The dilemma of presenting “Africa” to “the West”; the image trap

In light of our previous posts on the the power of positive portrayals, here’s the dilemma of presenting “Africa” to “the West”:

  1. More money is available in the West than in Africa (even when the Western stock markets have crashed and the economies of the West are in recession).
  2. Africa has lots of places to put that money to good use.
  3. The West is more likely to give money to Africa, when Africa pulls on its heartstrings.
  4. To pull on the heartstrings of the West, Africa presents its many “dire” needs (and there is no shortage really “dire” needs).
  5. In the presentation of Africa’s dire needs, the positive Africa gets lost – usually totally lost.
  6. Compassion fatigue and cynicism sets in; but see #1, #2, and #3 again . . . try harder at #4?

It’s a vicious cycle, and we all fall into this trap.

What can we do about this dilemma?

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8 thoughts on “The dilemma of presenting “Africa” to “the West”; the image trap

  1. David Ker says:

    Ooo, black blog. I like it. Here I am in Africa again. I return convinced that Africa does not need aid. In fact, I might be so bold as to say that if all aid was cut off immediately that the net result in 20 years would be far more positive than if we continue dumping dollars on the continent. The reason (to be simplistic) is that aid turns a people into passive receptors. When entrepreneurial individuals look for opportunity to prosper it naturally results in new things being brought to their own people. But they went out and sought it. They knew how to adapt it for the local situation. The coco-cola-ization of Africa has maxed out. It’s now people within Africa who will change Africa. Aid just hinders that process.

    Um, that was a really long incoherent comment. Blame it on jetlag. 🙂

    • Ben says:

      I’m glad you like it. I’m not a fan of the black ,but it has the fonts and format that I want (for now).

      Jetlag or no jetlag . . . you are always good for a few broad sweeping generalizations ;-).

      So what do you call what you are doing?

      My personal experience is–and that’s all I can go by here–is that a timely little bit of cash infusion at key points can help break opportunities wide open.

      I personally have been the beneficiary of timely “aid.”
      – College scholarships.
      – gifts of cash, so I could eat while a totally dirt-poor college student.
      – a father-in-law who co-signed for my first apartment.
      – wealthy kids get “aid” all the time from parents and other environmental factors.
      – someone who gave my my first temp job in DC because her husband was from Ghana; she took the time to show this poor, clueless MK what it would take to survive in the rough and tumble office world.

      Sometimes it’s as simple as a break in the rent, or a timely loan to help put a kid through college, or just some up-front capital that helps gets a business started.

      I think there are right ways of giving aid and wrong ways. Bottom line for me: a lot of people here can get a lot more out of a dollar than any of us can. Sometimes, it just brings a little extra happiness to a hard-working person who hasn’t had many breaks in life.

      PS, there are tons of Kenyans who are quite rich in case you were wondering.

  2. David Ker says:

    “So what do you call what you are doing?”

    I am a member of an old school post-industrial capitalist colonialist ethnocentric patronizing aid organization that is trying very hard to change. 🙂

    And, eesh, you’re right that black is a bit tough on the eyes but I’ve always had a weakness for black blogs (see for example.)

  3. Rombo says:

    Ben,I think the problem is we begin to consider the problem when the wealth is already in hand. I think we need to step back and consider the means and opportunity to create wealth as the beginning of this dilemma.

    I know it’s a longer route and it takes a great deal more effort, but as one who is a citizen of a 45 year old nation that is still holding out a begging bowl for food aid, I have to say, there comes a time to wean the child off the milk already.

    I believe we should be driven by a desire to empower people to creatively and productively work their part of the garden because such productivity and creativity is a fundamental way in which we express our humanity and personally encounter God. That’s a big part of my theology.

    I do recognise, of course, that reality is far richer and more complex than theory and that sometimes the need is great and urgent and aid is really the answer.

    And,I agree that support systems have a place within communities; that they are useful in propping up those in need at appropriate times in their lives and; that the instances you mention are good examples of this. But I do see a problem when aid begets the need for more aid, creating dependence rather than engendering independence. That skew is not the way that things were meant to be.

    I’ve wandered off track, I think. Forgive.

    David, just so you know, I’ve been friends with your organisation for a good many years and just the other day I was thinking to myself that you’ve taken some solid steps in the right direction these past few years. I’ve come to this conclusion as I’ve interacted regularly with SIL/Wycliffe people in the other parts of my life. Your and Eddie Arthur’s blogs have helped cement the impression further. I just thought you should know.

  4. Ben says:

    Well said. I certainly think most forms of handouts do create these dependencies. Still, I don’t think it has to be stark either/or. (Maybe I’m too much of a naive idealist).

    Another major complexity is the completely different economies at play. What works fine in a hard-working, rural agricultural setting, suddenly doesn’t cut it when the population booms and everyone is looking to support their education so that they can make it in the new urban technological world.

    I firmly believe in empowerment, and the long, hard-fought road to wealth generation. But like I’ve said earlier here and in other places, even hard-working entrepreneurs sometimes get their jump-start with a small infusion of capital.

    I think the galling thing is when we see such wealth being squandered in the West and by the wealthy here and know how much better that capital could be invested in genuine wealth generation for those who need it.

    Then again, when I first moved here, I had a steady stream of people at my door with one sad story after another. I said, “No” as politely as I could to every single one for six straight months. (The steady stream died down quickly.) I’m sure I still have neighbors who see me squandering precious capital every day now too – date night, meat, Western food, travel, etc.

    Still, we’ve been able to see a few people (some in pretty dire situations) improve their lot simply with some well-timed loans, some marketing help, and a strategic savings plan.

    As you’ve both mentioned, one way of solving the dilemma is to cut off any form of assistance completely. But as one who has personally benefited from gifts as I grew up (self-supported now) and has seen the effectiveness of strategic aid (micro-loans, educational scholarships, etc.), I think well-directed capital and relational aid can do a lot of good.

    Personally, I’d like to see poor Africans (generalization, I know) have more confidence in their entrepreneurial opportunities and capabilities for wealth generation. But I’d also like to see the West be more generous with their wealth, so that they can invest more capital strategically into wealth generation to alleviate poverty (not to assuage guilt or simply because someone pulled on their heartstrings.) It’s a lot easier to turn your back on dire needs completely. I suppose we need good honest brokers – steeped in local effectiveness – in that process.

    BTW: This post was spurred on by a visit with some of my colleagues to a church in the UK, where we all kind of lost sight of Africa’s goodness.

    PS – I seem to recall someone recently asking for a gift in the form of an airline ticket and hotel accommodations to a certain historic event. I suppose that kind of handout would have been very welcome ;-).

  5. Rombo says:

    🙂 Ah but see, I wasn’t asking for a handout when I said I thought my friends ought really to have thought of sending me to Obama’s inauguration seeing as it fell on my birthday. I was expressing a sense of entitlement and a degree of indignation that no one even attempted to make it happen.

    We’re agreed on the short-term infusions of cash which is why I qualified what I said with the concession that support systems have a place in communities. Charity should be built into each society because it benefits both the giver and the receiver.

    But when I look at Africa and consider how much AID we’ve received over the years and where we are still in the global scheme of things, it breaks my heart.

    Still, I concede that it’s not black and white, it’s varying shades of gray. And, you are right, there is such a thing as strategic giving which can make a significant difference in the lives of individuals if done with wisdom. This is not generally what I mean when I speak of AID.

  6. David Ker says:

    Thank you for your nice comment, Rombo.

  7. Ben says:

    I just couldn’t resist an opportunity for a good tease. What’s up with your friends? ;-).

    And most of that aid has lined the pockets of crooks and helped them form monopolies that kept honest entrepreneurs from succeeding. It is indeed a huge tragedy. (Just like the crooks on Wall Street.) When I watch the kinds of moves the leaders here have been making over the last year, I can only shake my head in disbelief. How do they keep getting away with this?

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