Thirty years of independence in Mozambique

"We are good actors"

Interview avec Mia Couto

Was the future better in the past? asks the Mozambican author Mia Couto. Thirty years after Mozambique gained its independence, the great African writer does not mince his words. In TRAVERSE, the SDC platform for controversial discussions about problems in international cooperation, Mia Couto calls for more leeway for poor countries. In this way they would have the same chances for experimentation as the rich countries and would not be asked to do the impossible. Development cooperation too comes in for its share of Couto's criticism and creative humorous formulations. SDC staff member Lars Knuchel spoke with Mia Couto.

Mia Couto - in your talk on 30 years of independence for Mozambique you throw a critical light on development cooperation and speak of stage managing. Instead of ensuring independence and promoting sustainable self-development Africa's elite would do everything to get even more aid from the North. How do you arrive at this conclusion?

Our top leaders are somewhat lost and are still looking for their own paths and models to follow to develop their countries. I am well aware that with such an answer I am making a sweeping generalization. They all should have only the good of the country in view. But as is well known most of the upper echelons in Africa and other underdeveloped regions pursue other goals. In principle they are in a comfortable situation: They claim to be doing something for development, but everyone knows that our leaders in many cases are doing absolutely nothing to meet the basic needs of their people. It also pays off on the international stage for these elite if they are on the "right" side in the fight against terrorism.

Under such circumstances, how are donor countries perceived back in Mozambique?

There are various perceptions. But the overriding opinion is that Switzerland and all other European countries simply have to pay. We Africans are entitled to it. History, slavery, colonialism and globalization make it imperative. The donor countries know exactly why they should pay. Basically this attitude of being the victim is a very sad business. We believe that it is normal to have a relationship founded on historical guilt. Of course Europe robbed Africa of many of its chances. But our past shows that we in Africa share the guilt.

Is development cooperation therefore - and here I am deliberately exaggerating - a major calculated and consciously celebrated mistake?

I would not go that far. In this context in Mozambique we are at an important turning point. For the first time we have an independent body that examines closely how aid money is spent. This body consists of people from various circles including representatives of the civil society. Assessments are therefore made not only by the donors but also by the recipients. For the first time, our intellectuals have the time and leeway to participate and to deal with the main development issues in our country. Not only numbers are analyzed but also the criteria on which the distribution of money is based. That is very important. I have read the reports myself and noted that it is here that fundamental themes of so-called development cooperation are tackled. . .

... and yet in your talk you described development cooperation as a "four-handed waltz" playing both donor and receiver and making it impossible for Africa to develop its own productive strengths...

Yes, that is a tragedy. And what makes the whole thing a real Shakespearean tragedy is the fact that while we are dancing this waltz together, we are always accusing each other and mutually shifting the blame on to each other. So we are making the same mistakes as in the past and are not examining ourselves.

What do you suggest? How can there be a real partnership between donor and receiver countries?

To develop our ideas and strategies and to draw up a timetable that is ours and appropriate for us, we need sufficient time and leeway. Only then will we have the chance to consider the best possible path to take. Under the pressure of many instructions and targets it will all come to nothing. Otherwise we have to make theatre. We are good actors and the theatre is nice too, but it is a sad tale with bad arguments. There is the opinion that Africa is in such a bad way because we always want to import unsuitable models. But that is not the point. Africa's elite were mostly very efficient when it came to making foreign models fit into their own reality and to use them as quickly as possible for their own purposes. In other words, we do not need African solutions for Africa, but new solutions for Africa's old problems. We can all take part in that. I am only a writer. But it is clear to me that we in Africa must pull together and put our house in order. It is also clear to me that for example the spears of differing lengths in the world trade arena should be looked in to. It should not be the case that free trade rules apply only when they serve the interests of Europe or the United States.

Interview: Lars Knuchel