Friday, February 1, 2013

"Giving," "Superman-ing," and Novelty Babies

In the past couple of days, something that keeps coming up in conversation is community service in African countries, how "Westerners" who want to do some sort of community service see "Africa," and how they act while doing that community service.
First of all, there's this idea of "Africa," as some poverty-and-starvation-stricken wasteland, where everyone is a dying baby with dirt on their face and a spine you can see through their skin. I promise - that's not what it's like. The thing is, there are so many of these NGOs and good-hearted people who come to Africa with these grand ideas of how they're going to help people. The problem with this is that they don't really understand the communities which they're trying to help. I have two examples.

First, there's the TOMS shoes project, which is really well-known in the States. A couple weeks ago, a group of students went to fit and distribute the donated shoes to some local kids. After everyone returned from their various projects that day (I had worked at an orphanage - more on that later), we were discussing whether the TOMS project was really a good idea. First of all, giving shoes to little kids is the least sustainable project EVER. TOMS knows that for it to work, it's not the point to give a kid a pair of shoes once, it's necessary to do so every couple months as their feet grow.

Also, with TOMS, projects of the "giving" sort kind of mess up the economy. While people keep on trying to work towards a sustainable society, where people work, earn money, and buy things, these "giving" projects mess up the chain. The kids parents haven't paid for the shoes, which might be because they don't have money, but maybe not. What if they might have gotten a job in a shoe factory, but they don't, because TOMS doesn't have factories in the city where they're distributing the shoes, and the reason their kid has to wear donated shoes is because they don't have that job. On the other hand, if their IS a factory that employs people and makes shoes, TOMS is undermining their business and making it even harder for those people to make money.

See the problems with "giving" projects?

Secondly, there are the sorts of projects that seem more sustainable on paper, but they're executed in communities that the charities or NGOs or foreign individuals have no idea about. For example, there was a project to install wells in rural villages so that the women there wouldn't have to walk for hours each day to get water. Seems like a good idea on paper, sure. Except that within a few months, the women had purposefully destroyed the well.

Whoever started the project knew that the community didn't have water nearby, and knew that the women spent lots of time out of the village getting the water. What they didn't consider was that getting water was the only time each day that the women had the chance to get out of the village and away from their husbands - essentially, the water time was their girl time, and having a well in the village was messing with that. While the project was good-hearted, the charity had such a one-sided view of the community, and such a shallow view of what went on there made a good-hearted project a flop.

And there is the problem with the "I'll-be-superman-and-swoop-in-and-fix-the-problems" projects. I'll call these "superman" projects. See the problems?

While these are two somewhat different approaches to doing community service, they're similar in that they neglect the complexity and capability of the societies and communities in African nations. They see entire communities as just a group of people that needs one need taken care of, such as water, or shoes. Nice thought, but when you neglect every other facet of life, it doesn't work out so hot.

SECOND THING is how people act when doing community service. Let me describe a few pictures to you, and you can decide whether they sound familiar. I hate to add in race here, but I don't think you can ignore it. A picture of a white, teenage girl, smiling really big, holding up a little black baby who just looks confused. A picture of a white guy, standing in the middle of a bunch of black pre-schoolers, all holding up peace signs. You know what pictures I'm talking about, and it's not that the pictures are all that bad in themselves. Thing is, the mindset in taking the pictures is "Oh, look at these cute African babies," and that's wrong.

The other week, I went to work for the day at the Sandra Lee Orphanage here in Swaziland. It was my first time there, and I didn't know the kids' names, and I didn't speak much siSwati, and essentially, I was someone who had showed up to kick soccer balls around, and not much else. I didn't know the kids, and was honestly a little confused on what we were doing there.

Then, I look over and see one of the other girls from school, a white girl, taking pictures of one of the white guys from school holding one of the kids in his lap. Don't get me wrong - really nice students, but it was bizarre. They'd known the kid for five minutes, and they were already taking these pictures? It's like the kids are some sort of novelty, just because they're black, and in an orphanage in "Africa." I've never seen a black person do this with a black baby they don't know, and I've never seen a white person do it with a white baby they don't know. I hate to say that race is a factor, but it just seems like it is.

It especially bothers me when it's in this sort of "one day service project" scenario. It's totally understandable if you've been working with the kids for months, and know their names, and are really going to miss them later, but in this instant, and most instances, that's not the case. In this instant, it was just treating people like novelties, cute pictures to show their friends back home, "look what a good person I am, holding up a little black kid in Africa. I'm making his life SO good."

It bothers me.

Two sites that I've seen in the past couple months related to this are and - they're both pretty sarcastic, but they make you think.


  1. This exactly reflects my feelings on well-intended, poorly executed foreign aid. I'm studying abroad with YES in Bosnia, and I've been volunteering with other foreigners for a while now at an orphanage, feeling rather useless. I definitely agree with the racial comment, but I would also argue that it goes deeper, just to the "I'm helping poor kids, look!" Cameras aren't allowed at this orphanage, something I completely support. Thanks for the thoughtful post :)

  2. I think you totally hit the nail on the head, it's a frustrating problem because so many people legitimately want to help, it's just misdirected and mishandled. I see it a lot in Oman, where people don't necessarily know how or even what a charity does, they just know it's "good," throw money at it and get a free t-shirt. So from this perspective, I think there is definitely something positive about having volunteers physically involved with the charity's work, even if they're practically only there as observers. However you're right that this can quickly morph into a kind of superficial voluntourism; it very fine line.

  3. I agree with everything you said but want to add that it is not always race that makes those pictures- it is more of a distinct us-them dynamic in the picture. I have been guilty of this when working with white children (I am white). But your arguments are correct.

    You should check out Andrew Mwenda. Here is a quick special on him from NPR:
    He also has a provocative TED talk.

    Keep up your ethical questions!

  4. Thanks so much, you just stated exactly what I find uncomfortable about such aid projects. Not that they aren't well-intentioned, but knowledge is far more valuable.