When the "crisis" is in our attitude
"The culture of aid treats Africans like they're idiots, like they don't know what's best for themselves. We treat Africans as if, if we weren't there, they'd starve to death, because they couldn't figure out how to get food themselves."
Recently, I added a blog from Africa to the rail on the side. It had come to my attention by a sort of backdoor referral -- My mother found it through Xtreme English, a blogger who is a frequent visitor at Ronniecat's blog, and she passed it on because the young woman who runs the blog had featured several pictures of her Rhodesian ridgeback Sheba. (above)
As I poked around the blog, however, I was delighted and inspired by what this Norwegian-Swedish family is doing in Niger, helping local farmers to cultivate the food plants that naturally grow in the arid conditions of the region.
I have often read of the need to avoid making native populations aid-dependent, but always in the context of "Does aid work?" and not often in the context of "How can you help people without making them dependent?" The Garvi family's life work, The Eden Foundation, provides an answer to the latter question.
It begins with assuming -- not "accepting" -- the normalcy of their lives. Not "normal for them" but simply "normal."
We in the West have not yet left behind the cultural racism of the 19th century, in which we assume that non-Western people need to adopt our lifestyles in order to be whole. We see people living in mud or wattle huts, living a pre-industrial life, and assume that they would be better off if they had homes and tools and clothing like ours.
This toxic colonial attitude works in two ways: It is as condescending to assume that others should be like us as it is to assume that they should remain in their "picturesque" pre-industrial state, as if they were characters in a theme park that we should preserve for historic purposes. In either case, we are looking at them with the assumption that what they do is in some sense substandard and inappropriate when perhaps it is simply different.
At which point, our rush to help becomes not only a display of condescension but potentially harmful to those who we think need the intervention of the industrial world. And the attitude brings with it a sense of self-congratulatory self-promotion that is particularly galling to those who can see the situation from a point of view other than the height of a "superior culture."
In this documentary -- edited for YouTube into six 9-minute segments -- a Norwegian TV crew looks at the supposed famine in Niger in 2005, which both the BBC and the UN found shocking but which the local people, including the Garvi family, did not recognize as having occurred.
A couple of quotes from the documentary:
From Esther Garvi, on close-ups of dying children covered with flies (who, according to Doctors Without Borders, are dying of malaria, not starvation) : It's difficult to see dying children. It's not pretty. You can't think "This didn't happen. This child didn't die." You can feel the children's suffering in your heart. That reality isn't pretty, but it deserves some dignity. Not to show death right in your face. The flies and the disease. We wouldn't do this to our own children. There are limits to what journalists are allowed to do to our own people. But when it's Africans, it's okay. They can't read or write, so it doesn't matter.
And from journalist Michael Maren: The culture of aid treats Africans like they're idiots, like they don't know what's best for themselves. We treat Africans as if, if we weren't there, they'd starve to death, because they couldn't figure out how to get food themselves.
I realize 45 minutes is a major investment in the on-line world, but I think when you get about three minutes into the first segment, you'll want to finish the process.