September 25, 2009

Dr. Amin Alhassan: Giving Is An Act of Self Interest

Yes, yes and yes. Dr Alhassan lays it DOWN in this piece about the dangers and disadvantages of state dependence on foreign aid. Best of all, it is done in a way that is accessible and direct. The good doctor has given The Azanian Sea to reproduce a portion of her article, but do yourself a favor and read the whole thing, available in PDF format here. I hope this will help those of us in the West who are tempted to overcongratulate ourselves for the work we do in Africa. The point is not so much that your project, your spring break trip, or your 'mission' to Africa is 'bad.' The point is that its rarely as altruistic as you would like it to be. What makes it possible for so many 'well meaning Westerners' to go to Africa to teach, build wells, do the Peace Corps, etc. is the continuing dependence of African states on international aid.

excerpt from "Telescopic Philanthropy, Emancipation and Development Communication Theory" by Amin Alhassan

From Charles Dickens to Present
“Telescopic philanthropy”, as a phrase, was first used by Charles Dickens in his novel Bleak House some 150 years ago to poke fun at and critique what was then an English fascination and obsession with designing development projects to save Africa and Africans from poverty, and to usher them into a modern economy of production. In the Dickensian narrative, the story is told of a Mrs. Jellyby, a friend of John Jarndyce, who neglects her house and children and is obsessed with projects designed to save African in the Congo from poverty by teaching them how to grow coffee to enable them to earn an income. In retrospect, it is clear that what Dickens was describing was the genesis of what is now a global industry of state, non-governmental charities and celebrity acts of philanthropy to save Africa from itself. Dickens was noted for his journalism and the use of the novel as a means of social critique. His discussion of telescopic philanthropy is instructive because it allows us to understand the practice of international development as pre-dating the post-World War II Truman era. It also allows us to understand how international development framed as charitable interventions that northern developed countries do to global southern countries as acts that are tied to the domestic power politics of the so-called benefactor countries.

It is against this backdrop that I am motivated to argue that the problem with Africa is as much a problem of development as it is the troubling impact of international aid on the continent’s self-initiative. Evidently what I am aiming to argue is not about a global divide of technological haves and technological have-nots. The global divide that interests me is the global divide of benefactors and beneficiaries, that between donors and beggars, between philanthropist and objects of charity. The institution that is partly responsible for this global divide is the global media. As we have seen from Dickens, the attempt to save Africa is not new. Indeed, Susan Thorne’s (1999) provocative interpretation of 19th Century middle class formation in Victorian and Edwardian Britain makes the case that saving the heathens in Africa was always preferred to saving the heathens at home, and that this particular fascination with the distant other had a definite imperial logic. It is a logic that is still with us today....

If we remind ourselves that the original idea of international development assistance that the US invented was not about development of the Global South, but about developing a global instrument of soft power and containment (Samarajiwa 1987, Escobar 1995), then the epistemic commitment of development communication theory ought to question the language of help that characterizes international development. Much of the development communication literature of the past 60 years has been on how to become an effective handmaiden of this dubious re-invention of international diplomacy called international development (See Waisbord 2000 for a comprehensive statement of various theoretical, methodological and strategic commitments in the field).

Development communication theory as an area of inquiry needs to take into account the price the so-called poor pay when they get a clinic built, pipe-borne water provided or a school built through the altruism of the philanthropist, the gift giver, or the new missionary worker of international development. I want to use a recent EU decision to illustrate this point. In July 2008, the BBC reported that the European Commission had agreed to use one billion euros of unspent European farm subsidies to aid African farmers (BBC 2008). The BBC report, which showed a picture of an African farmer labouring a rice field, went on to quote European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso as saying “The impact of high food prices is particularly severe for the world’s poorest populations” and adds that without the EU’s assistance, the UN’s goal to reduce global poverty will fail. This European act of altruism, upon a second look, is not only a phantom one, but a Trojan Horse that is meant to purchase a highly needed strategic advantage for the EU in a growing global tide against EU and North American agricultural subsidies and how they negatively impact on farmers in the Global South. The price Africa will pay for getting the “spare change” of one billion euro dropped in its begging bowl is that it will lose a strong standing in making a case against the EU for subsidizing its farmers so that they can unfairly compete with Africans in a global food market. What the EU’s charitable gesture does against the discourse of fair trade and the fundamental illogicality of preaching free trade in Africa while maintaining farm subsidies in Europe is far more significant that any apparent altruism it might suppose. Here then is the point about giving being an act of self-interest


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