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Children from Kibera, Africa's most populous slum, drink water from a broken pipe. Photo: EPA/STEPHEN MORRISON +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Nairobi Slum KiberaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

African sustainability

Mirjam Gehrke / bo
November 30, 2012

Sustainability and green economy have nothing to do with the reality of African people, says Kenyan sociologist Auma Obama, founder of the aid organisation Sauti Kuu and half sister of US President Barack Obama.


Deutsche Welle: Ms. Obama, high expectations were placed on the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June this year. What is still left of that?

Auma Obama: We have to realize that there are no quick fixes. We have to cooperate even more and - most of all - we have to develop down-to-earth answers to overcome environmental problems.

But there are many people in this world who are so poor that thinking about a more ecological and sustainable way of living is a luxury they cannot afford. These people face the challenge of how to overcome poverty. Air pollution and over-fertilisation, for example, mean nothing to them.

Auma Obama Photo: Helle Jeppesen/DW
Auma Obama: "African people have to leave victimhood."Image: DW/ H. Jeppesen

So, in your opinion sustainable development cannot help to fight poverty?

When talking about sustainability we have to explain what is meant by that. 'Sustainable' only means that a situation continues over a long period. And that can also be negative! Just think about sustainable poverty and social imbalance. So, the word only makes sense if you define in what way someone wants to take ecological, social and economical responsibility.

But again, the question is: Who can afford that? The people in Kenya that I am working with have to fight to meet their basic needs. And after that, they fight to not fall back into poverty again.

How can Kenyan people overcome poverty?

First of all, they have to leave victimhood. I mainly work with young people in very poor circumstances. They believe that they can only leave those poor conditions with development aid. They expect someone to help them.

We try to explain to these people that they can help themselves and that they have to utilize the resources that they have. A farmer who works only one acre of his land and leaves the other acre untouched, has to learn that land is valuable. And that he is not as poor as he thinks.

Green economy methods are often touted as being the overall answer for future challenges. What does green economy mean to your home country Kenya?

Green economy is a western term meaning that the economy has to become more environmentally friendly. However, often that doesn't come up in African countries. The majority of people struggle for survival every single day. If you talk to these people about green economy they will ask 'what is in it for me? In what way will my life change?' Often these questions are left unanswered.

Slum Kibera, Nairobi Photo: EPA/STEPHEN MORRISON +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
In Kibera, Nairobi, Africa's biggest slum, people have to fight for survival everyday. "Green economy means nothing to them," says Auma Obama.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The economic and financial model of the northern hemisphere, with a high focus on consumption, appears to have lost credibility to some extent. Which lessons did the African countries learn from that? Up to now this model was regarded as a role model to them.

We tell our people that above all they have to be able to rely on themselves. These people know their own problems best and they also know how these problems can be solved.

Sure, help from outside is sometimes necessary. But the solution should not come from externally, only the help to implement it.

Is the crisis in Europe a chance for Africa?

Every crisis offers a chance. We must not forget that African countries not only consist of the governments. There are not only people who do what Europeans want and who imitate them. Africa is home to very innovative people also. However, nobody reports about that because it is not interesting enough.

The view on Africa is a western-world view. If, for example, people talk about emerging nations or newly industrialising countries then the economic success of these countries is measured with western rules and not with criteria of the appropriate country. That is often beyond reality. Kenya is on its way to becoming an emerging country. But what does this category mean as long as there are children living on waste dumps? When I see so many poor people in the streets of Nairobi I wonder: Who really thinks that Kenya is an emerging country?

Dr. Auma Obama has lived in Germany for 16 years and studied sociology and German philology in Heidelberg and Bayreuth. She has also coordinated the work of the aid organisation Care International in Kenya. In 2011, she founded her own organisation, Sauti Kuu, which supports underprivileged children and youths. Auma Obama is Barack Obama's older half sister.

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