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The revolution will not come by PowerPoint

By Martin Kimani
Posted on Thursday, 9 September 2010 12:14

Power points for hollow men. Development workers and economic experts create an idea of Africa that does not correspond to the reality of human existence says Kenyan writer Martin Kimani.

The revolution will not come by PowerPoint. Not the revolution that emancipates Africans from poverty and insecurity, and allows them full citizenship and dignity. It will not begin at a workshop in one of the thousand hotels where bored delegates pin badges to their lapels and practice their NGO microphone protocol. PowerPoint is a power grab. These millions of slides may create as much poverty, insecurity and unacknowledged befuddlement as any militia group or dictator.

PowerPoint presentations pose as technical expertise and dry objectivity in the face of corrupt and violent politics. Unwittingly, most of these ‘experts’ do not understand the powerful role they play in advancing the broad neoliberal project to cleave apart the political from the economic. By a curious alchemy, human life when illustrated on the PowerPoint slide disappears and is replaced with simple numbers and words like ‘clients’, ‘grantees’, ‘per capita GDP’, ‘elections’ and ‘transparency’. This relentless charting and numbering gets further and further away from the complexity of what author Toni Morrison calls the human “eruptions of funk”.

The typical presentation makes much of simple correlations and the use of the mean. It hacks away at complexity and the insurmountable uncertainty of human life as it masquerades as scientific knowledge on which public policy should be fashioned. PowerPoint is the contemporary replacement for the European medieval-era maps that labelled Africa and Africans a terra incognita – now less unknown, more a blankness onto which hegemonically useful ‘certainties’ can be projected. The economic growth enthusiasts take a few policy variables from a Singapore or a China, stick them into a simple Excel formula and then argue that reproducing them in a Malawi or Kenya will inevitably lead to the outbreak of joy and wealth.

Correlation takes the place of causation, and there is no appreciation of history. China’s story starts on the slides with Deng Xiaoping and the post-1978 reforms. Outliers, individuals and movements – responsible for the greatest social, economic and ecological changes – are judged irrelevant to this analysis. The bell curve lies at the heart of much of this project. It assumes that immense social changes emerge from incremental shifts in the great middle mass of the ‘average man’, who does not in fact exist. Resistance to acknowledging the power of chance and the outlier is motivated by the desire to control or at least be seen to control events and society. To do this, history must be erased and the human condition must be ruthlessly stripped and turned into a number.

The blank European map of Africa, which was the first step to colonialism, attempted to capture the world in a single gaze in order to better dominate it. Just because the PowerPoint warrior is on a mission of mercy does not mean that he does not seek dominion. Africa’s conquerors have always come as humanitarians. This latest army, much of it homegrown, studiously ignores people while tirelessly enumerating the starving, the raped, the murdered, the jailed and the thousand other depredations visited on the African body. By resisting human complexity and the limits of their understanding, this sows confusion and apathy in the name of policymaking and entrenches the injustices of the status quo.

Workshop statistics on Africa’s emergencies are real. Catastrophe exists, but life is lived in between and within catastrophe. The individual is on an inevitable path to destruction, woe befalls all. The headlines of mayhem and filth tell only a small part of human suffering. PowerPoint cannot capture catastrophe, especially not the second, third and fourth order stunting and maiming of lives by the powerful and the rapacious. In this, Africa is no different from the West. It is just that the West is practiced at evading its own experience of suffering, often by focusing on the suffering of others as if it were some strange object.

Africa has not fallen from on high, there is to be no return to an ideal time. No time has been lost, for history is not pushing us along a path to a heaven or a utopia. Even as the PowerPoint slides fail to capture the full scale of crises, they can barely keep up with the multiplicity of human responses. A million cynical actions and random misfortunes reacted to by a million brave and compassionate acts that in turn generate their own unintended consequences. Fela had it right: “We are shuffering and shmiling.”

Faced with the immensity of human life, the PowerPointer cannot comprehend it, much less act on it. In the end, this is what all power is: a deception of control to disguise confusion and ignorance. Ignored is the heroic scale that empathy, sympathy and fellow feeling play in daily life.?

Rather than the white space of the PowerPoint slide, which represents false certainty, better a background of tangled roots and branches with no beginning or end. To the slide’s boring and dangerous wielder must be dedicated these lines by T.S. Elliot:

We are the hollow men.

We are the stuffed men?

Leaning together?

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!?

Our dried voices, when?

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass?

Or rats’ feet over broken glass?

In our dry cellar

This article was first published in the August-September edition of The Africa Report.

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