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University Relations

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Nov. 28, 2005
Contact: Roger Martin, KU Center for Research, (785) 864-7239.

Roger Martin: KU professor's new book looks at infrastructure problems in Africa

LAWRENCE -- Charitable contributions to Pakistan after its earthquake have been slow coming. Given all the tsunamis, hurricanes and such lately, maybe it's a case of compassion fatigue.

Anybody who's careworn about such things should probably put off reading a new book by Garth Myers, University of Kansas associate professor of geography.

The book, Disposable Cities, issued this month by Ashgate Publishing, documents the chronic problems of Africa.

Among other things, it's about breakdowns in trash and garbage disposal in the southern African cities of Dar-es-Salaam, Zanzibar and Lusaka, as well as about such companion problems as pollution and disease.

The book's about government failures beginning with the casual cruelty of British colonial rule, which lasted into the 1960s, and continuing with homegrown socialist governments that vaporized in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

It's about rivalries and failures of intergovernmental cooperation among city councils, state governments and donor countries like Ireland, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

Finally, and centrally, the book is about the failure, in this chaotic context, over the past 15 years, of the well-intentioned U.N. Sustainable Cities program.

Solid-waste disposal has been a top priority for many African cities touched by the U.N. program, but the results haven't been revolutionary.

In Lusaka, for example, the percentage of solid waste picked up has climbed from 7 percent to 12 percent of the total.

Dar-es-Salaam has done better, Myers writes. Pick-up has climbed from 3 percent of the total into the low 40s. But Dar-es-Salaam is one of the world's fastest-growing cities, so plenty of work remains.

Since socialism collapsed, free-market capitalism has ramped up inflation, driven down employment and bred a caustic sense of humor in many Africans, Myers says.

Take the phrase "city council," for example, and substitute for the word "city" a vulgarism that rhymes with it, and you'll be in on a joke Zambians make at the expense of local government.

What has to happen for the situation to improve? For one, Myers says, the locals must get more respect from outsiders.

He says, "Outsiders think solid waste is a problem because they see it and smell it, but most Africans don't see it that way. I think the place to start is with the consensus priorities of neighborhoods – and that means water, drainage and roads."

Myers sees South Africa as a model of the dialog that's needed. It's a place, Myers says, "where people speak their minds, where government seems to work with business and community groups – and seems popular."

Some international changes would also help, Myers says. Africa's main exports are often food products, meaning that U.S. government price support of American agriculture hurts African economies.

Another source of hope for Myers was a surprise to me: African immigrants to the United States. Myers is conducting research with some Tanzanians who've moved to Wichita and the Kansas City area.

He hopes some of them will shuttle back to Africa and help staff African universities – or, if they stay in America, become investors in their native lands.

Myers' hope is a clear alternative to the hopelessness bred of compassion fatigue. It may take more time and imagination to figure out how to empower people than to write a check, but in the long, long run, it's less exhausting.


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