There is a lot of debate as to “how to fix Africa”. First of all, I’m not sure that it’s broken. The media would have us believe that corruption, famine, HIV-AIDS and constant human suffering are the faces of Africa. And, when that becomes boring or overwhelmingly depressing; they switch gears and show us the bright, beautiful (white) faces of rock stars, Hollywood movie stars and whatever other stars they can pluck from the sky who tell us how they are saving Africans through their latest causes-du-jour. After all, stars matter right? So, if they are in Africa buying children (say what you will, Madonna, it’s the case!) or improving their public relations as their publicists all recommend then we’d all better follow suit! They are smarter simply because they are rich and on television or have been given the gift of a melodious voice. And well, all that glitters must be gold.
Here’s the thing: I may have an incredibly sarcastic tone here; but it’s for one good reason. I am so very tired of hearing about this or that European, American or other westerner who has come in on a white horse to save Africa! Sick and tired of hearing how those who are more educated than the women that I deal with on a daily basis have the solutions for them. I do not agree that it makes more sense somehow (though I’m still unable to follow the logic personally!) to have other people solve the problems for us. What can a poorly educated woman in Mali or Uganda know about what she needs? She hasn’t ever flown to Italy, read the latest literature on sustainable development, chatted up rich donors at an NGO conference… she’s probably so backward that she has never even left her village to visit her own capital city. Why on earth turn to her for solutions, right?
For almost a decade now, I have been working with men and women, African people who are interested in building a life for themselves and for their children. They have told me what I’ve already known: Africans want to EARN a living; not be handed one. If those jetting in to refugee camps for photo ops had the slightest inkling of our history, our cultures and who we are as people; they’d seek other solutions. African women are proud women and they want the same things that most women want: a fair chance to build something for themselves. Given the choice between having a hand-out and sleeping in a house with no roof; I’ve seen African women choose no roof. This might sound nuts to many of you, admittedly. But, if you go to most parts of the world (including the US or Europe 50 years ago) the same would have been true for most people. Pride wasn’t something negative. It was the gut feeling you had that you don’t take something for nothing and that it was better to be poor and have your dignity than to receive hand-outs and live without it.
I’d even argue that if you asked someone in many rural parts of the world today they’d tell you that hard work is what people should be respected for, not what they own. At some point in America (and more recently, other parts of western culture), it became a feat to get as much as is possible while doing as little as is possible. We aren’t there yet in Africa (most of us anyway) and it is my sincere prayer that we don’t ever want to be.
Ask a grandmother, any grandmother… Korean, Indian, Kenyan, American, Icelandic (or one from any other part of the globe) and she’ll probably tell you the same thing: People want opportunity. They don’t want to sit at home or in a refugee tent waiting for someone they don’t know to decide their future… no, even if it’s a “good future”. Just because some people feel good after handing out charity doesn’t mean that it is something that makes both parties feel good.
Those of you who visit this blog often know that I believe that most issues are not black and white. The same truth applies to this one. Yes, punctual charity is sometimes the right thing to do. There is no way around assistance after a major natural disaster for example. Even the wealthiest countries need aid in times like these. But, it is equally important to allow governments (and even to require) that they be prepared through long-term planning to do as much as is possible for their own people in disasters. If governments know that they can depend on hand-outs, what incentive do they have to do what others do: planning? If we train our young African children that living off of hand-outs is normal; what kind of future will they be inspired to build for our continent?
I’ve heard a lot of talk from some, even name-calling and mud-slinging whenever someone says “Africa needs to become self-sufficient”. Often, people are called racist hate mongers for merely pronouncing what has become a dirty word: accountability.
Here is the thing: I am a mother. I am actually a relatively strict one judging by modern Western standards. But, children seem to enjoy being in my home. I have asked them why and it’s because they know that in this home, there are two things: expectations and opportunities. We expect the best behavior; help when it’s asked for (taking out the trash, etc) and basic respect. On the other hand, we offer opportunities: to share your feelings, views and opinions for example. We listen to what you might need and do what we can to increase your opportunities to earn it. We don’t give charity; we give you an opportunity to earn it. Want to come to study every night and have dinner with us? You are welcome to; but you’ll be expected to do the dishes. Kids know they aren’t imposing because we treat them like a member of the family.
So, I ask you to think about this the next time you are deciding what to do with your time, your money or your prayer: Consider, are you offering opportunity with expectations? Support ethical trade, not handouts.
Because if you are just putting some cash in the till of an organization which will “fix Africa’s problems”, you might just find that in the end, they are actually making things worse for the average African woman or child. Opportunity might not be as shiny and pretty a gift as something marked “FREE gift from charity X”; but then again… not all that glitters is gold.