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You are here:Home>>Strategic Research & Analysis>>African aid: no more 'pity shit'
Tuesday, 09 October 2012 13:03

African aid: no more 'pity shit'

Written by Magatte Wade
Magatte Wade Magatte Wade Boytown


Western 'caring' for Africans is just as objectifying as old-fashioned racism


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 skin care products based on ancient Senegalese recipes



Last modified on Tuesday, 09 October 2012 13:10

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