My internship in Togo and degrowth (1)

A bir white car parked near a dusty road

Major German development organization GIZ uses this kind of vehicule to support their development projects

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

This piece is the first of a three-article series in connection to the GLEN program I’m enrolled in and has originally been published on GLEN Slovakia’s blog. It has been written while I was still completing my internship in Togo, from 15th July to 15th October 2016. 

Here in Togo, people from Europe are often seen as an example that should be followed. So I’m trying to avoid giving a bad example. Funnily, big development organizations like UNICEF or GIZ sometimes go around with enormous air-conditioned 4x4s that take the whole road. The contrast with the everyday reality is enormous and shocking.

Here, poverty is a reality that “European modernization” so far couldn’t hide. When I lived in Egypt or in India, countries that are more “modernized”, I didn’t realize poverty around me as much as now in Togo. So when you are from Europe, having European habits like going around by car is quite bad. By comparison, going by bicycle is already a sign of wealth. I bought my second-hand bicycle for 50€… This amount means approximatively two months of food. Most people go simply on foot. Here you don’t ask for the phone number of people as if it was obvious that they have a phone. Here people often go to bed with an empty belly. And I meet these people on a daily basis. One thing is to read about poverty (as often in Europe, Africa is assimilated to poverty), a second thing is to live and talk with people with this problem. In this situation, reality becomes even more real. And at the same time, there are people extremely rich in comparison to the majority of people. Those in between these two extremes are too few.

So I’m trying to understand the root cause of this situation. I could list common obvious reasons: political corruption, poverty, etc. But no. Now that I’m here, I see beyond. Now, I believe even stronger that the West, and especially ex-colonizing countries, are the main reason of these conditions of poverty. I also think that colonialism never really stopped.

Degrowth

I believe that the political, administrative, and economical structures, which are copy-pasted from Europe, are not adapted to the local cultures and conditions. I think that as long as Togo will copy Europe in that way, attempts to improve living conditions will fail. And not only this. I believe that these structures are the real reason for poverty.

There is not only one civilization, one development, European, which we would have to impose on everybody on the planet. Even when it would be “sustainable” or “green”. There isn’t only one truth. And especially, we don’t have to expand this one truth of ours everywhere on Earth. People in Africa didn’t even have an opportunity to develop their own social, political, or economical organization. Colonialism prevented them from that. Now their collective consciousness is colonized with our thinking system, our ideological structure. The problem is that it is the same with us. And Europe is seen as an example that countries of the South follow. As least on an economical level. Because of that, it is up to us to change first, here, in our countries. We must decolonize our consciousness, fight against the ideology of endless economic growth, and break the false idea that would make us believe that growth or development can be sustainable or green. This way, we would improve the quality of life in our societies, and at the same time, we would give a chance to Africa to see another way, to choose another destiny, one that would be adapted to local cultures and traditions. Africa would finally be able to develop itself bottom-up, with its own clamed-back natural resources, in consideration of their limits, not imposed by external influences.

People in Africa are more able than us to decolonize their consciousness because the ideology of endless economic growth, even if labeled “sustainable”, is external to their frame of thinking and more recent in their history. However, materially and politically, it is more difficult, mainly due to omnipresent poverty and political corruption. In Europe, it is the contrary. We are mentally totally addicted to our economic growth and the comfort that comes with it: Who is ready to give up on those goods from outside Europe: complex technologies, exotic fruits, spices, and vegetables, cheap industrial meat fed with South-American GMO corn, fish from around the world, etc. However, in our more democratic political systems, it is more possible to induce political change than in Africa.

This is why the program of degrowth is adapted and fitted to Europe as well as Africa.

Surprisingly, I realized that speaking of degrowth is easier here than in Europe. The idea that it is always necessary to fix a limit to growth, in whatever situation, seems obvious to the people I spoke with. They don’t think that their situation is satisfying – there can and should be a lot of progress – but they know that Europe is not a good model for everything. This seems true at the individual level. But collectively, as a society, Togo lives completely in the dream of modernization from the European model.

Body and plants grow, and when they reach a certain size, they stop growing, they stabilize. If a part of the body keeps growing, this is called a tumor. What works in biology, works also in economy. The economy cannot get away from its foundation, which is really nature. The economy cannot never-endingly grow. In spite of this, every single policy around the world is designed to increase economic growth. This is the cause of a lot of imbalances on the planet. And if we keep going in this direction, as sure that I am that a tumor kills a man, I’m as sure that we are programming our own death. Civilizations died in the past, and will keep dying in the future. The problem is that in our case, we risk to bring the whole planet with us in our collapse. Climate change reaches the whole planet. But in a very unfair way, the consequences are mainly felt by those who contributed the least in these global changes.

This is another reason why we must change first in Europe. In the end, this way we will help more Africa than with development projects. Developments projects can help of course, but it is like repairing the seat of a bicycle when the wheels are broken. Yes, when you sit it will feel better. That’s a fact and it is important, but it won’t help the bicycle to move forward. As long as Africa will linger in the bed sheets of capitalism and economic growth, we can give as much as we want; we can try as hard as we want to combine economy and ecology; the fundamental problem will remain.

When we will really change for a program of degrowth, I can already tell that we will have a lot to learn from the people I’m living with in Togo. They know what it means to do a lot with little. They are not totally dependent on technology as much as we are. Most people in Europe (especially Western Europe) cannot do anything anymore without complex technologies made in Asia. Technologically, people in Togo can live good and better with simple tools, made with their own local resources. We cannot – not really – not yet. And we will have to learn again.

Our European civilization survives on credit received from our planet. This year the overshoot day was on 8th of August. From this day, we started living out of debts. And when the time to reimburse will come, when we reach the limits of the natural resources of our planet, it won’t matter to know whether our growth was “sustainable” or “green”. When we collapse, Africa will help us, Africa will teach us how to survive, probably not the other way around.

End note

Before sending this article to Europe, various Togolese people read it. Some of them suggested me to add some concrete examples in order to illustrate my speech. They personally suggested the following points:

  • The European politicians who bribe African leaders in order to protect their economical interest, in order to protect the importations of natural resources (that we need in order to sustain economic growth), in total disregard of the well-being of the local populations.
  • With the same logic, the European politicians who finance parties of opposition in Africa that are more favorable for Europe’s economic interests, in order to get rid of popular leaders in power that aren’t as favorable (Watara to get rid of Gbagbo in Ivory Coast, Kadhafi in Lybia). It looks like the United-States aren’t the only one to adopt this nasty strategy.
  • Some machines in Europe made with non-European resources, which are replacing manual work. When these machines break down, or when there is a shortcut, nobody knows anything anymore. In Africa, tools are manual, and “we have a greater knowledge in our art, and have a greater connection with what we create”.
  • Africa is the trash bin of Europe. In many domains, but especially regarding food and medicines. In order to make profit with products otherwise unsellable in Europe, industries sell them in Africa. As a result, “we eat food that makes us sick, and the pills we take to recover are at best little efficient, at worse they make us even sicker”. I personally confirm the very bad quality of most imported products, even when the packaging is similar to the one in Europe.

In conclusion, development projects don’t change these facts, even with help of big air-conditioned 4x4s. It is the necessity of economic growth in Europe that is at the origin of these issues and this poverty in Africa. We must therefore stop it. We have to deeply reorganize our relationship with society and nature. We have to reduce the wealth of the rich societies in a way that they have little but the right amount, so that the poorer societies can also live decently. To do this, we must get away from capitalism and its necessary endless growth. Let’s break this cycle of death that is leading us all, people of Europe and Africa, towards chaos.

P.S. The use of the term “Africa” is for the ease of writing. The reader should keep in mind that what is said here doesn’t necessarily apply to all African countries. As for the term “Europe”, I retrospectively would change most of its occurrence with the word “France”.

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2 comments on “My internship in Togo and degrowth (1)
  1. Tadeas says:

    “And Europe is seen as an example that countries of the South follow. As least on an economical level. Because of that, it is up to us to change first, here, in our countries.”

    I truly agree with the fact that we need a massive change of how we function in the North but I am not sure how feasible this is with the huge lobby of TNCs, political leaders and other stakeholders. Ive been lately thinking about so called “developing” countries making their own choices, not dependent on how we function in the West/North. I mean, they have tried to succeed with the same strategies of economic growth and after few decades they raised their standards of living, but so did we, so the gap stays almost the same.

    I believe that people in the South often dont see the negative aspects of our “wealth” and therefore we remain the picture, that needs to be followed. I guess showing the negative aspects of our society (depression, obesity, old peoples homes, or mums who start to work again, when their child is just 3 months old) I guess this is something, that we cannot count as progress, and would hugely disappoint people who believe in our path. Some of them do realize it, UBUNTU or Buen Vivir and several other alternatives to Development made quite a big step forward.

    What do you think of Bhutan? It is a very poor country with difficult geography conditions, yet they didnt need to wait for the North to change, but rather took their own initiative to make their development different correspondent to their values and beliefs. What if the South showed the North on how societies can function? They can build their own unions and alliances and become stronger. I would really like to explore positive examples of so called developing countries making their own path.

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  2. […] I have met told me: “I wish everyone could think like you in Europe” (in reference to my first article), or “I wish everyone in Europe could hear that” (in reference to what is following […]

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About me
I'm passionate about sustainable lifestyles and urban agriculture. I believe that community-supported initiatives and bottom-up policies are key to foster necessary societal changes. I'm an advocate of degrowth, agro-ecology, sharing economy and participatory democracy. Based in Bratislava, Slovakia, I like learning, reading, writing, sharing, hiking, dancing, eating, and celebrating.
Nicolas Giroux
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