Not often that a book inspires my blog post but Tim Butcher's Blood River is proving thought provoking. On one level the book is written by a journalist adventurer who mainly by motor cycle, in 2000 followed the c. 3000 mile route taken by explorer Stanley (of "Doctor Livingstone I presume" fame) in 1874 along the banks of the River Congo. On another level though the book traces the decline and fall of the quality of human life in this huge African country.
Doubtless left leaning newspapers today would point to the colonialism of Africa by the West - King Leopold of Belgium being the villain of the peace in this instance - but well before the Belgians arrived slavery overseen by Arabs was rife and alas the hideous non western practice of cannibalism was not uncommon. Right leaning papers and the author's was the Telegraph, might point to the virtual collapse of the local society in the years following independence as signifying that European rule was no bad thing.
What does come across loud and clear however is that a good rule of law is the key to a civilised life whoever is in charge. The moment self aggrandisement begins to take hold is the moment the quality of life slips in any society. I am not sure how accurate Mr Butcher's stats are but his suggestion that the Congo boasted some 100,000 miles of roads under the Belgians in 1954 compared with bare 1000km in 2000 well illustrates the collapse of society as a result of the greed and oppression of the few determined to line their own pockets with the wealth arising from Congo's bounteous natural resources and minerals. Such bounty has the potential to raise living standards for many Congolese if properly and fairly administered - hence the importance of establishing a fair rule of law - at present there is almost none beyond force of arms apparently.
The author's description of a country full of dynamic industry, running railways ferries and attractive houses in the 1950s having fallen to a state of almost none of the above by the start of the 21st Century, is shocking indeed.
We in the West anyway have become so accustomed to 'progress' over time meaning an improving standard of leaving more or less annually that to read about a country where previous generations were the happier wealthier ones with today's and tomorrow's becoming poorer and poorer has the salutory effect of causing one not to take anything for granted. I wonder if the progress we have been enjoying for generations will like that of the Congolese and as younger brother reminded me yesterday, the Romans before them soon go into reverse as well. Certainly the more self centred man becomes, the greater the risks to the quality of life for the majority.
David Cameron's unpopular decision to honour the previous government's pledge to maintain and and even increase British overseas aid seems right in the context of alleviating the dreadful state of many African lives. However for aid to be productive, self aggrandisement on the part of local ne'erdowells diverting such aid for personal gains must be prevented. Self help and learning for the locals rather than gifts should be the aim.