Guardian Africa Network
Guardian Africa Network

African aid: no more ‘poverty porn’

By Magatte Wade

Last Saturday I spoke at the Harvard Women in Business Conference, an annual event that I love. I wore a bright blue dress in a sea of sober black suits and talked to them about the importance of being authentic in order to be happy. These young women, many of them ready to sentence themselves to a life of corporate status climbing, cried when I told them that only through being authentic could they be happy. It was one of the most poignant talks of my career.

Later, during a discussion on Going Global, a young woman asked, “For the Americans on the panel, how do you deal with being a person of privilege while working in global development?” My eyes lit up with fury as she directed her question specifically at the white Americans on the panel. I let them answer, then smiled and added with a wink: “I am an American, you know, and also a person of privilege.” She instantly understood what I meant.

Her question assumed that those of us in developing nations are to be pitied. I know as a Senegalese that her attitude is precisely what disgusts us about many who work at NGOs. Every year we see thousands of “privileged” young Americans and Europeans eager to come “help the underprivileged”. Don’t they understand how contemptuous that is?



The actor Djimon Hounsou performed a powerful rendition of Binyavanga Wainaina’s piece How not to Write about Africa. In the most compelling passage he describes how African wildlife is portrayed with dignity. We have all seen the majesty of giraffes, lions, zebras and elephants parading across the screen. But African people are either portrayed as corrupt, evil or pathetic. The blog Aid Thoughts created the category “poverty porn” after reading my article on Jeffrey Sachs’s Millennium Village project. For many of those who “care” about Africans, we are objects through which they express their own “caring”. This “caring” is just as objectifying as old-fashioned racism.

At the conference I replied to the young woman, “If you see us as human beings, there is nothing to deal with. We like to eat good food, we love to talk and laugh with our family and friends. We wonder about the world, and why so often bad is rewarded rather than good.” To give this particular young woman credit, she thanked me at the end and really internalised my perspective. She felt relieved by my message.

But why is it so difficult for people to see others as people? Why are so many NGOs filled with young people who are incapable of relating to us as human beings?

I prefer the humanity of a tough business person in a negotiation in which he or she is trying to make a deal. While there are jerks out there, I want to be engaged in relationships with people who believe that I’m worth struggling with, not just pitying. If you approach me with a worldview in which you are privileged and I need your help, there is no possibility of an authentic relationship. You may as well see yourself as the master and me as the slave.

I know that there are countless people in the NGO world that have done a great deal of good. But I would like to propose that NGOs either refuse to hire, or simply fire, anyone who has a condescending attitude towards the poor. We need to certify a new class of NGO: “No pity shit” NGOs. Moreover, the problem goes well beyond these organisations. Many from the developed world – in government, multilateral agencies, business, and academia – have a similar attitude. I don’t understand why it is so hard for some humans to see other humans as also human. Your perception of “privilege” is your problem. Get over it.

Magatte Wade was born in Senegal, educated in France, and is now based in New York. She is currently building her second company, Tiossan, which sells skincare products based on ancient Senegalese recipes.

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    • Tofolux

      @Magatte, I had some difficulty in locating your strategic msg in this article 1) because it is multi layered 2) the synergy or the flow in making the point that needs to be made. But I understand becos life as we know it is full of contradictions and it is how we repond to these contradictions. On the point of racism towards Africans in particular, I suggest you read a book called “The politics of Race”. It is worth noting that once again, America is fingered as a major culprit. The point I am trying to make is that americanism will become a filthy word. It will epitomise everything that is wrong in society and I will venture to say that this particular critiscm is warranted. I do not believe in the “Hollywood” portrayal despite it being a strategic tool to fool non Americans across the world. The other point iro NGO’s especially those who have foreign donors, I personally think that this must be further interrogated in the sense of their real contributions and the conflict of interests. We know that NGO’s have been mis-used in many instances and we never talk about their roles in overt and covert operations. And since we are generalising it would be good for all to know which NGO’s are to be trusted. Here I point to the eg in Palestine/Israel and other countries that have been fingered by the West because of their resources. The point I am passionate abt tho is that of Africans in particular and their contribution to conscientising the World. Cn u expand on this…

    • Robyn

      Thanks you for an enlightening and perceptive article. I belong to an international programme for gifted students that is based in America. I get incredibly annoyed when students carry out ‘charity’ projects that are seen in America as lifechanging for those who are having the project ‘done to them’, but which totally ignore culture and sensibility. Things like providing American readers to schools in Afghanistan or sending boxes of used library books to a school in a developing country. The most effective ‘problem solving’ is empowering people to become involved in their own issues and finding ways of dealing with them in their own, culturally appropriate ways. We are all part of the oneness of the human ocean – we are all capable, creative, innovative beings who hold our own destinies in our hands.

    • Nkopane

      Most engaging, very straight forward and well thought article. I agree, we need a new kind of NGO with different attitude and approach to the less fortunate.

    • http://www.salamanderclub.com The Salamander Club

      Why is it so difficult for people to see others as people? Why is it so hard for some humans to see other humans as also human? Chapter 9 of The Salamander Club takes these questions in the context of the Aid World and picks them to pieces.
      Here’s a quote: ‘Isn’t this just exactly where “hero tourism” originates from?’ asked Nilson. ‘The same mindset? Kids take a “gap year” in Africa, or India, or wherever, with the cover story of “making a difference”. But if you peel away the layers of the story, they go to make themselves feel good and dress up their CVs.’
      ‘Same with, “Death Metal for Life” or whatever they call it,’ said Ingrid.
      ‘Oh, if we’re looking for pompous, that has to take the prize,’ said Nilson. ‘Up on the stage with rock’n roll celebrities, shaking hands with presidents. But all you really did was make donations to the warlords. That must be like heroin for the Parasite.’

    • Ms Ann Thrope

      ” I don’t understand why it is so hard for some humans to see other humans as also human.”

      Quoted for truth.

      I work on an African problem in a European lab and the sick mix of pity/condescension with which Africa is viewed makes me gag.

    • Jack Sparrow

      @Magatte; I don’t think you go far enough. You are an excellent example for Africans; just a pity you choose to be based in the US. Maybe you should stand for political office in your home country and be the change you preach. I think that the saying: “Africa; good people; bad leaders” explains more than vilifying NGO’s and the Land Cruiser people. Africa shouldn’t need NGO’s. It should have honest leaders whose only contact with other nations should be based on the principals of contract, business, protection of the environment and doing what is best for all of their country’s people. Rant over.

    • Richard

      NGOs in Africa should be abolished. Africa needs to swim or sink by its own efforts. Propping up people doesn’t help them or help the person helping. Each side resents the other. I used to work with the underpriviledged in South Africa, so do not come to this conclusion easily. Societies evolve at their own pace, and you can’t simply jump between societies, or translate from one to the other. If everybody simply left Africa alone, letting them settle at their own level, so many problems would be resolved. Meddling has simply caused overpopulation which has caused untold problems. Leaving the continent alone would result in a period of chaos and death, but the end product would be much greater stability than the present situation. In the long-run, it will be better for everyone. People who kill with kindness do just that: they kill.

    • http://southafricana.blogspot.com Dave Harris

      I really like your honesty but you seem to be awakening to just how deeply racism festers in elite universities whose graduates btw are going to be running corporations around the world in the future. So rather than venting your frustrations to an audience already set in their view of the world or by getting angry when you are mistakenly “pitied” as an underprivileged African, common in the halls of elite institutions, try to apply your talents to eradicate the cancer of racism that starts in early childhood in the western world.

      Maybe you will soon realize the real purpose of the World Bank/IMF, charities, NGO in the developing world. See Jason Hickel’s article http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/jasonhickel/2012/09/28/the-world-bank-and-the-development-delusion/ So you see, it ain’t nothin to do with pity! Its all about resources and expanding markets!!! Similar to the corrupt twin devils, Bush and Blair, taking pity on the people of Iraq and deciding to invade under the pretext of bringing freedom and democracy to this oil rich state! Forgive me for sounding like a cynic, but those female Harvard graduates have already been indoctrinated, so there is not much you can do to change their entrenched views on Africa – its far too late in the game.

    • http://cd3wd.com alex weir

      Fraud proof voting will eradicate these prowestern robber presidents who litter the landscape & the third world. http://cd3wd.com/seev/

    • nguni

      Agree with Richard.
      As to Ms Wade’s plea regarding why the West does not see Africans as humans: I think the main reason is the incessant breeding without any concern about how the children’s education and feeding are going to be financed. Whites regard any adult who does this with distain. That and the baseless attitude of entitlement. For example those who view NGOs with distain because they don’t have the right attitude in their giving…!

    • Gavin Storrie

      Dave Harris! I am stunned. You have written something that is true, and untainted by pro ANC/anti-DA rabidness. The UN, the IMF, the WHO, and all the others are pro capitalism and Euro/America-centric. Giving “aid” is much easier than dealing with the exploitation and corruption they espouse and encourage: pay the natives money to keep them quiet while they steal the resources, is their way of “democratizing” the world.

    • Max

      I love the irony in how Dave Virus adopts exactly the patronizing, pitying attitude towards the author that is decried in the article. Nice going Dave. Another classic.

      Based on one piece of writing he presumes to give the writer career guidance for her life, basically telling her to become a nursery school teacher. I think it’s called a God-complex.

    • http://southafricana.blogspot.com Dave Harris

      @Max
      How very strange – I never mentioned “nursery” or “school” or “teacher” in my comment, so just by your surprising comment, its really you that’s threatened by the blog of a smart, privileged black female like Magatte Wade, who has the courage to challenge her peers at Harvard.

    • Max

      @Dave Harris

      No Harris you never used those exact words, you instructed Magatte; “Instead of [doing what you do] try to apply your talents to eradicate the cancer of racism that starts in early childhood in the western world.”

      Sounds a lot like telling her to go teach nursery school kids to me. Or is this your way of praisning your self because this is what you do yourself (you work with early childhood manifestations of racism in a Western country?)

      Furthermore, your opening remarks “I really like your honesty but you seem to be just awakening..” are tremendously patronising.

    • http://southafricana.blogspot.com Dave Harris

      @Max
      Again, your stereotyping of women is YOUR interpretation. But rather than putting words in my mouth, why can’t you let Magatte can tell me herself if I am patronizing. She is thoroughly capable of doing so.

      She describes her talk as “one of the most poignant” , “eyes lit up with fury” – all these point to the fact that she did not expect some of the reactions from the audience. Similarly, her questions “But why is it so difficult for people to see others as people? Why are so many NGOs filled with young people who are incapable of relating to us as human beings?” suggests that she may not have experienced the overt racism that has been part of our South African experience and parts of the US, for centuries where white superiority and black inferiority are normalized from early childhood.

    • http://www.xen.co.za Hugh Robinson

      Oh some talk such poppycock. Of coarse the one whom posed the question was black and likely involved in the donor food chain. On the other side of the coin the fact that these kids try do something is better than what Africans do for themselves which is a flat zero.

      The fact that these kids do it for free does not seem to count. Ask an African to VOLUNTEER and his hand goes out for payment.

      Come on people you are all brown noses. I watch your ilk at conferences and funding events talking the biggest load of S—-. possible to ensure you have a job.

      Thinking up all sorts of projects that have no real business plan or end. If it does not work you lot walk away when the money ends and think up another way of spending donor money. And do not try tell me you lot do not play the guilt trip game using kids to bend the minds and bleed money from the hard working in the USA and other countries.

      This letter has confirmed once and for all that Africa and the people we sponsor to help them are not appreciated.

    • Nguni

      @ Hugh Robinson: agree 100%

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