A good friend of mine who is interning at HRC asked me if I could join her class at the University on ‘Career Night’ and speak in a panel on careers in Africa. On further consultation, the unit lecturer told me that she wanted the students to hear from me, very candidly about how Africans view Americans who go to work in Africa and how to work together in “partnership” rather than using past “colonial” approaches which essentially emphasized what the American had to bring and/or “give” to Africans.
Part of this candid discussion was to help the students develop “appropriate attitudes” when foreigners come to work in Africa especially on development and conflict issues.
For a clearer understanding of what the class thought of Africa, I asked them for random thoughts on their views of Africa and what perceptions they had of Africans. I got beautiful, land of opportunity, beautiful people and of course, that Africa is a continent, not a country. Good start it was.
And so my rant began.
Oftentimes, there is a very reductive narrative about Africa, a very reducible portrayal of African people, and when Westerners are talking about Africa, it’s even more heightened by the already terrible victimization of the continent. I appreciated that the class was covering topics on African leaders and conflict.
My challenge though was that it is an open secret that though there is crippling corruption perpetuated by people in power in Africa; most of their pockets are lined by westerners and western syndicates which benefit from ongoing conflicts to rip off resources such as oil and minerals. They ensure that armed militia had weapons, and that their corrupt African allies have offshore bank accounts, massive mansions in their counties and some, guaranteed placement to high end schools and universities for their kin.
It is no secret either that the Aid culture has left African countries more debt ridden, more inflation prone, more vulnerable to impulses of the currency markets, and has made the poor poorer, and the growth slower. In my opinion, Aid is an unmitigated political and economic power play, primarily because it is not sustainable. This is not to say that aid is entirely bad for Africa, but because of the simple fact that Africa is a rich continent, with vast resources, only that Africans have absolutely no control over these resources.
Calls for more aid to Africa are growing louder, from the international community. This kind of aid has provided band-aid solutions to alleviate immediate suffering, but by its very nature cannot be the platform for long-term sustainable growth.
I am always appalled when foreigners, back from their volunteer work or short term placement in some African countries, give talks of how their experience was, and how, as an outcome of work there, they saved entire villages, and worse, entire countries.
I am reminded of an intervention where families in rural African states have mosquito nets donated to them. After a couple of nights, the women take the mosquito nets and use them in the gardens, to shield their crops from preying birds and rodents. While the foreigners pull out their hair about this inconceivable action, they fail to realize that they completely missed the priority for such a family. Fending for children and ensuring they have enough to eat supersedes the need to protect them from mosquitoes. But instead of taking the bottom-up approach that is need based, they do the opposite, by assuming what need is most important whilst in fact ignoring the most crucial.
Generally, westerners ask themselves how to deal with being a person of privilege while working in global development. This school of thought assumes that African developing nations are to be pitied. This attitude is despised by Africans, I can vouch for that. Every year we see thousands of “privileged” westerners eager to come “help the underprivileged” because they care.
This attitudes reeks of a sanctimonious benevolent westerners who claim they are coming to rescue the tragic continent that is full of a filthy, starving, uneducated population.
With this is mind, here is the attitude that would be ideal:
– Africans most definitely want to be engaged with the people who believe that they are worth struggling with, not just to be pitied
– If you approach your work with an attitude that you are privileged and that only your help can alleviate a situation, there will not possibly be authentic relations. No one, even the most underprivileged, likes to be looked down upon, even if they are in rugs
– If you have a condescending attitude towards other people, and ignore that you need to see other humans as also human, you are on the wrong path
– You may as well see yourself as the master and me as the slave.
I know that there are countless people in the nonprofit world who have done a great deal of good. But anyone who has a condescending attitude towards the poor should not set foot in the continent. Many from the developed world – in government, multilateral agencies, business, and academia – have a similar attitude.
Basically, it isn’t so difficult to see other humans as also human. If one has a perception of “privilege” we will welcome you with our African warmth, enjoy what your ‘privilege’ can offer and say good riddance when you leave.
And I sat back and watched the faces of the class.