Not Your Father's Francafrique

Yves Gounin defends France's Africa policy.

Boubacar Boris Diop offers a worn-out caricature of France's Africa policy -- and, more importantly, of Africa itself ("La Vie en %$!" July/August 2010). By painting France as an all-powerful puppeteer, Diop endorses the cliché of a continent devoid of agency that does not write its own history. Paris certainly had a hand in a few African coups in the distant past, but the idea that Paris is still "pull[ing] the strings from behind the scenes" is ludicrous.

In fact, France's relationship with Africa has been profoundly transformed in recent decades, and it currently bears little resemblance to the unhealthy relationship of the post-colonial years. The time when France's economic prosperity depended on its trade with Africa is long gone. Although a few large French groups are still market leaders on the continent, the former African colonies represent a mere 1 percent of French foreign trade. Diop reminds us that there were 60,000 French troops present on the continent after independence. But scarcely 8,000 remain following the closure of France's permanent bases in the Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, and, even more recently, Senegal, where France withdrew without discussion when asked to do so.

Instead of recycling tired story lines, Diop should try to answer two quetions. First, why are some African commentators so interested in singling out France? Paris is given responsibility for all the continent's ills, even though 50 years have passed since independence and African sovereignty has been forcefully demonstrated by countries like Ivory Coast and Senegal. Second, would Africa really be better off with no foreign assistance at all?

Yves Gounin
Author, La France en Afrique
Paris, France

Boubacar Boris Diop replies:
No one is blaming France for all the ills plaguing Africa. Such a wholesale indictment would be an overestimation of France's current capacities. Outside its former colonies, France is no longer calling the shots in African geopolitics.

The author of this letter doesn't refute any of the facts mentioned in my article. On the contrary, he confirms their validity when he holds French President Nicolas Sarkozy's predecessors accountable -- without openly saying so, of course. It's also not true that Sarkozy is putting an end to Francafrique. Yes, the military bases in Dakar and Abidjan were recently closed, but this was for budgetary reasons as part of a process begun by then-President Jacques Chirac.

One need only look at the case of Jean-Christophe Rufin, former president of Action Against Hunger France, who was removed from his post as French ambassador to Senegal after he refused to support President Abdoulaye Wade's plan to hand over power to his son. As Rufin put it, at least in the early days of Francafrique, French machinations in Africa were meant to further France's interests, not just prop up powerful dictators. "What we have today are lobbies seeking to advocate for this or that African regime and sell the package to the French authorities," he said.

The author of this spuriously indignant response to my article knows all of this too well because he was an advisor to Wade from 2006 to 2009, an interesting detail he "forgets" to mention.

As for his last question, which comes out of the blue, I won't respond to it. I simply suggest that he read it again, in the faint hope that he will realize how racist it is.


Wiring Democracy

After reading Evgeny Morozov's article, I thought of an analogy that shows why his article is flawed ("Think Again: The Internet," May/June 2010). Imagine a restaurant that has a dozen wonderful, freshly made soups on the menu each day. The waiters, however, have a nasty habit of spitting in the orders of those customers they do not like. Most people would rightly blame the waiters. Morozov's solution would be to ban soup.

All new technologies have some regrettable consequences. Indoor plumbing destroyed the social fabric of women accustomed to the camaraderie of the village well. Gutenberg's press led to the industrial-scale production of pornography. And cell phones are employed by terrorists to dreadful effect. The question is not, "Can I find examples of misuse of the Internet?" Sure, I can.

The real question is, "Does the Internet overtly help causes like democracy, freedom, the elimination of poverty, and world peace?" My answer is: It does these things naturally and inherently.

Here's why: The Internet is a path to education. Take any of the problems Morozov cites -- they are best solved by education. A poor and unjust world is an illiterate world. But an educated world is more able to discuss and more likely to understand its problems. One step toward an educated world is connecting children and providing each the means to learn.

The One Laptop per Child Foundation has so far placed 2 million laptops in more than 40 countries, in more than 20 languages. In one country, Uruguay, every child has one. Rwanda and Peru have committed to doing the same. Gaza is following.

What are we finding? We find kids in the poorest parts of the world teaching their parents how to read and write. We find kids in remote Peru, Cambodia, and Rwanda checking the commodity exchanges so their parents know the real prices of wool, rice, and coffee. We find girls in Afghanistan who dare not go to school connected and collaborating from home instead. Need I say more?

Nicholas Negroponte
Chairman, One Laptop per Child Foundation
Cambridge, Mass.

Evgeny Morozov replies:

I love Nicholas Negroponte's restaurant metaphor, but I think he draws the wrong conclusions from it. Even restaurants with "wonderful, freshly made soups" need to undergo inspections every now and then, if only to make sure that the soups are still wonderful and freshly made. My fear is that the soup in Negroponte's restaurant might have never been fresh to begin with; whether there are waiters spitting in it is beside the point.

I find Negroponte's belief that there is something "natural" and "inherent" in how the Internet helps "causes like democracy, freedom, the elimination of poverty, and world peace" extremely dangerous, as it blinds us to the negative externalities of our interconnectedness. We can educate kids in Uruguay all we want, but the reality is that the police in Iran will continue to hunt Iranian activists based on information they themselves post to social networking sites.

Overall, I wish Negroponte took the time to engage with the arguments in my essay as opposed to touting his own project as a panacea for all the world's ills. I don't deny that there are certain niches his product can fill, but to argue that One Laptop per Child has much impact on the speed or direction of democratization in countries like China, Russia, or Iran is simply naive.