When Migrants Flee Progress, Not War

Nearly one-fifth of people crossing the Mediterranean are leaving a country touted for achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Turns out, a better life requires more than a U.N. checklist.

A boat carring Tunisian migrants enters
A boat carring Tunisian migrants enters the port of Lampedusa on April 12, 2011. Around 26,000 undocumented migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, including around 21,000 who said they were from Tunisia, claiming they were fleeing a grim economic situation after the political revolution in January. AFP PHOTO / Filippo MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Each migrant trying to cross the Mediterranean in a rickety boat has his or her own reason for risking the journey. But for people who study Africa, one overall lesson quietly emerges from this mass movement: Man cannot live by MDGs alone.

I’m talking about the Millennium Development Goals, the eight targets the United Nations drew up as benchmarks of successful development back in 2000. The U.N. set precise goals for poverty alleviation, education, and health care that poor countries, supported by Western donors, could tick off a list — the supposed building blocks of a better life. Ironically, the deadline set for achieving the MDGs was 2015, the very year in which Europe has been confronted by a mass exodus of refugees voting with their feet.

Some migrants are fleeing violence in Syria and Somalia; some are West Africans who worked in Libya and now find it too dangerous to stay. But a significant share comes from African countries neither wracked by civil unrest nor embroiled in war. Counterintuitively, many of these nations perform extremely well on the MDG front.

Take the Red Sea nation of Eritrea, which accounts for the greatest number of migrants to Europe after Syria, an extraordinary figure given its population of just around 6 million. According to the U.N. refugee agency, 34,561 Eritreans crossed the Mediterranean in 2014.

Bizarre as it may seem, I often encourage Western friends to take holidays in Eritrea, this country so many are now fleeing and which I myself can’t access, for want of a journalist visa. It’s safe, clean, and cheap, and it boasts some of Africa’s best roads and most dramatic scenery, and the continent’s most beautiful capital city. Back in 2013, President Isaias Afewerki’s government patted itself on the back for achieving three health MDGs ahead of schedule: reducing infant mortality, improving maternal health, and combating HIV, malaria, and other diseases. It expects to check three more off the list by the end of this year.

Of course any statistic published by a notoriously secretive administration that allows no real parliamentary oversight or media scrutiny should be taken with a pinch of salt. But the U.N. Development Programme’s representative in the country, Christine Umutoni, has hailed the government as a model for Africa, and a BBC documentary crew that recently managed to obtain an entry visa — as rare as hen’s teeth for foreign media — confirmed the impression of a well-run health service.

The point is: All that just isn’t enough. Eritrea, run by a former communist rebel movement that seized power in 1991, may well offer its citizens excellent medical care. Claims that it knows how to protect its people from East Africa’s frequent droughts and resulting famines may even be true. But the government has failed dramatically to deliver on a range of less quantifiable needs that hold the key to human fulfillment.

There’s no independent media or political opposition in the country. Religious freedom is narrowly curtailed. A multiparty constitution has never been implemented*, no presidential elections staged. Both men and women must do military service, which is often open-ended. If you’re lucky enough to get demobilized, there’s no private-sector economy to soak up your labor and provide you with skills. Asmara is an elegant cage — a suffocating place to live.

Africa is struggling to digest a massive youth bulge, and youngsters are instinctively aspirational. They want the chance of a better existence in their own lifetimes, not promises of some distant utopia. While governments such as the one in Eritrea may score impressively when it comes to keeping youth fed, vaccinated, and literate (the MDG emphasis is on primary education, of course, not the tertiary education likely to produce rebellious students), they routinely frustrate deeper needs.

Indeed, the paradox is not unique to Eritrea. Since the end of the Cold War, a new generation of African leaders has emerged that wins the consistent and enthusiastic backing of the U.S. Agency for International Development and Britain’s Department for International Development for delivering on the MDGs, even while these leaders show open contempt for civil society, human rights groups, and the free press. “Democracy is a luxury we can’t afford,” is the implicit message to Western partners.

Over the past two decades, the former rebel leaders once hailed as spearheading an “African Renaissance” have steadily morphed into a generation of New Securocrats. The iron-fisted policies unveiled by leaderships in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda win the tacit support of Western allies whose worries about Soviet expansionism have been neatly replaced by fear of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

“Africa Rising,” the recent buzz phrase adopted by investors excited by the economic potential of the continent’s growing middle class and the spread of modern technology, has distracted attention from a series of reactionary trends. In east, west, and central Africa we are seeing elections rigged not once, but repeatedly; the establishment of de facto royal dynasties; and draconian legislation aimed at closing down the non-governmental sector, muffling the press, and stamping out homosexuality. Annual reports by human rights organizations make for grim reading.

Back when the U.S. President George H.W. Bush promised “a new world order” premised on liberal values, such developments would have alarmed Western partners. Now they generate shrugged shoulders from diplomats and development officials who regard them as part of the realpolitik of the modern era.

The MDGs were designed, in part, to give Western donors and African governments apolitical, uncontroversial common ground upon which all could agree. Clean water, primary education, decent health care — who wouldn’t want those, after all? But the message coming from the migrants crossing the Mediterranean is: “Oh, sure, we want those. But we want far, far more.” And who can blame them?

*April 23, 2015: Eritrea’s constitution has never been implemented. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said it had never been ratified. 


Michela Wrong is the author of nonfiction books on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, and Kenya. Her novel “Borderlines,” published by Fourth Estate in Britain, comes out in paperback in June 2016.  Twitter: @michelawrong