17 May 2011

Africa: From Charity to Industry

Matt Muspratt, who writes an excellent blog, provides some additional comments to my post on the Guardian discussing poverty tourism.
But more problematic than poverty tourism per se is the prism through which NGOs like Water 1st insist their visitors gaze: The prism of Africa as charity case.

Indeed, for all the eyes these trips open, I strenuously reject the assertion from a Water 1st staffer that “It's a better way of seeing real life in a country than you can see any other way.” This is because rather than providing a “better way,” Water 1st is in actuality requiring visitors to view African communities “their way” -- that is, primarily as objects of Western aid.

A trip organized and hosted by a Western NGO inherently reinforces the instinct embedded in 11-year-olds. These NGOs are asserting there is no such thing as Africa on its own terms, just Africa in the context of Western aid...

Requiring the public to view tough Ohio schools as needing rescue by a white calvary -- or requiring “poverty” and “hunger” to be synonyms and Mortenson’s narrative to describe AfPak aid -- yields undesirable consequences and prevents Ohio schooling, the poor, and Afghanistan and Pakistan from being understood on their own terms.

That NGOs are packaging Africa trips with Western-aid tinted glasses does not bode well for adding nuance to an 11-year-old’s concept of Africa and Africans.
I think that Matt effectively gets to the heart of one of the most significant problems with poverty tours. In my original post, I came from the perspective of accepting the desire of people to have first-hand experience and for NGOs to provide it. It does not make me comfortable, but it does exist.

Therefore, I advocate for immersion trips as a way to address the issues Matt brings up conceding that the trips will in fact take place. If an experience leaves people feeling no different than his 11 year-old cousin that it is a wild failure. Seeing the complexity of poverty can be a way to introduce the nuance that both Matt and I would like to see.

I hope for the day when Matt, or anyone, can be in the same situation and the question is not about what charity work he does in Ghana, but what industry he works in. No different than that of a person who does any other line of work in any other country. That will be the day when Africa is no longer seen as the 'dark continent' full of charities, but one with many countries and industries that contribute to the global economy just like any other high-income nation.