“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.
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 Iwearyourshirt.com 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.’