Poppy Toland: You mention that environmental sustainability was low on the list for the Millennium Development Goals. You see it more suitably placed as the central goal from which other goals all radiate. How could this be done?
Wangari Maathai: The truth of the matter is that the seventh development goal is the environment. When you look at all the other related development goals, they can only be realised if you have a good environment – if you have a healthy environment, if you have clean drinking water, if you have food secure, if you have security.
If you use the Green Belt Movement model as an example, we say if you take care of the environment and if you take care of the land, you can give yourself food, and if you are eating the right food, 50% of your health is taken care of. If you are drinking clean drinking water, another part of your health problems are taken care of. If you are eating well, and you are living in a clean and healthy environment, you are more likely to feel that your child – your unborn child – is going to be born healthy. In the Green Belt Movement, if you plant trees and you make them survive we give you a financial income; we give you a financial token of appreciation. If we were the government, we could make that income much higher. Once you have money, you can send your children to school and you can buy them books, you can buy them a uniform. If they are sick, you can take them to hospital. So, by taking care of the environment you can reduce your poverty.
PT: How easy is it to convince people of this as a priority?
WM: I hope that they will read about it. […] When people think about the Millennium Development Goals, they think poverty, because that’s what they see. They forget that poverty is a symptom of what has gone wrong in the environment. People in general, development agencies, tend to deal with symptoms. They don’t want to go to the root cause of the problem.
PT: Is that because they aren’t seeing the problem for what it is?
WM: I think it’s just the way they look at issues: they go out to solve problems. I’ll give you an example: if you want to give people clean drinking water, you go to the river and you find out that the river is laden with silt. So the water is soiled, it is red with silt. What you think about is how to clean the water, so you look for filters to clean the water, instead of going upstream to find out where the soil is coming from. If you want to remedy this you should plant vegetation on the sloping areas where the silt is coming from: go to the root of the problem and remove the problem. If you are sick, it is not enough to get an aspirin, that’s a temporary cure. Go to the root of the problem: know why the person is sick and remove the germ that is causing the symptoms that you see. It’s simple, but we don’t think like that, we tend to deal with the symptom rather than the root causes.
PT: When you discuss foreign aid agencies, you also talk about China and its increased involvement in Africa. It is sometimes perceived as a negative thing in the west. How is this relationship perceived in Africa?
WM: I can think of two aspects: a positive aspect and a negative aspect. I have been an advocate of better governance in Africa for very long time – and someone who was constantly telling the western world not to continue to support dictators and repressive regimes in Africa, because their support and the sources they get from them will be used to continue suppressing people. It is only after the fall of communism that we started seeing the west lift the grip they had on African countries, and allow them to be free and allow democratic processes to take root in Africa. Before that, they had their grip, because it was a competition between the west and the east. At that time, those of us who were advocating for greater democratic space were constantly telling the western governments not to support those governments, not to give them aid, not to give them loans, to demand accountability, to demand respect for human rights. In other words, to put conditions on what you are doing with them, so they can allow their people to be freer. With the disappearance of communism, that has become unnecessary, because the western countries have released them. But now comes China, and China can deal with the African governments without regarding any conditionalities, and that means that governments can behave as they please. They don’t have the western “Big Brothers” now – looking and asking questions. To me, that can be bad for many African governments and many African people whose governments decide that they don’t have to be accountable to anybody, because they can get things done with China without worrying about the repercussions.
So, what can you do about China? Very little really, because again I would have to go back to the leadership issue: it’s the African people – if they don’t want to help their people, China will probably say, “I’m not accountable to the people, I’m doing business. It is the governments that are accountable to their people.”
But that is the bad part of it. The good part of it is that they’re bringing new business and they are bringing a lot of work there, and it is a very good thing that they are doing business with Africa. But I also think that we are still in the middle of the struggle for a freer Africa, an Africa where leaders are accountable to their people, where they protect their resources. When you think of a country like Sudan, for example, where you have communities that are fighting over oil, even over grazing land, you would hope that China would be concerned about the atrocities that are taking place in a country like that. But China may decide, “That’s not my problem, that’s the problem of the Sudanese government.” […] Of course, that is what the government of Sudan want: to do business with a country that doesn’t interfere with what they call “internal affairs”. Yet it is very important for all of us interfere with internal affairs, when “internal affairs” means terrorising the lives of citizens.
PT: Can Africa rise up when aid is still being given?
WM: I know that this is the theme of a book that recently came out. I think that Dambisa Moyo has a point in the case she is putting forward, in that African governments should not be given aid by other governments, because they are not using it properly, they have been given so much and they can’t show anything for it.
My assessment would be that this might not be helpful. I would rather ask the African people why they have to be punished by other governments before they can be good to their people. That’s the question I would ask to them, because we do need help. We do need aid. Even rich governments borrow. Doesn’t the American government borrow from China? What is important is that the money that is borrowed is used for the purpose for which it was borrowed. The billions of dollars that were given to Africa, if they were analysed to see what they were actually used for, we would probably be shocked to see the amount that actually arrived in Africa. Now, who is responsible for that? It is partly the African people, because they allowed that to happen. For me, the challenge is really in the African people: if African governments are not supported, it’s not as if they will sacrifice their own resources to help their people – they will probably let their people die, if they can’t give them what they can give them with aid. I’m not advocating that they should be given aid and use it as they please, but we need to challenge the African people and the African leadership, to use resources for they are meant for. I want to ask them: do you have to be whipped by another government before you can be good to your people?
I hope my book will be read by ordinary Africans, because ordinary Africans are also to blame, because they allowed that to happen. They allow themselves to elect leaders who are very irresponsible – so, to a certain extent, they are responsible for the leaders they get. The book is supposed to be a challenge for Africa, because for so long we blamed others: we say it is colonialism, we say it is this or that. In this book, I say we challenge ourselves. Because I was working in the trenches for more than 30 years and I did not see any outsiders blocking me from doing what I needed to do. It was my own people who were blocking me. It was an African government who was blocking me. I didn’t see outsiders, so I know that the enemy of Africa, first and foremost, is Africa. And that is where we must break the cycle.
Poppy Toland is a freelance writer based in London.
Wangari Maathai is a Kenyan environmental and political activist. In 2004 she became the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
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