Poverty Safari (Re-post from June 27, 2011 entry of private blog)

poor kids

Summer is the season of the (female) NGO volunteer.

Actually, every few months, hordes of young, female students descend upon Accra to “give back” as NGO volunteers. Usually, they are teenagers or in their early twenties and arrive to make a difference. They come for 1-3 months – sometimes 12 months – to do different things – teach English, provide healthcare, work with abused women.

Since these women are here to help, it may seem that they are beyond reproach. (Of course, that type of thinking never stopped me before.) First, even though their mission is to help, they are usually only here long enough to begin to understand the issues involved in working here. Given that a ticket from the US costs around $1600 to $2000 in the summer, I believe Africans would be better off if they donated the cost of that flight to a charity of their choice. Instead, it’s quite clear that the volunteers benefit more than the people they are here to help. It’s something they can put on their resumes that they helped Africans and they actually get to see how people in developing countries live.

Second, I think it’s terribly condescending for white people to provide this type of assistance to black people. It’s one thing if ExxonMobil is bringing technical expertise to drill a deepwater well; JP Morgan sets up an office in Nigeria to raise foreign capital to West Africa; Chinese traders bring cheaper goods than those from South Africa. It’s quite another to suggest that black people need twenty-somethings to offer language lessons for 3 months. Africans don’t need assistance on a micro level; they need the US to put their back in it with policies that mobilizes money and people.

Third, it puts a spotlight on how apathetic America is toward Africa. Unlike America, China has a plan. In fact, every five years, the top Chinese leadership gets together to outline a five-year plan for the country that includes policies to achieve their goals.

China has had a policy for Africa since the 1960s. The first goal was to build good relationships with African governments so they would vote to make China – not Taiwan – the real “China” in the United Nations. Check! The second goal was to secure long-term access to natural resources, namely oil and metals. Commitments to invest billions in these countries and sometimes bribes to high level officials has ensured this access. Check! Third, China has also encouraged its small business owners and entrepreneurial types to go and do business with the African continent. The Chinese government encourages them with access to short-term financing (those piles of US Treasuries) and they created a venture capital fund to provide equity to them. Check! Fourth, China is using Africa to relieve labor pressures in China. Construction contracts initially involved mostly Chinese labor. African governments recognized their own people’s needs to work; they eventually put caps on the percentage of laborers from China.

American businesses are here but I do not get a sense that there is a coherent US policy that helps them secure contracts. The State Department, Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and related agencies provide low cost financing if you use a certain amount/percentage of US goods. This is obviously better than nothing but some goods simply cannot compete with Chinese ones on price. I really feel there needs to be more attention from the US government to increase their influence on the Continent.

Inflows to Africa in 2009

  • US: $25 B
  • EU: $147 B
  • China: $47 B
  • India: $13 B
  • Brazil: $8 B

Flows Out of Africa in 2009

  • US: $65 B
  • EU: $151 B
  • China: $46 B
  • India: $21 B
  • Brazil: $9 B

Source: Organization of Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD)

So when I see American NGO women, I think, is that the best America can do? We should be making it a policy to compete head on with the Chinese not ceding the Continent without a fight.

Lastly, these NGO women are responding to Western images of Africa – starving children, HIV, blah blah blah. They want to immerse themselves in the “real Africa”. By avoiding the development occurring here, they can preserve their image of a desperate Africa. Yesterday, a good friend of mine arrived for a 1 month mission to help. Her fellow volunteers didn’t want to go to The African Regent for afternoon tea, they wanted to see the poor people in their natural environment (read: slum). Again, this seems quite condescending. Do they visit the Bronx when they go to New York or South Central in Los Angeles? The next time I visit Brazil, “Driver, take me to the favella!”

Capitalism is a better remedy than charity for African development. Giving depends on goodwill and people having the ability and means to help. Making money (oh, really?!) encourages cooperation and competition.  The chance to make more money means continued involvement and treating Africans as partners.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: I’m Still Here. I’m Practicing My Invisibility Skills. | obolobo

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