A small yet vocal community (re: Kiva and 1 Million Shirts debates) has grown in the face of poorly created, managed and implemented NGO’s in the developing world. Whomever one chooses to follow of the big three (Sachs, Collier or Easterly), there is a consensus that the American public are both misinformed and uniformed.
In response, some have taken to creating ways to educate people about how to evaluate programs. Today, Professor Laura Seay wrote a piece on her blog ‘Texas in Africa’ titled Savior Complex. In the post Seay tries to unpack why there has been a growing interest in the development world and why Africa seems to be the focal point. In short, she says it is because of visibility, HIV/AIDS and celebs. She goes in to much further depth in regards to these points and I encourage reading the post to get a full picture of what she argues.
I fall under the generation of complete Africa exposure, so I can appreciate how it has come to be. For myself, I was never particularly interested in the continent. A trip after graduating college to Mexico led me to understand the impact of globalization on the third world, but my interests were firmly in domestic politics and issues. I took a position as a teacher as an AmeriCorps member. Realizing that I did not want to be a teacher, I lept at the opportunity to spend a year in Kenya as an admin assistant for a center for disabled children in Western Province. This blog came out of that decision and records many of my experiences.
My time there, while short, exposed me to both the value and harm of NGOs. The center where I worked was founded and run by Catholic sisters and provided a place where the community’s disabled could access therapy. Staffed by Kenyans from the area, the program’s strength was in the fact that the services were not provided by imported health professionals. Unfortunately, being run by wazungu hindered community ownership. An understanding of this has allowed for the slow process of handing it over to a full Kenyan staff and management team.
Ironically, it was an orphanage founded and run by a Kenyan that exposed me to many of the negative aspects of international involvement. At this time, I will not use the organizations name, but it brought mission teams to the orphanage throughout the year to educate the children about Jesus and the bible. The missionizing was presented through sports. With bags and containers filled with balls, the group of college and high school kids played with the students and scared them into believing Jesus is their savior. They were empowered by the spirit of the children, took pictures of them to make their Facebook profile pictures, listened to songs performed by the kids, ate their American food that they brought with them and then went home.
The kids had fun for the week. Who does not like playing around for a week? They had new balls to play with. Basketballs, footballs, volleyballs, soccer balls and Frisbees soon broke or were not used because they did not know what to do with them (ever see kids play soccer with a football? it is both bizarre and funny because the game is made up of squib kicks in every direction but the one intended). Back home, the young men and women returned to tell tales of eating ugali for one meal and the African kids who did not have shoes until we came and bought some for them.
A week later, the kids forgot that they even had visitors and returned back to their school work. They had fun, but lost a week that could have otherwise been spent learning. Knowing that they come and go, the kids perception of wazungu was becoming one of quick visits and gifts. It is no wonder that people expected me to be able to financially support every program they proposed.
I have taken a bit of a rounded approach to what I wanted to get at and why I titled this post what I did. Many Americans are exposed to some sort of volunteering work. I can’t pull on statistics but I feel safe in making this claim based on community, school and church programs. Some will just give money, but a lot will join in one-off things like a Thanksgiving soup kitchen or a walk-a-thon. People get to do something that helps others in need and it makes them feel good. They feel better because it makes them feel good to help out. Most likely, they will do it again because of how it made them feel. Does this sound familiar?
While there is a larger investment in going to Africa for a service trip, the goal and the outcome are the same. Many people who doe these trips already did something similar like Habitat for Humanity. They got to build a house and feel good because they made a home for a family without one. What they do not realize is the fact that this new home now goes to a family who cannot pay the taxes to keep it. It is too easy to not follow through and with a focus on the good feelings that come out of the experience, people do not want to imagine that they were possibly doing harm. “How can I be doing harm when I am helping a person have shelter?” one might ask.
The big organizations like, Teach for America, are a great example of this (full disclosure, I am now working at an AmeriCorps grant receiving organization). Everyone knows what TFA does, but what is it doing in terms of sustainability? Are they working with their communities to not only educate the children but to make it so that the children want to come back and take the jobs of TFA members? What is the TFA exit strategy? There is no doubt a need to improve the quality of American schools but is bringing in untrained college grads the complete solution? I believe that it can have a part in the change, but it is not a sustainable program.
Where is this going? How can we expect to remove the paternalistic views on Africa when we do it to ourselves? We have a welfare system that punishes people for trying to find jobs. You either get your welfare check, MediCare, and food stamps or go to work. Of course it is not always that simple, but that is the general way the programs work. The American people treat the American poor as if they are individuals who are in need of our saving through programs like TFA and welfare. Some of the larges push back seems to come from an equally wrong point of view that says we need to allow the markets and hard work to fix the problem.
As long as the savior complex exists, in regards to the poor of America, it will be even easier to maintain the same view when looking to the rest of the world. I suggest that the first thing to be done is the removal of the word ‘help’ from the discourse. As Teddy said in the 1 million shirts phone conference, “it is time for the world to take off the training wheels.” There is no better way to describe the way that the poor in general are treated.