Saving Africa? The Unintended Consequence of Aid Campaigns

“What about Ebola?”

This was one of the first comments from my friends and family after they found out I was going to spend a year working in Rwanda.  Despite having my best interests in their thoughts, it surprised me how many people’s minds jumped straight to the Ebola outbreak at the mention of an African country.  At the time of writing, there are no cases of Ebola in Rwanda and, in an ironic twist, US citizens are being screened upon their entry into Rwanda.  I am more likely to contract Ebola if I visited Spain for a week than I am in Rwanda.  But, according to many, Rwanda is in Africa and therefore Rwanda has Ebola.  I was shocked at how many well-travelled, well-educated people have asked me this innocent question and it got me thinking about why we have such a homogenous view of Africa.  I believe the reason behind this is the negative stereotype of Africa that has evolved in the West, which aid campaigns often unwittingly perpetuate through their campaigns.

Taken and inspired from Anthony England's map

Taken and inspired from Anthony England’s map

The image of Africa, more than any other continent, country or person in the world, has become the poster girl for discourse on aid and development.   Charities and non-profit organisations fighting poverty have used to great success the image of the poor African in order to increase donations and interest in a campaign.  Think of any TV advert for an international charity, and the chances are it will include a close-up of a crying black child and an image of a starving/thirsty/uneducated/ill African (delete according to the appropriate campaign).

While these adverts are often created in order to raise funds for Africa, they also inadvertently promote a damaging racial stereotype that has become the norm for many Westerners.  This is the stereotype; the idea that ‘Africa’ is one whole, one country almost, affected by famine, disease, war, poverty and a multitude of other horrors.  The image that is used in these well-intentioned adverts has come to stand for over 54 states that cover 6% of the world’s surface area.

By portraying the ‘African’ as helpless and needy, we immediately devalue their opinion and their input.  The African becomes childlike, unable to think for themselves and –crucially- without autonomy.  The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken of ‘the danger of the single story’ and warns that such a stereotype can only lead to misplaced pity that patronises the other and leads to misrepresentation in the media culture.

Just watch this excellent video by Rusty Radiator Awards (also the organisation of the month!) to see what I mean.

By aiming to assist ‘Africa’ through these campaigns, the stereotype has damaged our relationship with African countries, and hindered the development process that it was trying to solve.  The fact is that our stereotype allows no room for the autonomy of the African people.  It does not allow ‘Africa’ a voice, other than one that is crying for help, and it depicts its people as totally reliant on someone else (namely us in the West) to save them.

But it has more far-reaching consequences than this.  By ignoring the multitude of voices in Africa –business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs, labourers and academics, white people and black people, the needy and the rich– we ignore their potential input into the development of their own countries.  We have a tradition in the West of having a preconceived idea of what Africa needs, and seem sure that we know how to ‘solve’ the elusive problem of ‘Africa’.   Unfortunately, Africa is not a rubik cube.  One only needs to read ‘Dead Aid’ to find out that in many cases foreign aid has been detrimental.  Over 1 trillion US dollars have been spent on aid in the last 50 years, and many believe this money has been largely wasted.

The list of catastrophes that well-intentioned NGOs have inflicted upon their supposed beneficiaries is endless.  When I interned for an INGO in London one of my colleagues told me how his first trip overseas involved coordinating a project that was designed to supply poor women sanitary pads.  When he arrived there with thousands of packages of sanitary pads in tow, it became clear that the reason women did not have sanitary pads was because they did not wear underwear.  The pads were rendered redundant and he later found out the women had their own hygiene systems in place anyway.  It took only a week in the field, hundreds of pounds and thousands of sanitary pads to find out the entire project was useless.  Everyone has now heard of the infamous proposal by the company to send out over a million T-shirts to Africa, despite the fact ‘Africa’ did not need them and the shipping and packaging costs of the project could have been bypassed if they’d used African textile companies to create them.  While these examples are small, more serious failures include the US aid efforts in Afghanistan and Western involvement in Mali.

So how can we implement successful aid?

Ernesto Sirolli gave a TED talk in 2012 where he laid out what I believe to be the fundamental principle of good aid: to listen.  Our idea of what ‘Africa’ is and needs completely ignores cultural differences, religious preferences and economic peculiarities of particular countries.  As Sirolli demonstrates, it is surprising how many NGOs conduct projects and set-up campaigns without actually checking if their proposed project is needed or will be useful.

Before anything is done, we must ask what is needed.  But the stereotype of the weak, ineffectual African tell us that Africans do not have anything to say, that they will welcome any kind of aid with open arms.  This is not the reality.  Development and governmental aid could be changed and become more effective by discarding the image of the needy African and instead working with local entrepreneurs, business owners and academics.

I believe that our biggest obstacle in achieving this is our inability to let go of this tradition of aid campaigns focussing on only the negative stereotype of Africa.  It does not allow us to listen, because we think there is nothing to listen to other than a pitying plea for assistance. There are areas damaged by poverty and famine, subject to disease and corruption – but this does not mean these areas speak for the rest of the continent.  And it certainly should not mean that these people are denied a voice in the future of their countries.

Next time you are confronted with an aid campaign, think twice about what you are seeing.  You may be seeing real issues in real countries that do need attention and assistance, but you are most certainly not seeing the ever-changing and diverse continent that is ‘Africa.’


‘I Hate School’: Roma children and discrimination in European Schools

A BORING NOTE FOR STICKLERSIn this article I use the term ‘Roma’ to describe a wide variety of people, nationalities and cultures.  By using Roma, I mean to refer to traditional traveller communities known as ‘Romani’ such as Tsiganes, Manouches etc. but I also want to talk about new immigrants from Eastern Europe who have found themselves living in precarious conditions.  I’ve grouped them together not only for ease of writing but also because the media discourse tends not to differentiate between communities, and I want to talk about our treatment of all the groups encompassed under what we term as ‘traveller’. The children I mention in this article were of Manouche origin. 

In the playground of a rural French Catholic school there is a group of four children who are visibly separated from the rest.  It is easy to spot them; not only because they are standing in a huddle in the corner, watching the others rush around, but they are also the only nine children in the whole playground who are not white.   In the harsh December air, the other children wear coats and hats but these four wear only jumpers and are shivering from the cold.  But the real reason why these nine children are so noticeable is because they are Roma children, and the only Roma children in a school of roughly 500.  The bell rings and kids begin filing up to re-enter the classrooms.  But the nine are led back into a separate classroom, reluctantly trailing after me

“Ready to continue lessons?” I ask.

One of the girls, a 13 year old, says, “I hate school.”

This sullen remark stops me in my tracks.  Many children- myself included-have uttered the same sentiments at least once in their lives, normally when the alarm rings on a Monday morning at 7am. But this seemed different; it was not a moan or a whine, it was a cold, hard fact.

There has been much media attention across the whole of Europe over the issue of Roma communities.  Last year, the case of a young girl known as ‘Maria’ suspected of being kidnapped by a Roma family in Greece made international headlines. The tensions in Sheffield over ‘gangs’ of Roma children out late at night has been in the BBC’s limelight for some time now.  It can’t be denied that much of this publicity is negative and it seems much of the blame is being placed with the Roma people themselves.  In France, the interior minister Manuel Valls has told Romas to return to their country” because they do not respect the customs of French life. In England, Nick Clegg has argued that Romas must be “sensitive” to the English culture.  David Blunkett has also argued that there must be a change in “behaviour and culture of the incoming community” before the situation implodes.

What strikes me as bizarre is, despite the numerous calls for Roma people to make the effort to integrate themselves, there has been little attention what can be done concerning our behaviour and our culture in Western Europe.  How can we call for Romas to be integrated into our society, when we bar them at every step of the way?  At the school I work at, the nine Roma children are subject to constant scrutiny.  Parents have written in to the Headmaster, stopping the children attending class with the others.  Now they must spend all day with me and a specialist teacher.  My job has turned from assistant teacher to constant bodyguard, who must stay close to them at all times – even when they go to the toilet. In the playground, the other children do not talk to them. One of the older kids did some work experience earlier in the year with the school kitchen; when parents learnt a Roma would be handling their children’s meals, there were a multitude of complaints and some children refused to eat the food.

Across the whole of Western Europe there seems to be a similar pattern.  Roma communities are being systematically raided and forcibly deported by French police.  Earlier this year in Lyon, a group of Roma children were stopped attending their school by protesting parents and instead had to have lessons at the local police station.  In Greece, Romas have accused the media of vilifying their communities and the case of ‘Maria’ demonstrated the international prejudices against Roma communities.  In Germany, there is a deep concern over the supposed wave of Roma communities that will flood Europe in the near future. 

And we in England are in danger of heading the same way.  The inflammatory comments of former home secretary David Blunkett and the sensationalist stories released in the press over the Sheffield case ignore much of the excellent progress that is occurring within England.  Recent reports from the pilot project ‘from segregation to inclusion: Roma children in the UK’ and the Romani project in Manchester have demonstrated that the biggest problem concerning the education of Roma children is the discrimination they face in school – not a bad attitude or high absences as many would have thought.   When we look at Spain, as well, it is clear that the problem does not just lie with new immigrants.   Spain’s Roma integration policy has been startling successful, and its no surprise that much of it focusses on education.

When I think of all this, it is not much wonder that my 13 year pupil doesn’t want to attend an 8 hour day where she is institutionally ostracised by the very people who are meant to be giving her a basic right of education.  In a school where no other child talks or plays with her, and she must spend the whole day with a foreign white 22 year old teacher, it’s not a surprise that it is an effort to get her to engage in her lessons and relish her education.   If we’re not ensuring that Romas are integrated into our schools in Europe, how will they ever become integrated into our society?  Can we legitimately expect Roma communities to even want to be part of our culture when they face such racism and discrimination from every facet of our society?  I am sure that if my pupils were allowed to integrate with their classmates, learn a variety of topics and be trusted as other students are, then they would not ‘hate’ school.  And I’m sure that many Roma communities would be more willing and able to access our lifestyle and culture if they were given the same opportunities as someone who lives between four walls of brick.

Many Roma peoples come here to find work, and find a better life. Yes, their customs are different from ours and, yes, this will lead to certain tensions.  But in order to integrate Roma communities into our life, we must make the first step.  And that first step can be in our schools.

Alternatives to Volontourism

        ********NB This article talks about UK and European opportunities only*********

In my last entry, I spoke about the dangers of volunteering in a developing country and suggested that young people leaving school may wish to reconsider becoming a ‘volontourist’.   Many people, however, do feel that they want to volunteer or at least travel.  In this list, are options that could be considered by people who still want to volunteer.

Local Volunteering:

There are many opportunities to volunteer within your own area, many of which will teach you valuable skills and enable you to make a positive impact, often with no cost to the volunteer.  If you are specifically interested in international development, you could volunteer with a local INGO.

Please look at NCVO’s website to find out more, and also to contact your local volunteering centre.

European Voluntary Service:

This is an EU-funded scheme that places 18-30 year olds anywhere in Europe on a social project up for a year.  The projects range from volunteering in care homes to working in cultural centres promoting European mobility.  Every project is carefully selected and it is illegal for projects to have volunteers that replace staff.  The emphasis is on developing the volunteer’s skill base, so volunteers have the opportunity to learn a new language, and develop skills important to the social sector.  Volunteer expenses are fully covered by the EU.


This is specifically for skilled professionals who wish to change career, or take a break.  VSO advertising for specific roles and each role has certain requirements but generally volunteers must be over 25 with at least 3 years professional experience, and often a masters in a related field.  All expenses covered.

Project Trust:

While I hesitate to recommend any ‘volontourism’ organisations, if you must go, go with Project Trust.  They are one of the only ‘gap yah’ organisations that put their volunteers through a selection process which involves a 5 day stay on a Scottish Island.   They place you on their programmes according to your suitability (you don’t get to choose) and all projects are 12 months long.


Finally, if your main priorities are seeing the world and having unique experiences – maybe you should consider travelling rather than a fixed volunteering programme.   If you do want to go deeper than just a whirlwind tour, why not look at Workaway.  This gives you the opportunity to work just 5 hours a day in exchange for lodging and food, and it’s a unique and wonderful way of travelling. You could end up helping out in a hostel, teaching English or even working on an environmentally-friendly social project.

As you can see, there are hundreds of incredible ways to travel the world, experience new places without signing up to be a volontourist.

Want to help the developing world? Don’t go over there (yet). Lessons from a volontourist in becoming a volunteer

In July 2009, I left school and booked flights to Rwanda for one month, and South Africa for two to spend some time volunteering.  I was not alone; many other of my former classmates were busy booking their flights to various corners of the globe.  From building a school in Tanzania to teaching street children in Rio de Janeiro, the possibilities are endless.  And more and more people seem interested in doing it.  In a world where the job market is flooded with qualified graduates, it’s not surprising that middle-class young people are searching globally for that extra-curricular gem on their CV.  Alongside this, a genuine desire to help often fuels people to book a flight and spend a few months ‘doing good’.

Unfortunately, this well-meaning desire is misplaced and ends up doing a lot of harm.  I found out the hard way.  I arrived in Rwanda ready to save the world.  I left feeling ashamed, confused and angry.  Unlike others, I did not go with a gap-tastic company – I chose a small organisation that was extremely choosy about their volunteers, and I did not pay a fee.  I did not replace any members of staff, but rather was a supplement to their work.  For many people, this classifies ‘good volunteering’.

But it was not enough.  I felt that I was unable to help in the way that I wanted.   The problem was not the charity that I went with, or the work that I was doing – it was me.  In reality, I was only an 18 year-old girl whose main achievement in life was winning my school’s History prize.  At that age, how could I have the self-awareness, confidence, knowledge and skill base to help anyone, including myself?   ‘Volontourism’ is currently being widely discredited by NGOs and local aid workers who believe that well-intentioned volunteers often only hinder development.  In Cambodia, tourists’ benign desire to spend a day hugging orphans and giving out sweets has actually led to orphanages being completely overrun and some even hiring ‘fake’ orphans.  Pippa Biddle, in a strong denunciation of volunteering efforts, has argued that ‘little white girls’ should stop altogether in going out to these areas of the world to help.  As VSO have pointed out, there’s something rather sickening and colonial with the idea of barely adult teenagers hopping on a plane to take selfies with starving children.

'Bad Volunteering': My first trip to Rwanda as an inexperienced 18 year old was not a success for the development world!

‘Bad Volunteering’: My first trip to Rwanda as an inexperienced 18 year old was not a success for the development world!

So should we stop volunteering completely?  I do not think so.  Rather, I think we must reassess what we mean by a volunteer.  We must change our concept of what volunteering is and who qualifies as a volunteer.   Going over there as an unskilled, inexperienced 18 year old was a mistake – I should not have been a volunteer and instead I was just a volontourist.  Volunteers are people who have specific skills and/or experience, as well as the self-assurance to support project initiatives in challenging areas of the world.   More often than not, these people are not 18-year old, middle-class school leavers.

I have identified some volunteering ‘cans’ and ‘cant’s’ in the hope that people read this and bear it in mind before they choose to donate their time.  I know that I would have liked to read something similar before booking my trip.

  • We cannot be qualified to volunteer just on the basis of our birth or background. Being Western and part of the global rich is not a skill or an experience. Just because we are born in the UK does not mean we have anything to ‘teach’ or ‘give’ to the developing world.  VSO has called this idea the ‘new colonialism’ and it is no more beneficial to developing areas of the world than the old colonialism was.
  • We can have specific skills and experiences that will be of use. We can gain professional experience, or a hard skill, that will be able to be put into use when we choose to volunteer. These skills may range from engineering, to specialist knowledge on gender issues and development, to translation – but what is important is to have a skill that is useful, and required.
  • We cannot presume to know what the developing world needs. Firstly, in reality, there is no ‘developing world’ but separate countries and regions, each with their own specific needs.  We cannot have a preconceived idea of the problems that we should be solving before we have arrived.
  • We can listen, ask and act on what we hear. When I was in Rwanda, many tourists (including myself) came to the orphanage I was volunteering at with toys, clothes and books.  These were all received with smiling appreciation, and then promptly sold in the market the next day in order to buy money for powdered milk solution for the infants (an extremely expensive commodity in Rwanda).  If I had actually asked what the orphanage needed before I arrived, I could have saved myself and the orphanage a lot of hassle.
  • We cannot pay large fees to large companies in order to volunteer for only a few months. It is often these companies that hinder the development process, and the money often does not go directly to any projects on the ground.
  • We can be expected to be given a small stipend by respected volunteering organisations (see VSO or Tostan) or, if we are volunteering directly with a local NGO, we may be expected to pay for our own flights, food, and accommodation. But we should not pay a ‘middle-man’ organisation for this.
  • We cannot replace skilled, local workers, nor can we come in and take over. Ultimately, successful aid must be led by local people themselves – and we as the Western world can help facilitate this and assist it, but not lead it.
  • We can act as an assistant to the local workforce, and help out in areas that are understaffed or perhaps train locals in a new skill before we leave.
  • We cannot have any beneficial impact by spending only two months at a project. We will only begin work that may never be finished, and our impact will not be monitored.
  • We can spend a prolonged period of time overseas and measure the impact and need of our work, and create long-term sustainable solutions.

So do you want to help?  Then my advice is waiting.  Send a cheque, run a fundraising event, and bide your time.   Learn a useful skill and a relevant language, go travelling, go to University, spend a few years working – do whatever it is you have a passion to do, and then in a few years’ time use that passion to volunteer.

This way, when you finally do volunteer, you will be donating your experience and skill set (rather than just yourself) and you can have a beneficial, positive impact on the community you work with.