Starving children with swollen bellies and vacant gazes stare into the camera while a musical melody epitomising agony and inviting sympathy plays in the background. Sponsor a child, save a life, give clean water, cure HIV/AIDS, the list of how you can save the entity which is ‘Africa’ continues.
What the gentle voice speaking in the advert does not say is visit a country within the continent, invest, and recognise that it is not simply one big jungle of poverty, illness, death and corruption. Bono, Geldof et al are singing on stage, the tragedy is not only the hungry child with the vacant gaze staring at you through the TV screen, but that this along with their lyrics are what you will believe Africa is, perhaps you will change the channel, or maybe you like many before you will decide to go and “help.”
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum, ‘Africa’ is a place of happiness, joy, colours with everyone dancing around smiling. One example of this is the controversial Cadbury’s Dairy Milk advert aired in 2009. The company were accused of perpetuating ‘colonial stereotypes’ in their television campaign on which a number of people in an African village are seen dancing around a giant head with stereotypical African features. Critics accused the company of depicting Africans as “buffooning simpletons.”
Voodoo, 419 scammers, corrupt leaders, slums (which incidentally have given birth to the idea of poverty tourism), happy people, hungry people, drums, polygamy, lawlessness, child soldiers the list of how Africa is depicted in popular culture and the media goes on. It and its starving children are on the lips of every parent in convincing kids in the West to finish their food meaning that from childhood we are given this perception of starving Africa.
These stereotypical images are not associated with any one particular country, in fact very rarely are countries, particularly within Sub- Saharan Africa, allowed to have their own identity. Africa has become the umbrella term, a continent which through sweeping generalisations becomes the bearer of every type of misery, ailment and joy which any one of the countries within it experiences.
In every sphere be it academia, media, International Relations, politics and business ‘Africa’ seems to hold a certain image, almost as if it has been assigned a particular role which it has to fill. One may even say the headlines of how Africa is the new paradise for investors and how its future is bright also reeks of patronisation due to the fact that it is often presented as such a shock that the continent has such potential.
Then of course there is the ethical spin put towards buying items from the continent, American company Walmart have a product range known as ‘Full Circle Exchange.’ This is a collection of products handcrafted by women around the world. Some of the items on offer are wrist purses, baskets and bowls made by women in Rwanda. The way these are marketed one cannot help but wonder if the selling point is not the quality or look of the image, but the fact that it will appeal to the philanthropist within a shopper. This concept is almost like a double edged sword; on one hand importing African products from Africa is important. However, this being part of a ‘good practice’ venture rather than a business and manufacturing related decision is more hindering rather than progressive.
The reproduced idea of Africa as one huge warzone of barren earth, potholed roads and a people with their hands held out asking for money or as a place which has stunned the world by having industries, investment potential and educated people seems to be a continuing invitation to what some may call new forms of colonialism.
I became aware of something I started to call Philanthropic Colonialism (NonProfits) are a massive business, with approximately $316 billion given away in 2012 in the United States alone and more than 9.4 million employed… As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back.’ It’s what I would call ‘conscience laundering’ — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity. But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place.” - Peter Buffet (Warren Buffet’s son), Chairman NoVo Foundation
Writing in the New York Times, Peter Buffet talked of his experience with the concept of ‘Philanthropic Colonialism’, admitting that he, like his fellow wealthy donors chose to give money to causes and countries of which they had very little knowledge, allowing them to feel as if they were saving the day.
In the piece Mr Buffet writes
‘I would hear people discuss transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with little regard for culture, geography or societal norms.’
Such a statement certainly has echoes of colonialism, after all the British came to Africa and in the process of taking over the land dismissed all local identity and norms, whilst basking in the glory of their new found wealth. Similarly a lot of philanthropic colonialism allows outsiders to decide what a particular country needs, put their money towards it, obtain that feeling of ‘being moral’ and in the cases of many foundations, also obtain tax breaks. While through this process, people are left marginalised, disempowered and recipients of what outsiders believe they need.For example, the media reports that ‘Africa’ (bear with me in following the traditional route of not differentiating between countries) has a high rate of HIV. In New York sits a wealthy philanthropist who reads this and thinks ‘they need condoms’. With the best of intentions I set up a condom distribution programme in order to cut the risk of the spread of disease. What I do not know is that studies have found that HIV rates in Sub- Saharan Africa are unlikely to drop in any one region as a result of free condoms, in fact the most effective tool for HIV/ AIDS eradication is education related to safe-sex and reducing promiscuity. By this time I am basking in morality at the little good I have done for those poor Africans far away, instead of seeing that I like many before me, have decided what they need and thrown money at it. Once more the traditional belief of western racial superiority prevails.
There have also been scholars who have taken it a step further and called NGOs, IGOs and UN Agencies the new colonialists of Africa.
In 2008 an articles published in Foreign Policy called NGO’s The New Colonialists stating
Seeing jobs that need to be done, the new colonialists simply roll up their sleeves and go to work, with or without the cooperation of states. That can be good for the family whose house needs rebuilding or the young mother who needs vaccinations for her child. But it can be a blow to the authority of an already weak government. And it may do nothing to ensure that a state will be able to provide for its citizens in the future.”
Of course there was a backlash to this due to how effective many such organisations have been saving lives in Africa and beyond.
However let us not forget that for every ‘good’ NGO, there are many whose practices are not dissimilar to that of past colonial masters and then there are those whose campaigns continue to regurgitate that same patronising poor Africa identity which ultimately keeps it in chains.
The thin line that separates weak states from truly failed ones is manned by a hodgepodge of international charities, aid agencies, philanthropists, and foreign advisers. This armada of non-state actors has become a powerful global force, replacing traditional donors’ and governments’ influence in poverty-stricken, war-torn world capitals. And as a measure of that influence, they are increasingly taking over key state functions, providing for the health, welfare, and safety of citizens. These private actors have become the “new colonialists” of the 21st century. ‘-Foreign Policy, 2008- Michael A. Cohen, Maria Figueroa Küpçü, and Parag Khanna,
Historically supporters of colonialism justified its practice as being the antidote to the savage behaviours of those colonised. The policies put in place by the colonisers which resulted in economic exploitation, destruction of local heritage and the creation of a culture of dependency, were all essential to ease the white man’s burden. The Marxists associate colonialism with the creation of poverty, dependency and exploitation.
Early this year Oxfam revealed its new campaign ‘Let’s make Africa famous for its epic landscapes not its hunger’ then there was ‘Let’s make Africa famous for its food markets not food shortages.’ Plastered around the UK these adverts showed bright and beautiful images of Africa, ironic, considering Oxfam is responsible for those original images of Africa’s hunger and food shortages. The entire campaign was patronising and as described by Tolu Ogunlesi revealed the charity’s ‘Misguided Messiah Complex.’
In terms of exploitation and NGO’s the most disturbing story is the subject of the new documentary to be screened at the Toronto Film Festival titled Mission Congo.
Blessing International, an aid organisation set up by televangelist Pat Robertson maintained its presence during the Rwandan genocide. Robertson used his TV channel to appeal for donations and raised millions of dollars which he claimed were being used to provide supplies for Rwandan refugees fleeing to the DRC. The documentary reveals how Robertson would divert his private flights to assist with the conflict in order to deliver equipment to the diamond mining concession which he runs. Under the guise of delivering aid Robertson was sending over supplies to a number of mines to obtain diamonds from river beds, using the money which people had donated for the Rwandan refugee crisis.
It is stories like these that perpetuate the idea that NGO’s too have traits of colonialism and take full advantage of the power and influence they have in Africa.
It may be too harsh a statement to say that every NGO, philanthropist and agency is a coloniser of Africa, nourishing and destroying it simultaneously.
The colonialists had one thing in common, that of dehumanising those that they colonised, does society today dehumanise an entire continent by constantly giving it a ‘less than/ more than’ complex? By deciding what it needs and throwing money at it? By choosing to depict and perceive it as a place which needs saving or as a place which is obtaining civilisation against all odds?
You really want to ‘help Africa?’ the answer is to drop the stereotypes, the saviour complex and wake up and smell the coffee- which incidentally is likely to be from Kenya, Ethiopia or Rwanda, yes that’s right they have coffee and coffee shops there and a whole lot more.
Samira Sawlani is a UK based writer specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa, in particular Kenya, Uganda and Somalia. She also writes fiction and human interest stories set in Africa. A holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London she has previously worked with the Commonwealth Secretariat and as an International Election Observer for the Kenyan elections in 2013. Aside from journalism she has also worked in the emergency humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. Twitter: @samirasawlani
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- Mission Congo (guardian.com)
- Oxfam’s Misguided Messiah Complex
- The Charitable industrial complex, Peter Buffet (nytimes.com)
- African culture made in China (mediadiversityuk.com)
- The End Of Western ‘Spheres Of Influence’ Death And Fall Of Africa’s Big Men (mediadiversityuk.com)
- Saving Lives, a step towards freedom not dependence
- The New Colonialists (foreignpolicy.com)