South African-born Sean Jacobs serves as Assistant Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs at The New School in Manhattan. Neelika Jayawardane, born in Sri Lanka but raised in a mining town in Zambia’s Copperbelt Province, is Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies and Activities Center at the State University of New York at Oswego. Along with several friends and colleagues, Jacobs and Jayawardane maintain a lively blog called “Africa is a Country.” They focus on “media representations of the African continent and its peoples, especially in Western, mainly American, media.”
Recently I entered into a tense exchange with another “Africa is a Country” reader after the blog posted a link to what it called a “fawning profile” of John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, which aims to help “build a permanent constituency to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity.” Daniel Bergner’s December 2 New York Times Magazine piece about Prendergast appears online at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/magazine/05sudan-t.html?_r=1&hp, so you can make your own judgment about it. However, “Africa is a Country” judged it harshly, noting sarcastically that “Actors George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Don Cheadle’s status as foreign policy experts originate with the Enough Project.” Of the article about Prendergast, “Africa is a Country” concluded that the former New York Times West Africa correspondent Howard French had given the best summary in his tweet: “Bwana saves Africa. Part 3,276. Barf. Will we ever get beyond such stories?”
I posted a very brief comment in which I identified myself—by name—as an NGO worker in Tanzania and referred to Prendergast as a “Galahad.” This brought the following comment from a reader calling himself or herself only “Laughing”:
“Hahah. Sneer away. . . but let me point out the ultimate in meta-irony: you’re admitting that you’re with an NGO. In Africa. So who are you rescuing from what? Does it feel righteous at least?”
“Dear Laughing: I’m not sure that NGO work in Africa as such implies the self-aggrandizing stance that distinguishes too many celebrity ‘experts,’ not to mention Pendergrast [sic], and that evoked French’s ‘Bwana saves Africa’ tweet. At least many of the people I know in the NGO community regard the Africans they work with as equals with whom they cooperate rather than as inferiors to whom they alone can bring salvation. Thus my own NGO—not atypically—tries to assist completion of projects deliberated upon and determined by the residents of the village where we work. Even the NGO itself originated in a suggestion by some of the villagers instead of in my own ‘righteous’ conviction that I could save them.”
“Bandawagon” then claimed that “These guys who come for so called humanitarian. . . have a profit motive because usually they sponsonsored [sic] by some MNCs [multinational corporations]. Everyone is interested in african resources. . .”
But “Le blanc” followed far more thoughtfully than either Laughing or Bandawagon:
“Of course, parsing the difference between legit development workers and self-proclaimed ‘saviors of Africa’ is sometimes tricky (and they sometimes overlap). As one of the former, I’d suggest that one difference is what each aspires to build or create. Those who come to ‘save’ also do not last long. While Pendergrast [sic] is clearly very much in love with himself (and shows indications of some much deeper flaws), you have to give credit where it’s due: he’s done more to raise awareness of Sudan than I have.”
To which I replied:
“Le blanc’s excellent point about the difficulty of ‘parsing the difference between legit development workers and self-proclaimed “saviors of Africa”’ rests on the solid truth that none among us have unmixed motives—which partly explains why none among us produce unmixed results. Although criticizing the reinforcement of African stereotypes by celebrity experts and saviors is surely warranted, Le blanc rightly suggests it does not follow that such people do no good at all, which criticizing them can seem to imply.
“Similarly, we who consider ourselves ‘legit development workers’ have warrant to fear that, in the end, our best efforts will amount to nothing; but I don’t see that fear as justification for attempting nothing.”
Besides the obvious—those of us, like me, who blog or comment on blogs need to take more care to avoid misspellings, about which the very next commentator on “Africa is a Country” complained—I think it’s worth adding more to this discussion. To begin, it strikes me that too much of the scorn directed at celebrity activists, and especially at the self-anointed saviors of Africa, is indiscriminate. I think that neither “Africa is a Country” nor Howard French was guilty of this, however, in their criticism of John Prendergast (whose name I spelled correctly this time!). Jacobs and Jayawardane and their fellow bloggers skewered Prendergast and the journalist who wrote about him for exactly the same offense noted by French: the strengthening, through vigorous exercise, of the stereotype of Africans as passive victims wholly dependent on outsiders to act on their behalf.
If celebrity activists are particularly reliant on this stereotype, maybe it’s only because their expertise in peddling images teaches them that victimhood scores big at the box office. But the expert makes things look easy, so the celebrity who understands how to sell victimhood can acquire a spurious expertise in Africa overnight. Thus celebrity experts on Africa tend to look a lot like celebrity spokespeople for commercial products—think Tiger Woods or Jay Z or Catherine Zeta-Jones—who may know, or care, little about what they sell. Yet we have no right to infer insincerity from the salesperson’s skillful selling. It’s Tiger Woods’ job to look smooth while hitting the notes that resonate with us, no matter what kind of passion he has or doesn’t have for what he wants us to buy.
The larger issue than the celebrity salesperson’s sincerity or insincerity is the nature of those resonant notes. Celebrities did not invent the stereotype of the African as passive, helpless victim; nor did celebrities invent our susceptibility to that stereotype. And Laughing’s valid point, crudely made, was that reliance on the stereotype has undermined and destroyed a huge amount of development work even where no celebrities have been involved. The suspicion that all people from outside Africa who take it upon themselves to “develop” that continent—implying, the argument goes, their own developed or advanced and hence superior position—unavoidably resort to the stereotype is part of what lies behind radical critiques of aid to poor countries by rich ones, like that of the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo in her book from 2009, Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way For Africa.
The formula for successful development that could be bottled and sold to anyone remains elusive enough to justify the fear of failure which I stated in my last comment for “Africa is a Country.” But the concrete reality of the poverty I see where Karimu works makes a mockery of abstract demands like Moyo’s that Africans themselves must figure out how to spend their way out of poverty. Insisting that African governments should stop taking handouts and fatherly advice from big aid agencies, so they can start the honest borrowing from capital markets that would give them the right to chart their own development paths, has nothing to do with everyday life in Dareda Kati Village. The people there need better schools and less disease and death and cleaner water now, while debates among government ministers and aid advocates and critics and famous economists rage out of earshot.
So at Karimu we will continue to believe that we don’t condescend to the villagers by helping them find education and health resources. We will continue to believe that we respect what they can accomplish once they have access to those resources.—Don Stoll