“Germany needs to become aware of it’s global role” – Interview with Africa correspondent Simone Schlindwein
Simone Schlindwein is one of the most distinguished journalists in Germany, specialized in Africa. She has been living in Uganda for 10 years and reports, among others, for TAZ, Deutsche Welle and the German-speaking radio.
In her new book “Dictators as Bouncers for Europe” she deals with the question of how European governments cooperate with corrupt, African rulers and what interests they pursue. She talked to us about the situation in Uganda, why NGOs in Africa sometimes have a bad reputation and why she prefers stay away from Germany during Christmas.
Earthbeat Foundation: Simone, you are an award-winning journalist specializing in Africa. In your new book you describe how Europe collaborates with corrupt and criminal rulers. Stupid question, but why do they do that? What are they interested in?
Simone Schlindwein: First and foremost, the governments of Europe and the European Union are pursuing their own interests. The interests of African governments or of the population are of no interest at all. And the main interest of European governments is to reduce the number of migrants and close the borders. It is always about security, because in the eyes of Europeans migration always comes with terrorism. In my opinion, though, this is a complete misjudgment. Then, of course, there is the matter of trade, which is highly important for Europe. And when it comes to trade, the economic and international interests of the Africans are totally disregarded. Ultimately, the interests of Africans are irrelevant and at the same time we wonder, why we have to deal with migration. In Europe, we just hide ourselves safely in the welfare of our ivory tower, while we won‘t let Africa play the games of the globalized world. One must not be surprised that this inequality creates radical currents that also manifest themselves in terrorism.
Earthbeat Foundation: We closely collaborate with a partner community in Uganda. What is the political situation there?
Simone Schlindwein: Within Africa, Uganda has always been considered stable – an island in a region marked by civil wars in the Congo, South Sudan, Burundi and also the political riots in Kenya. Currently, Uganda is at a crossroad. Acting President Yoweri Museveni has been in power for almost 32 years. He now is 73 years old. However, the constitution stipulates that a president may not be older than 75 years. Say, in the next elections in 2021 he is not allowed to run for office according to the Constitution. This week, Parliament has decided that the Constitution should be amended and that the term of office is extended to seven years. This way, Museveni could theoretically remain in office until 2034. With a ruler who obviously does not want to leave and also does not make any effort to appoint a successor, we may come to a similar scenario like we saw in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is a good example of how an infirm president simply didn’t do any good to the country. Oftentimes, these leaders lack a proper perception of reality. And now, the small, stable Uganda is slipping slowly but surely into a crisis. You have to wonder when this train is going to hit the wall. Not only in Uganda, but in the whole region. Uganda has over one million refugees. If the country falls into chaos, that’s an alarming trend.
Earthbeat Foundation: You grew up in the Black Forest/Germany. Now you live in Uganda since 10 years. With which image of Africa do we grow up in Germany and how does this collide with reality?
Simone Schlindwein: Actually, the images do not collide because I have noticed that most Germans do not have an image of Africa. It is often limited to animal documentaries on television or reports about safaris in a national park. And when reporting about Africa, it is usually about war and disaster. However, there is hardly any media coverage from Africa at all anymore that would give a more nuanced picture – partially due to the fact that many correspondents were withdrawn from Africa as a consequence of the financial crisis of the German media. Conversely, Africans get a lot of news coverage from Europe. This creates two worlds, though. What I see is that African countries are developing like all other countries, too. There is now a strong middle class and the internet has arrived. Africa is in the midst of globalization. Nevertheless, Africa does not matter to us in Europe. Sometimes we are better informed about countries on the other side of the globe than about our neighbors. This is scary, but ultimately the continuity of the old colonial policy, which until today lingers on in our perception of Africa. I hope that will change someday. Otherwise you will not get the migration crisis under control.
Earthbeat Foundation: Do we underestimate Africa and, if so, in what way?
Simone Schlindwein: We totally underestimate Africa. The Africans have arrived in the processes of globalization, but we simply do not give them any space. Say, no African can just get on a plane and visit London or Berlin. Today, many members of the African middle class have a lot of money, also to travel. But they do not get visas and are very limited to a few countries that they are allowed to enter. The same applies to economic migration. There are very well educated Africans who would like to work abroad. Just as I looked for job opportunities around here as a European woman. We underestimate Africans in their economic potential. For example, when they immigrate to Europe, they also economically support their own country. Even if that person only gets a cleaning job, he or she sends half of the earnings home. This might help your brother or cousin out to open a small shop or garage. Say, most migrants who send money home are usually more effective than all third world aid combined. In principle, this idea of ‘help for self-help’, which was supposed to be the philosophy of third world aid, has completely disappeared. The Africans would be able to build their own economy, if only we’d let them. You do not need relief supplies, but the ability to develop yourself. And that’s where we underestimate Africa.
Earthbeat Foundation: Many Europeans work for NGOs. These organizations do not always have a good reputation. Why is that?
Simone Schlindwein: From the perspective of the Africans, the mission of many Western NGOs has become somewhat absurd. And if you look at how much money is flowing in, the success rate is quite low. There is a lot of mismanagement and some results that are not even wanted. This is mostly because many NGOs hardly conduct proper on-site research in order to really understand the local situation. Many ideas grow in European minds. You think about what you could change and you do not sufficiently deal with what is actually necessary. And then you act away from reality. In a figurative sense, wells are drilled where they are not needed, while problems that actually exist, are disregarded. Many Africans are right to say that many Europeans are creating their own, well-paid jobs in this highly industrialized line of work. There are privileges, a car, safety bonus in certain regions. This part of the NGO sector has become completely delegitimized from the point of view of Africans.
Earthbeat Foundation: What should an NGO consider in order to work well? Which mistakes should be avoided?
Simone Schlindwein: Above all, the NGO has to do detailed research in the region where it wants to act. There is no point creating ideas in European minds and then simply transferring them to Africa. What you want to achieve oftentimes stands in no relation to what you actually can achieve. Many things that happen here are intentional; e.g. governments acting against the interests of their own people. It’s useless to simply change some superficial details, even with a lot of international aid. In some cases, corrupt governments might even profit from that. Therefore, we should be focussing on structural problems so that the population can deselect a corrupt government. Pouring a few drops of water onto a hot stone is not very effective. First of all, you should worry about the stone itself.
Earthbeat Foundation: When you return to Europe after a few weeks or months In Uganda, let’s say right now, during the very consumption-oriented Christmas time, what bugs you?
Simone Schlindwein: I never come to Germany during Christmas, because I find this whole consumer behavior pretty scary. I also find it hard to understand some Germans, when they get lost in their own misery. Problems in Germany just don’t compare are blown out of proportion, especially when it comes to security. Let’s think of the attack on the Berlin Christmas market last year. Of course that was terrible, but for me it was clear that this would happen one day or the other. In Europe we did not simply buy comfort and safety with our golden Euros. One thing is for sure: the more inequality there is in the world, and the more Europeans make themselves comfortable in their make-believe world of security, the more Europe will become the target of attacks. And I do not understand why we keep on acting the way we do. We have to start considering the whole situation and not evaluate it from our ivory tower. The growing inequality leads to radicalization. To a certain degree the Europeans are responsible for that. Germany is one of the largest weapon producers in the world. We export and sell these weapons to states that are actively engaged in war, such as Saudi Arabia, which is bombing Yemen and making millions of people homeless. And then we are surprised that at some point bombs blow up in Berlin? Germany needs to become much more aware of its role in the world. We have earned part of our wealth through defense industry and accept that it kills people every day at the other end of the world.