On Bono, Vanity Fair and paternalism in foreign aid

I’ve been meaning to write this post since I was asked what I meant by connecting the OLPC program to paternalism. What really got me going though, was this series of posts by Ethan, Sokari and the Afromusing blog on Bono’s Vanity Fair issue. Kameelah at Black Looks writes another one of her great analysis pieces on it. Thanks to them we shall be talking about my issues with a lot of the kind of aid that comes to Africa and what it tends to say about how we are seen by a lot of those who claim to be here to help us.

Lets start with the observation I made in the post about African tertiary education. Namely that Helping out poor African children and teaching them to read, write and understand basic problem solving is sexy. Helping their older brothers and sisters gain the kind of knowledge and skills Africa really needs to develop, not so much.

So…. Why are people willing to spend significantly more time and energy helping us to gain basic literacy, and a lot less to help us go beyond that to the level of technical competence we need to actually hold our own in this world? To use a really well worn analogy, why be more willing to bring a man fish and than to teach him how to make boats and nets?

Well, quite simply its because it never occurs to you that the man is actually capable of fishing for himself. You see him as having limited agency and constantly needing you too stay alive. In layman’s terms, you think he’s too dumb to do it for himself.

This is not a particularly new perspective by the way. The entire ‘white man’s burden’ argument for colonization rested on the premise that Africans were too mentally/culturally/spiritually underdeveloped(depending on who was making the argument) to fend after themselves and so needed looking after by their more enlightened neighbors. In my experience any set of ideas that have had hundreds of years to bury themselves into our minds don’t disappear in some flash of enlightenment. Instead they just manifest themselves in totally new ways e.g. modern activism

Our new saviors are now coming to deliver us with food aid that destroys our farmers, used clothes that keep us from developing a clothing industry, used computers that kill our manufacturing industry before it even gets off the ground etc. And all without asking the people themselves what they need. Because who asks a child its opinion on anything?

This is not necessarily to say that they are bad people. I am willing to believe that a some of them have good intentions. That said, we all know what road those end up paving. The thing is that there is a tendency by otherwise decent people to see Africans in the same light as a lost puppy that needs looking after. Except we aren’t puppies. We are human beings no better or worse than those trying to speak for us. What we need is not to be treated like babies.

This is the reason that some of us get annoyed when Bono or whichever new celebrity feels it is their turn to take up Africa’s cause show up. Because the manner in which they do it tends to smack of a patronizing “oh you poor little dear, sit down and let me solve your problems for you. Don’t stress your tiny little brain on them” kind of paternalism that personally sets my teeth on edge. My guess, it does the same to a lot of the people who were talking at TEDGlobal. People who are convinced that there is a way for Africans to fix African problems tend to also be annoyed by people constantly telling them how someone else’s money and ideas will fix our problems.

Now, Bono was at TED so maybe he’s not in the same league as those I was talking about, but that crack he reportedly made about “middle class Africans” does not help his case in my eyes. Neither does a lot of what I;m hearing about the Vanity Fair article. I’ll wait and see though.

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7 Comments on “On Bono, Vanity Fair and paternalism in foreign aid”

  1. Gillian says:

    Listening in…

    I take your point about Africans taking hold of the reins of reform and fixing African problems without depending on others. I got frustrated with George Ayittey when he ended a strong call for African solutions to African problems with this response to the last question.

    Q. What initiatives related to Africa do you see as most important?

    Reform, reform, reform. Reform of the abominable political systems with its concentration of power. Only 16 out of the 54 African countries are democratic. Reform of the statist economic system to grant more economic freedom to the African people, as existed in their own traditional economic systems. And reform of Africa’s dysfunctional institutions. In particular, these six institutions are critical:

    An independent and free media (Only 8 African countries have this),
    An independent central bank,
    An independent electoral commission,
    An independent judiciary,
    An efficient civil service, and
    A neutral and professional security (military and police) forces.

    Give Africa these six institutions and Africans will do the rest of the job.

    …………..
    His last sentence suggests that someone should give Africa these six things. They are not small things, but he suggests someone should give them and Africans will do the rest. Of course these things are needed. But aren’t you saying that these are some of the things that Africans should be working strenuously towards, in their own way, with their own solutions?

    In my view, Ayittey threw away his whole argument for African-led reform when he wrote that last sentence. His whole piece on the TED site – http://blog.ted.com/2007/06/george_ayitteys.php

    What do you think?

  2. kwasi says:

    Thanks for the comment Gillian
    To be fair to Ayittey, I suspect that he meant that people interested in helping in Africa will best serve the continent by helping its countries become freer societies where its people are empowered to solve their problems.

    And it seems to me like his work in Ghana and Zimbabwe does not indicate a man who expects that pressure to come purely from outside sources.

  3. Uchenna says:

    good post… i’ve been wanting to write something about this issue too, but i need to finish reading the whole thing.

    one thing i’ll say so far is that i don’t think it’s succeeded in its stated goal of illustrating that “Africa is sexy”; rather, it tries to show that (as you said) helping poor Africans is sexy. so yeah, to rip a turn of phrase from Bono himself, it leaves a bad taste in my mind.

    and then i feel like i creep for hating because i know that Bono’s heart really is in the right place.

  4. kwasi says:

    Oh, I hated on Live 8 and Project Red too man. I’m sure the people behind both projects and this one too have really good intentions and want to help, but at the same time I’m close to my limits on how much liberal patronizing I can take. Even from people with the best of intentions.

    You really should write about it too. The perspective should be interesting.

  5. Tom says:

    Hi, Kwasi, I’ve been reading for a while but I haven’t commented before.

    You asked …

    So…. Why are people willing to spend significantly more time and energy helping us to gain basic literacy, and a lot less to help us go beyond that to the level of technical competence we need to actually hold our own in this world?

    Do you know anyone doing that kind of technical collaboration at all? I’m a lot more interested in technical stuff than in literacy (that’s probably wrong of me, but that’s where I am). So I’ve thought about a technical blog. (Not for talking about the issue you raise, but for really doing technical exchange.) I know that’s a very small thing, but do you think it might be useful for anybody?

  6. kwasi says:

    Good question Tom,
    My guess, someone will probably find it useful. Who depends on the topics you are talking about.

    And there’s nothing wrong with being focused on the technical stuff too. It matters about as much as basic literacy in my opinion

  7. Tom says:

    Thanks! (Sorry for the strange question.)


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