwanda achieved higher maize yield growth than Zambia, increasing productivity by 66 per cent. But as in Zambia, most of the added maize came from a 146 per cent increase in new land planted to the crop, not from productivity. Similarly, rice production doubled, but yields actually declined 19 per cent, with land planted to rice increasing 147 per cent. In this small, densely populated country, some of that land came out of other staple crops, with the government reportedly banning their cultivation in some areas. Sorghum, cassava, sweet potatoes, and other roots and tubers were more important food crops than maize before AGRA, providing nutritional diversity in addition to benefits to the land. Land in cassava fell 16 per cent, while sorghum land declined 17 per cent.

Millet and sorghum production and yields declined and farmers moved land out of those traditional staples into maize in response to Green Revolution incentives.

My more comprehensive Staple Yield Index captures Rwanda’s poor performance across all staple crops. Compared to the much-touted 66 per cent increase in maize yields, we see just a 24 per cent increase in yields for key staples – maize, millet, sorghum, roots and tubers. Since 2006, extreme poverty remained high, falling just three percentage points to a still alarming 60 per cent. As in Zambia, all that extra maize did not help the hungry; the number of undernourished Rwandans has increased 40 per cent since 2006.

Far from being a Green Revolution success story, Rwanda offers an example of the ways in which the imposition of such a model on a relatively diverse farming landscape can disrupt more nutritious and sustainable cropping patterns. Rwanda does not have a great deal of uncultivated arable land, so most of the area expansion for maize and rice came from other crops rather than new lands. Still, Rwanda highlights how heavy incentives for Green Revolution crops create outcomes at odds with the goals of sustainable intensification for food security.

“Time to change course”

AGRA Board Chair Hailemariam Desalegn is correct to identify the problem of unsustainable expansion onto new lands in Africa, but he is wrong to think that his Green Revolution will solve that problem. Evidence shows that Green Revolution programmes are among the principal causes of unsustainable land use. Incentives for a narrow range of supported crops entice farmers and investors to open new lands for cultivation. Meanwhile, those commercial inputs are failing to generate any sort of productivity revolution or address the alarming 50 per cent rise in the number of undernourished Africans since AGRA was founded in 2006.

Seeds and fertilizer were heavily subsidized and farmers were fined if they did not agree to use the inputs.

As representatives from the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa state in their published response to Mr Desalegn, it is “time to change course: the future is in agroecology.”

It is a myth that the only way to increase productivity on existing agricultural lands is through Green Revolution seeds and fertilizers. Examples abound across Africa of farming communities that are increasing both the diversity and productivity of their fields. In Africa and other developing countries, some 15 million small-scale farmers interplant so-called green-manure cover crops alongside their food crops to fix nitrogen in the soil, reduce weeding, add another food or forage crop to their fields, and increase the carbon sequestered in the soil. Scientists recommend appropriate cultivars from a range of more than 100 proven cover crops.

The Lablab bean native to East Africa, for example, has been shown to fix very high levels of nitrogen in the soil through its roots, improving soil fertility and water retention. The added nitrogen can raise maize yields threefold in those same fields, eliminating the need for inorganic fertilizer. And farm families get another nutritious food crop from their fields.

Such approaches are documented in a new UN report from its High Level Panel of Experts. Farmers are getting far better results, growing more food on existing land in sustainable ways that increase soil fertility over time. One University of Essex study surveyed nearly 300 large ecological agriculture projects across more than 50 poor countries and documented an average 79 per cent increase in productivity with decreasing costs and rising incomes. This is far higher than AGRA’s 18 per cent yield growth in staple crops.

Agroecological farming can also achieve sustainable extensification. With the support of some governments, West African farmers are expanding onto uncultivated lands but in a way that builds rather than compromises the environment. In long-term land rehabilitation projects in the drylands of West Africa, farmers in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ghana, and Niger are leading “another kind of green revolution.” They regenerate tree growth on deforested lands then diversify production as part of agro-forestry initiatives that are increasingly supported by national governments. This restores soil fertility, increases water retention, and has been shown to increase yields 40 to 100 per cent within five years while increasing farmer incomes and food security. According to one study, farmers rehabilitated at least 200,000 hectares of degraded land in Burkina Faso, enabling farmers to grow cereals on land that had been barren.

Farmers are getting far better results, growing more food on existing land in sustainable ways that increase soil fertility over time.

Land reclamation is a desirable form of extensification, avoiding the negative environmental impacts of the input-intensive farming of monocultures of Green Revolution crops. Similarly, agroecology programmes intensify the production of diverse food crops on existing lands in ways that rebuild soil fertility and resilience to climate change.

Such strategies stand in stark contrast to Green Revolution programmes that are failing to help solve Africa’s unsustainable land-use issues. In fact, they are making them worse.

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Timothy A. Wise is a Senior Advisor at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and Senior Research Fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute. He is the author of Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food (New Press 2019).

Ideas

Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.

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In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.

Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.

Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.

But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.

When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.

Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.

For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”

The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.

Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.

In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.

Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.

The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.

Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.

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“Are we fighting to end colonialism, a worthy cause, or are we thinking about what we will do after the last white policeman leaves?”

Several decades after he wrote these words, these sentiments from Frantz Fanon remain an urgent challenge for postcolonial societies. In 2022, austerity measures implemented by multilateral organisations are back in countries like Kenya which are arguably still recovering from the devastation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s. Echoing colonisation, extractive economics framed as development and investment is everywhere, from natural resources to digital platforms. Black people are once again on sale as domestic and construction workers in countries that refuse to provide them basic human rights protections, and recently as potential conscripts in wars that have nothing to do with them. Nearly eighty years after Fanon articulated the demands of independence from colonisation, countries of the global south are still struggling to extricate themselves from the deeply unequal global dynamics. History is repeating itself.

When does the “post” in “postcolonial” begin? When do we get free?

Somewhere on the journey to the postcolony, the freedom dreams of so many societies in the world seem to have lost their way. To borrow from Fanon, it is evident that several societies did not give enough room to articulate and nurture freedom dreams beyond the desire to watch the last white policeman leave. Many of our revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko were assassinated because the size and scope of their dreams was a threat to the global hegemons. Others, like Winnie Mandela and Andree Blouin, suffered intense personal attacks, and exile and isolation from the sites of their work. And others like Robert Mugabe became consumed with the idea of power at all costs, trading freedom and the greater good for personal accumulation and military power, refusing to cede even an inch of power to anyone. The freedom dreams atrophied in the shadow of these losses, and today the map to the “post” remains buried in the sand.

It’s difficult in this day and age to write an essay about freedom when the word has been co-opted by so many people who use a bastardised definition of the word to advance the destruction of others. In Western countries, right-wing movements routinely use the word to refer to selfish ambitions to protect wealth and exclude others. Freedom has unfortunately become synonymous with selfishness in too many places around the world, with extremists using it to justify laws and policies that destroy social protections for the poor and marginalised. Tragically, the word needs some qualification and contextualisation before it can be used sincerely to engage with the realities unfolding around us.

And yet freedom remains a deeply necessary project. The desire for freedom is what transforms individual desires or ambitions into social projects. Freedom is a lot like being in love. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it but once you’ve experienced it even once you feel its absence keenly. It’s the peace of knowing that you are in a community that is working towards something greater than just survival, but is instead imagining and building a world in which everyone thrives. It is mutual support and solidarity. It is care and concern. It is an obsession with justice and inequality not just for those who have access to the levers of power but for everyone. It is more than meaningless numbers and empty promises of development. Freedom is truth telling and accountability, but also connection and restoration. Freedom is living in a society that recognises your personhood and that wants to make room for everyone to live fully, audaciously and joyfully. Freedom is a social concern that cannot be achieved as an individual. Human beings are social creatures. You are not free because you live outside the constraints of a society: you are free because you live in a society that values your existence and allows you to maintain meaningful connection with others.

Freedom dreams are a crucial part of attaining the “post” in postcoloniality. The desire for freedom is what pushes people to coordinate around lofty ambitions and develop a programme of action for achieving them. The desire for freedom pushes us into deliberation and debate about what our societies can represent, but they also push us into introspection about our personal role  in achieving those goals. Freedom dreams are more than just flights of fancy. They are invitations to coordinate and participate in social life. Freedom dreams are like a compass. They give a collective perspective on what we need to do in order to build the kind of society in which we can all thrive.

So, the increasing absence of freedom dreams in the way our ideas of progress or development are articulated is more than rhetorical loss. It’s not simply sad that today we talk about GDP and economic growth as measures of progress, and not welfare and inclusivity. It is a loss of orientation. It is what makes it possible for people to use money as a shorthand for all the things that we need to make social life make sense. Instead of universal health, people try to get wealthy enough to opt out of poorly funded public health systems. Instead of facing the calamity of climate change together, wealthy people build bunkers to allow them to survive in the apocalypse. Instead of thinking about conflict as a collective tragedy, wealthy countries see it as an opportunity to make money. And instead of seeing a global pandemic as an opportunity to reset and reinforce social systems that have for too long excluded the needs of the chronically ill and disabled, the elderly, and even children, we double down on the misguided idea that an advanced species is one in which the most vulnerable are allowed to die. All of these outcomes are united by the underlying fallacy that securing money can ever be a shorthand for the freedom dreams of living in a just society.

Within the postcolony, there has probably never been a greater need for freedom dreams than now. In Africa, the absence of a broad unifying orientation means we might quite literally become fodder for other people’s projects. Right now, young men and women are being enticed to fight for both Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of Africans in the past. Russian mercenaries are wreaking havoc in several African countries; Ukraine is one of the biggest arms providers to African conflicts. Young Africans continue to die unnecessary deaths on the Mediterranean Sea because of unfounded fears of invasion, even as the West opens up its doors to tens of thousands more Ukrainian refugees. As Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, Africa is once again on the menu as an alternative source for these raw materials. There is an unspoken expectation that countries of the global south must stoically bear the burden of these inequalities because the freedom dreams of others are somehow more valuable than ours.

And in the absence of governments that care about our own freedom dreams, it is unclear what we will look like at the end of this period of global uncertainty (if there is one — climate change is still an omnipotent threat). Our freedom dreams are being bartered for trinkets by leaders who wrongly believe that wealth and proximity to power in another part of the world will ever be as meaningful or taste as sweet as building freedom where you are rooted. Are we entering another period in which authoritarians will double down on violence against us and remain unchallenged because they say the right things to different parties to the conflict? Watching leaders of India, Uganda, Sudan and more line up behind Russia certainly does not bode well. Will this season birth another era of Pinochets, Mengistus, and Mobutus? Will we watch once again as our freedom dreams are subsumed in global conflicts from which only the most greedy and violent will profit?

Our freedom dreams remind us that we have work to do that is bigger than this historical moment. The work is not to build the wealthiest country or the biggest army. The work is to build societies in which money isn’t a gatekeeper to living a decent life. The work is resetting our relationship with the natural environment so that the measure of our lives is not simply reduced to our unchecked ability to consume. Angela Davis reminds us that our freedom dreams cannot be constrained to our own lifetime but must be anchored in a desire to leave behind a world worth living in for future generations. We need our freedom dreams.

The freedom dreams of those who resisted and rejected colonisation seem a world away from the meagre ambitions of many of today’s leaders. Whereas previous generations fought for dignity and holistic defence of human life, today our dreams are organised around depoliticised ambitions like development or gender equality. The radical demands of rejecting systemic racialised violence and institutionalised exclusion have been deescalated into calls for scraps from the table.

And yet, looking around at the trajectory the world is on, freedom dreams have never been more urgent or important. It is tempting to resist the urge to deliberate and deconstruct, because it is labour. In a world that increasingly wants to turn everything – including our leisure time – into labour, the desire to disengage is deeply seductive. But freedom dreams cannot be defined in isolation.

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.

This essay is part of the “Futures of Freedom” collection of Progressive International’s Blueprint pillar.

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Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement

The greatest achievement of Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu was to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained.

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Ask ten people what decolonization means, and you will get ten different answers. The term’s incoherent resurgence has sparked an understandable backlash, with complaints directed mainly against its liberal and or neoliberal defanging. When attempts to pin down decolonization’s meaning pit “real” material work against mere theory, staking out a position feels easy enough. Things are harder to parse where the object of concern is knowledge itself.

What exactly counts as “decolonizing” in the resolutely immaterial domains of concept, culture, or moral life? Because this question must be hard to answer, the certainties with which it is often answered fall short. It is typical of our moment that Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu’s death this year was met with much-unqualified praise of his “decolonial” status, with that descriptor confirming countless more specific—and discordant—views.

In Wiredu’s agile hands, the decolonization of knowledge was a distinctive method: it entailed clear analytic steps as well as safeguards against cultural romanticization. This means that it can be learned, given the time and commitment, and indeed must be learned regardless of one’s cultural starting point. In this sense, Wiredu was a staunchly disciplinary thinker even as his political ideals have far-reaching resonance. Trained at Oxford mainly by philosopher of mind Gilbert Ryle, Wiredu’s writing is marked by what Sanya Osha recently described as “a matter-of-fact fastidiousness and tone.” The difference between Wiredu’s disarmingly lucid philosophy and the more abstract, even poetic modes of decolonial thought now in broader circulation is the difference between grandiose calls for the world’s “unmaking” or “delinking” and the painstaking disaggregation of cultural wholes into constituent parts. Wiredu’s hallmark move was to break down “culture” into particular traditions, beliefs, and phrases, which could then be evaluated on their own merits. He was a master of “showing his work,” and the sheer amount of labor he expended to do so in print makes his work unsuited to an age of easy excerpts and virtual point scoring.

Wiredu’s method is most fully worked out in two books, Philosophy and an African Culture (1980) and Cultural Universals and Particulars (1997), but many of his essays have also stood the test of decades. One of the most memorable examples of how he takes his native Akan (and specifically, Asante) heritage apart to assert its philosophical importance appears in a 1998 article titled, “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.” Wiredu here wields insights into the nature of Twi syntax to present the Akan God as an architect rather than an ex nihilo creator.

Whereas the Christian God is linked to a Western metaphysics of being that can, in principle, be unmoored from context, Wiredu argues that the nature of the verb “to be” in Twi or Fante—expressed as either wo ho or ye—necessitates some kind of pre-given situation. (I cannot, in Fante, state simply “I am,” or “she is.”) Whereas the Christian God can thus be imagined to have made the world from nothing, the Akan counterpart is assumed to have worked with pre-given materials in its construction. By extension, whereas the Christian tradition prioritizes miraculousness, the Akan tradition puts more weight on design and ingenuity. Neither one is right or wrong, intrinsically better or worse. Wiredu’s agenda is to make clear the level of conceptual distinction and follow-through required to place them in an equal-footed conversation.

This penchant for linking fine points to grand plans is also on full display in a late-career, 2009 essay called, “An Oral Philosophy of Personhood: Comments on Philosophy and Orality.” Here, Wiredu turns to the Akan tradition of talking drums to refute simplistic ideas of cultural uniformity. Using a well-known drum text rife with metaphysical implications, Wiredu concludes that the drums’ theology is in fact opposed to the broader Akan belief system. (The drum text is in his view pantheistic, while Akan religion is theistic as he describes it in “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.”) His reading yields a few important insights, including into the formative role of intra-cultural disagreement in what might later appear to be shared oral traditions.

The main thing to emphasize, however, is that Wiredu’s deep dive into Akan knowledge results in its destabilization. This does not mean that Akan culture, such as it may be said to exist, is somehow “not real” by virtue of being complexly constructed; this is true of all cultures, everywhere. It means, instead, that it is robust enough to withstand real pressure on pieces of it in order to think seriously about the whole. While acknowledging the colonial odds historically stacked against African knowledge traditions, Wiredu’s philosophical approach to Akan concepts insists that intellectual work can and must do more than reflect this injustice.

Kwasi Wiredu’s lasting decolonial achievement—and that which must be widely memorialized—is to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained. He refused to treat it as fragile, even as he stared down the many ways it has been sidelined and subjugated. To be “decolonized,” for Wiredu, is to think with extreme care about each and every practice and position, equally open to radical change and renewed conviction. Worship traditionally or as a Christian, he wrote, but in either case really know why. Getting there on his model is daunting, but at the end of the exertion is moral and cultural reciprocity that cannot be claimed lightly. Or, as Wiredu once put it, it yields “the golden rule that gives us the basis … to consider every person as one.”

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