On Bono, Vanity Fair and paternalism in foreign aidPosted: June 22, 2007
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.