Friday, December 14, 2007

Dear Africa, what would you like for Christmas?

A debate about whether Africa receives the proper tools for its development is sparked in the UK, the proud home of “Do they Know It’s Christmas?”, after Oxfam launches an unusual Christmas campaign and the education charity WORLDwrite releases a new film called “Keeping Africa Small.”

It’s from Spiked.

WORLDwrite argues that by focusing on small-scale initiatives like micro-credit schemes, pet programmes and environmentally friendly constructions such as the deficient solar water pump that WORLDwrite volunteers saw in one village, development NGOs are helping to sustain a hand-to-mouth existence for the poor. And just as in colonial times, Westerners working in Africa today seem to have an unhealthy obsession with the sex lives of the natives. Focusing on family planning, countering teenage pregnancy and dishing out condoms, charities obsess over containing the size of poor communities. The logic seems to be that population control is one surefire way to reduce the number of the global poor.

Representatives of NGOs like Action Aid, Save the Children, Traidcraft and Water Aid are interviewed in Keeping Africa Small. They say that they will continue to focus on basic needs such as sanitation rather than on helping Africans to ‘become rich’ or have access to ‘luxuries’ such as cars or PlayStations. ‘There’s no point in campaigning for people to be rich’, says one activist interviewed in the film. ‘We’re not talking about allowing poor people to have access to what we consider luxuries’, says another. No doubt development workers are serious when they say they want to ‘make poverty history’, but in setting the bar so low, their work actually undermines efforts to eradicate poverty and bring about global equality.

By focusing on alleviating only the most crude manifestations of poverty, NGOs are, at best, being pragmatic, and, at worst, denying poor people in the Third World any realistic chance of achieving material comfort. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that ‘beggars can’t be choosers’: the beggars will get whatever Western Christmas shoppers decide to give them. If Oxfam, Action Aid and the rest ever sent out a Christmas catalogue with pictures of people waving wads of cash, or showing off mod-cons and big, shiny universities and museums, then I might consider their campaigns ‘ethical’ enough to donate to.

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