Tag Archives: China

The Narrative Divide

Check out this trenchant writing from Kenyan author/journo Binyavanga Wainaina on the perception bias infecting western media (and here’s another take on that topic).   He rather hilariously bull’s-eyes a spear in the gut of Western journalism, their spouses and their tennis partners, we do-gooders at the big aid agencies.

Coincidentally, his rant covers some of the same territory as my recent post on Chinese model of “charity”.  Glad to see he doesn’t get sucked into a romanticization of Chinese exploitation.  Rather, his point seems simpler:  many Africans would prefer to get screwed by Chinese businesses than patronized or sanctimonyized by the proverbial whites in shining armor of Big Aid.

Wainaina rages and we humanitarians seem high on the hit list.  That can’t be good.   It is easier to counter the pampered elites of the Western intellectual critocracy than someone born and raised in one of the nations we’ve been so diligently saving these past forty years.

Moreover, his view of aid seems reinforced in many of the 199 comments on his piece.  Here’s Cornhil on June 4:  “You would have thought that after the disaster that is and was the post-earthquake agency bonanza in Haiti, a little humility would be appropriate from the Aid Industry, but apparently not.”

Damningly, even some who take umbrage with his “stereotyped” or “sneering” diatribe remark that he is of course spot on about the aid workers of this world, almost as if it were to be taken as a given.  Ouch!  Defending the West but leaving the aid industry out in the cold.  Where’s the love?  Where’s the understanding?  Where’s our money going to come from?

(A digression: “In 1991, Africa ceased to exist. The world was safe, and the winners could now concentrate on being caring, speaking in aid language bullet points.”  That’s an almost perfect summation of the intermingling of politics and aid — the establishment of governance through the imposition of a world welfare state.].

Wainaina is at his sharpest showing our collective Western understanding of Africa to be based upon the most preposterously stereotyped terms.  Hold that thought and flash back to the fit of humanitarian arm flapping at Kony 2012’s volcanic success.  As I blogged, the criticism of Invisible Children’s vanity video went pretty viral itself.  In that outburst of backlash I failed to grasp the significance and weight of Ugandan voices criticising a Western organization in the Western media.  What gives?  Weren’t Ugandans supposed to be invisible?

Recently, I heard digital media expert Paul Conneally challenge us humanitarians to avoid becoming an analogue enterprise in a digital age (see his speech here).  The entire humanitarian arena is abuzz with the potential of digital technology to improve its work.  From SMS health messages to patients (“Please remember to take your ARVs now”) to real-time satellite mapping of epidemics to a fundraising blitz of mobile phone chuggers, we are fast imagining a new golden age.  But Conneally’s core message wasn’t about technological advances of NGOs  – a reform in how we do our work – but in the transformation driven by the digital empowerment of the beggar/victim/beneficiary/target population.

People who will want to talk about our work are going to have access not only to information, but to the means of producing it.  They will have access not only to our opinions, but to our opinion platforms.  In other words, the helpless victims of Africa, like the Ugandans who outed Kony 2012’s disdain for accuracy in depicting the reality of Uganda today, are going to take away our western monopoly over the narratives defining their societies.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, white ears and eyes will consume the stories of brown people as told by brown people themselves, not white visitors to brown places.  In the process, these browns may have something to say about all those starving baby fundraising appeals.  They may even have something to say about all the appeals, letters, articles and interviews from the agencies whose guidelines prohibit the use of starving baby images and so sleep well in the self-evidence of their enlightenment, beneficence and narrative integrity.

Battle of the Models

Can we all agree that my last post set forth definitive proof of the fundamental superiority of the aid industry’s business model?  Eat your heart out $600-per-share Apple!  Aid NGOs will be around long after the I-Phone’s fashion accessory status pulls a Milli Vanilli.  My mortgage is safe.

Or is it?  Like cassette tapes being vanquished by CDs, and CDs by MP3 format, even the most perfect business model can be destroyed by a paradigm shift, such as by the appearance of a new model.

There are plenty of threats to the aid model.  But we will survive our collective Whites in Shining Armour tendencies.  We will survive the continued politicization of aid.   We will survive the Somali Spring’s challenges to the humanitarian cartel.   We will survive because these problems don’t touch the business model.  The givers will still give.  What we will not survive is this ancient Chinese proverb:  “Forget the favours you have given; remember those received.”

When I first heard a different version of it – “If you help somebody, they should never forget; but if you help somebody, you should never remember” – Professor Li Anshan (a Chinese academic) was explaining the difference between charity and the transactional (mutual interest) aid proffered by China.  We humanitarians scoff at the idea of beneficiaries paying for charity.  Professor Li scoffs (though, I must say, much more politely) at the idea of philanthropy-based aid.  He writes: “China has never used the term ‘donor-recipient’ (a philanthropic idea) to describe China-African relations, using “partner” instead. China believes that assistance is not unilateral, but mutual.”

Back to favours.  Take your Uncle Ken, who goes on and on about the time he gave you his prize bass fishing lure because you forgot your tackle box.  Twenty years ago.  That’s the first thing about favours:  your Uncle Ken will never shut up.  Even after he passes away, his kids will remind you of the time he gave you that lure.  Favours are open-ended, indestructible, immortal.

Favours lesson #2:  the giving of the favour is worth far more than the thing itself.  What would a bass lure cost?  Five bucks?  If you’d paid Uncle Ken a fiver, a year later he’d never even remember the transaction.   That’s because the favour isn’t about the thing, it’s about the thing at a given time.  How much would you pay for a glass of water if you’re stuck in the desert?  So it might cost $1M to build a hospital in Sierra Leone, but that’s $1M Salone doesn’t have.  Enter, stage right, the aid industry, Johnny on the spot with a favour.  Voilà.  The hospital Salone will be hearing about for the next twenty years.

And then there is the Trojan horse effect of favours, of charity, because the thing you get is never yours.  If Apple sells you an I-Phone, Stephen Jobs (RIP!) couldn’t care less if you download porn with it.  Not so with charity – just try converting that hospital into a police post, or a pub.  Daily Mail: “Ungrateful government turns British Taxpayer millions into a brothel.”  Ditto for those tirades against poor people who use welfare payments to drink beer, bet on horses or eat Big Macs.  Favours:  they never go away and you never own them.  What does that sound like?  Power.

The thrust of Professor Li’s critique places Western aid at the center of philanthropic elitism.  I’d say it goes further: philanthropic subjugation.  Debt and power:  we know aid comes with strings attached.  But because it’s charity, because it’s a favour, this debt comes concealed in the form of a vague expectation, to be exploited in perpetuity.  As the proverb says:  Sierra Leone should never forget. That’s a pretty damned good return on investment. Better even than usury.  Like usury, though, it only works if the poor don’t have a choice.  Transactional aid constitutes a second option.

Building a hospital in Guinea in return for access for Chinese state capitalists to bauxite mines is an exchange.  It presents poor/powerless governments with the opportunity to “pay” for services rendered.  The debt is fixed in time and kind; the hospital is Guinea’s to use as Guinea sees fit.  There is no principle of humanity or compassion through which the giver then morphs into the self-anointed judge, loudly denouncing the human rights violations or the fragility of the government while reminding us all of the favours that have been delivered.

Isn’t it strange how the span of the favour receiver seems to become the business of the favour giver, as if privacy itself had been overcome.  Rather impudently, I once told a Sudanese official that if they didn’t like noisy NGOs cranking on about “sovereign” matters, they only had to make good on their sovereign responsibility to ensure their own people weren’t starving to death or being attacked.  With favour-givers like that, who needs enemies?

Let’s not romanticize China’s approach.  We all understand the underlying imbalance of the bargaining power.  The beauty of the Chinese model, however, isn’t in the equality of the practical arrangements.  The beauty of the model is in the origins of the proverb:  human dignity.

The charity model, the creation of a scheme of favours, installs human hierarchy:  giver/receiver, success/failure, superior/inferior, saviour/beggar, hero/victim, upright/genuflected.  Uncle Ken didn’t just do me a favour, he engaged in philanthropic subjugation. Next time I need a lure, I’ll buy one from Uncle Wu.

A Taste of Our Own Medicine

As a former lawyer fighting housing discrimination in New Orleans, I still get a wave of satisfaction when I see white people raise their voice in anger against the perceived injustices of affirmative action.  What!?  They hired an unqualified black guy instead of your Uncle Cracker? Almost magically, discrimination based on one’s skin color is transformed, from liberal bleating (more usually damned as political correctness) into a self-evident violation of fundamental human rights.

Tasting our own medicine may not appeal to our sense of a genteel enlightenment – after all, Two wrongs don’t make a right – but you can’t deny its effectiveness.  Getting shafted (i.e., “hoisted by one’s own retard”, to quote Lionel Shriver) makes for a pretty good teacher.  So how will we ever see the errors of our neo-colonial ways, let alone even recognize them, if we aren’t forced to wear the shoes?

Shoe switching to the other foot

Well, it’s starting to happen.  A friend forwarded me this story knowing that I worked in Angola.  Its former owner Portugal, having drag-netted the assets from the colony upon its precipitous 1975 departure, is now holding out the begging bowl.  There’s more:  look at the Eurozone’s desperation for China to pull a superman act with billions of bailout cash?  How delicious to see the self-anointed saviors of the world trading in their expensive loafers for a pair of sandals made out of recycled car tire.

But it hasn’t gone far enough.  It’s time for the tables of self-righteousness and superiority to be turned as well.  Why doesn’t Angola lecture Portugal on the bankruptcy of consumer spending beyond its means?  Why don’t they demand reform, and tie any loans or investment to a timetable of fiscal belt-tightening to be taken?  Why doesn’t China tell Sarkozy and Merkel that loans to help shore up the euro will be linked to improvements in the way France and Germany treat minorities? Or preconditioned on the dismantling of Fortress Europe? Or timed with the ending of agricultural subsidies that harm China’s allies in Africa? Now that would be interesting!  You can bet Western politicians will ring a few bells on the global hypocrisy meter.  I can almost hear the indignant, fist-pounding denunciations of the breach of sovereignty.  How dare China tell us…

A turn in the humanitarian tide

Warning!  We humanitarians need to watch our glee, lest we find ourselves staring at the same other side of the coin routine.  Will it not be long before an expat’s using the white SUV to buy Danone yogurt at the swanky suburban mall is branded no less an act of aid diversion than when the national staff stock manager pinches a bottle of paracetamol (and is fired)?  Or when an NGO using its hard won donations for the huddling masses is deemed no less corrupt for renting a luxurious multi-story compound than is the Deputy Minister of Health for redirecting a chunk of the healthcare budget towards the construction of a mansion in his home village?

Will you forgive me one last adage?  What goes around comes around.

The New Young Turks

Having finally trudged through the post-holiday backlog of email, I ignored the pile of freshly printed reading to surf the crisis in the Horn of Africa.  I found an Al Jazeera story which I would call interesting on two counts.  First, for the fact of it.  And second, for the invisibility of that fact (i.e., that even people following the aid biz didn’t seem to notice).

The story is a fairly simple one, and I recommend reading the author’s full analysis. In August, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited a camp for starving IDPs in Mogadishu.  Can you imagine being equally unaware of a Sarkozy or Cameron visit to Somalia?  Or a UN ambassador like Angelina Jolie?  I mean, there’s more coverage of Obama eating a hotdog (actually, a chilidog, which is definitely more macho).   The visit was the move of a true world leader.  Not only the first non-African head of state to see Somalia in over 20 years, Erdogan took his wife and daughter, a clear statement that the war-torn capital of Somalia is not necessarily the Call of Duty shooting gallery we make it out to be.

The fact of this visit, though, is more interesting than the media non-coverage.  Here is the new direction not just of Turkey, but of the next wave of world players.  Countries like India, China, Qatar, Brazil and South Africa.  Countries that are heading to Africa for profit, influence, minerals and for the prestige long accorded to powerful Western nations/leaders doing the philanthropic waddle.  Erdogan’s visit was accompanied (already some weeks ago) by roughly $250M in Turkish donations to the crisis, mostly from the Turkish public.  I think (too late for dinner to research it) that’s more than UK public donations.

That fact alone speaks of a world that is changing faster than we imagine or plan.  I think of non-Western governments increasing their humanitarian spend, but actual public compassion and donation?  That’s supposed to be our Western genome, a unique manifestation of our goodness and superiority.  Apparently, there are even Turkish celebrities who play the humanitarian ambassador role, meaning you can see non-terrorist Omar Sharif looking guys visiting camps as well.  (Please don’t comment, I know Sharif wasn’t Turkish or a terrorist and I don’t really believe that all guys with thick black mustaches look alike).

To me, our Western thinking on aid still hasn’t grasped the sheer acceleration of the entry of other actors – governmental donors, aid organizations, and concerned publics – to the global arena of humanitarian action.   These actors don’t have colonial histories, don’t suffer the white man’s burden, don’t seek to moralize about human rights violations, and don’t necessarily subscribe to a model of aid based on charity.  All good news.  I’m thinking there could even be a job in this after MSF, working for one of the new global humanitarian leaders.