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Democracy in sub-Saharan Africa: recent talk given by Peace Studies' academic David Harris


University of Bradford lecturer David Harris, specialist in post-conflict justice and state re-building gave a talk on sub-Saharan Democracy, at Otley Labour Club on the 18th November 2015, in which David talked about about democracy in sub-Saharan Africa and why its complex development is impacting on the number of refugees arriving at the UK's doorstep in Calais, Dunkirk and beyond. Helen Toft, has written a review of the talk:

Only a couple of people in the audience for Dr David Harris’ open talk on sub-Saharan African democracy had been lucky enough to study at the University of Bradford's Peace Studies department. Yet David enabled the whole audience to engage with his question ‘Beyond the screaming headlines of the effects on Europe of the latest African (and Middle Eastern) migration ‘crisis’, why would people want to make the hazardous journey from Africa to Europe in the first place?’

In this last of an autumn season of ‘Pizza and Politics Cafes’ hosted by Otley and Yeadon Labour Party, David’s publicity abstract had drawn in students, retired and working professionals in the UK and abroad, skilled tradespeople, and charity workers. It included an architect who had lived and worked in Nigeria, an academic who had been on VSO in Sierra Leone in 1967-8 as well as a health researcher in a former communist country in Europe. Even without any direct experience of Africa, all of us had an intelligent interest in world affairs and engaged eagerly with David’s ideas. The talk dynamically demonstrated the need for many more opportunities to engage all of the community in high quality informal education, and the key role this branch should play in this.

Taking his title ‘Bedtime Stories’: democracy as the bringer of development and peace in Africa?’ from the words of the late president of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, who ‘did not believe in bedtime stories and contrived arguments linking economic growth with democracy’, David examined his own knowledge and experience in Africa to question if democracy is providing, or is likely to provide, the platform for development and political stability, promised for 25 years, and thus make Africans want to stay at home. He illustrated why these ideals, partly imposed by Western governments and twinned with criteria for receiving money to aid development, had a mixed record, in some cases backfiring with terrible consequences, just as President Meles stated.

Reflecting on our first speaker in the season of local, national and international political themes, I made connections between how Rob Lawrie, a local businessman turned charity worker in the Calais refugee camps, had described how people in the camps were often displaced professionals and entrepreneurs running from persecution, conflict or poverty in their home countries in Africa, not the ‘swarm’ of welfare dependent ‘scroungers’ typified by so much of our press.

Ultimately David’s sharp insights and synthesis allowed us in this short talk to develop a little more understanding of the complexities of this huge continent, our historical and current impact on it, and the consequences for us all. We also experienced for ourselves how lucky David’s students at SOAS, Nottingham and Bradford universities were to have a lecturer who combines academic rigour with direct experience and wit.

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