"Countries like Rwanda face political and social problems beyond the reach of even the most earnest and popular humanitarian efforts." -- Sociologist and author, Alan Wolfe


A dying continent?
It seems that each week there is news of a new humanitarian crisis in Africa. While world attention has recently focused on Darfur, where the effects of ethnic cleansing have claimed the lives of 400,000, sadly, Darfur has no monopoly on misery.


The tragedy in Darfur is a gruesome replay of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis were massacred by Hutu rivals. Lesser known is what has happened in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a country of 63 million residents, 4 million have died from war-related causes since 1998. It is a conflict rightly called by some, "The Deadliest War in the World."


Then there is the ongoing 20-year reign of kidnapping, rape, and murder in Uganda by the "Lord's Resistance Army" (LRA)--a terrorist group claiming adherence to a strange brew of Christianity, Islam and witchcraft. Appallingly, ninety percent of the LRA murder squads are made up of children kidnapped from villages for which the LRA claims to be fighting.


Over and above the immediate loss of life, these atrocities have exacerbated the effects of drought, famine, disease and homelessness in a major swath of the continent. Unspeakably, over 8 million people face starvation because local officials withhold food aid for political leveraging.


These conditions have created a continent in which the average life expectancy is less than 50 years and where one in five children dies before the age of five. Of those children that do survive, 34 million are orphaned due to war, disease, and poverty and 42 million have no access to primary education.


With a mortality rate over twice the world average, Africa appears to be losing its fight for survival despite billions of dollars of international aid. This has led critics to conclude that the "compassion industry" has failed, functioning under a paradigm that is not only incapable of solving social ills, but contributes to them by increasing dependence on foreign aid.  


A long view needed
Granted, the compassion industry has provided some limited, short-term relief over the years but, as Boston University scholar Alan Wolfe observes, "there is a limit to the good that can be done until such countries alter the basic structure of their societies, eliminating corruption, curbing the abuse of power, setting up an independent judiciary and allowing a free press."


In other words, the solution to Africa's woes is not in the temporary alleviation of symptoms like AIDS and hunger, it is in the creation of a just and free society. Unfortunately, such changes do not happen overnight; they take decades, sometimes generations of focused and sustained commitment.