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Scavenger hunts, ugly Americans, and other options

I feel compelled to link to an article that’s getting lots of play in the African blogosphere this week. I found it through Ory, who found it through Timbaland. It’s an essay by Lara Pawson, a reporter for BBC’s Africa Service which shows American and European aid workers in Africa at their worst, conducting a photographic scavenger hunt, which requires them to photograph stereotypical – and sometimes humiliating – African scenes.

Making the whole story even more disturbing is Pawson’s report that partipants in the hunt paid passerbys to stage shots of drinking a beer on the street, urinating in public or carrying loads on their heads, sparking spontaneous battles over who would get paid as a photographer’s model. Pawson uses this tale to open a wide-ranging critique of arrogant expatriates and the whole system of international aid (all the while patting herself on the back for being less racist and elitist than the anonymous people she’s talking about.)

I’m not going to defend the actions of the dumbasses she writes about, and I’m certainly not going to claim that aid to Africa works well or at all… but I think it’s worth noting that Pawson is basing her indictment of African aid based on pictures of aid and aid workers at their worst.

A more nuanced examination of aid in Africa might allow that there are ranges of behavior for both aid organizations and individual actors working on aid projects in Africa. Towards one end of the axis that represents bilateral and multilateral aid is “tied aid”, where the money given to a nation goes back to the donor nation in terms of goods and services. While the US is well known for giving tied aid (and Pawson notes in a footnote that the Italians tie aid more heavily than the Americans), the Japanese are best known in the development community for giving large sums of money for road construction and then awarding the construction contracts to Japanese contractors. The downside of heavily tied aid – a project gets completed, but very few locals are employed in construction, and there’s a good chance that the construction can’t be maintained by local talent. The upside – a road gets built.

On the other side of this axis is “direct aid” – aid given directly to a government, not to a subcontractor which might have a relationship with the donor nation. It seems obvious, on the surface, that direct aid is “better” or “fairer” than tied aid. Before jumping to this conclusion, it’s worth asking the question – where does that money go? In transparent, democratic countries with low corruption – Botswana, or possibly Ghana – there’s a decent chance that money given to the government benefits the people. In the more kleptocratic nations – Equatorial Guinea or Chad, for instance – it’s less clear that this money is going to benefit anyone other than big men in the government who may well pocket these funds.

If you want to benefit the people of Zimbabwe, but don’t want to give money to Mugabe, what do you do? Either you give money to local NGOs, or to outside contractors, most likely contractors based in your own country. If there are few NGOs in the country, or if they’re small and ineffectual, you’ll do “NGO strengthening” projects… which probably involve bringing in expats to work with the local organization. In other words, if you’re going to provide aid responsibly, you’re probably going to strike a balance somewhere between tied and direct aid.

There’s an axis for behavior as an expatriate living in Africa as well. It’s sometimes possible to construct an existence that lets you see Africa through the windows of 4x4s, from an air-conditioned walled compound, or from poolside at the various “clubs” that serve as social centres for expats from one national origin or another. (It’s usually only possible to construct this lifestyle if you’re directly employed by a national government, or work for a large multinational or extremely well funded NGO.)

On the other side of the axis, it’s possible to live without air conditioning, running water or electricity, making efforts to break down cultural barriers by learning local languages and customs, wearing locally-made clothing, etc. Again, it seems obvious that this is the way we’d “want” expats to behave in Africa. But there’s a term for going far in this direction – “going native” – and reasons why it’s frowned on by some international development folks.

As an American or European, you’re not African, despite how well you speak a local language or know your way around. Your value to whoever is paying for you to live in Africa is that you’re a bridge figure between local culture and your home culture – turn your back too thoroughly on your home culture and you lose that ability to bridge. (USAID – and many other goverment departments – rotate employees from overseas postings every few years and mandate a few years at home between tours to ensure that people representing America are still culturally American…)

Second – and more practically – most Europeans are physically ill-adapted to “going native” – there’s a decent chance that waterborne illnesses or malaria which are serious for your African friends are deadly for you as an expat. When I work in Africa these days, I stay in air-conditioned hotels, drink bottled water and eat carefully. It’s not that I can’t live in rougher accomodations – my apartment when I lived in Ghana in 1993-4 didn’t having running water or air conditioning – it’s that I’m a lot more likely to be effective during the few days I’m in country if I’m not fighting off amoebic dysentery or dog tired from trying to sleep in a hundred degree room.

Luxury accomodations in Geekhalla, the Geekcorps house in Accra

Most expatriates in Africa tend to be powerfully aware of these axes. In the same way that suburban American conversations can involve shuffling of the social order based on the quality of lawn care, much of the social ordering in expat culture has to do with how “expat” or “local” you’re personally living your life:

“Wow, Jane’s really settling in well – she’s learning how to speak Ewe and taking drumming lessons.”

“Yeah, but her husband is spending all his time at the swimming pool at the American Club…”

When you bring employees or volunteers to work in Africa, one of the big challenges is helping them find their place on the expat/local axis. One of the ways we tried to help Geekcorps volunteers in Ghana acclimate was, ironically enough, a scavenger hunt. Invented by our first Ghana country director, Stophe Landis, the hunt asked incoming geeks – who’d been in Accra for about 48 hours – to take themselves out for lunch at one or more of Accra’s excellent restaurants and come back with evidence – a photograph or another souveneir – that they’d reached the destination.

The lowest scoring restaurants were places within walking distance of our (walled, but non-airconditioned) compound, and obvious expat joints – the highest scoring ones were across town and difficult to find without asking directions from people in the neighborhood. The highest scoring – a Rastafarian vegetarian joint, Jah Rah – was on the fourth floor roof of a building in downtown Jamestown, accessible from a staircase at the back of a dimly lit alleyway. I’ve been there a dozen times and can only find it by taking a taxi to the general area and asking someone to lead me by the hand to it…

Some volunteers always go around the corner to the South African-run burger joint. Others pile into tro-tros, head downtown and find Jah Rah. Over time, everyone figures out how much of an expat or a local they want to be. If we did our jobs well, very few will end up at the extremes of the spectrum.

Just a last thought on Pawson’s article: very few people in the US and Europe get involved with international aid because they’re racist jerks. It’s a possible consequence of one style of expat living that people end up alienated from the people they’re trying to help. But there’s more than one way to live as an expat in Africa and more than one way to give bilateral aid.

Photo: “Luxury” accomodations at Geekhalla, Geekcorps’ group house in Accra.

5 thoughts on “Scavenger hunts, ugly Americans, and other options”

  1. Your value to whoever is paying for you to live in Africa is that you’re a bridge figure between local culture and your home culture – turn your back too thoroughly on your home culture and you lose that ability to bridge.

    Hadn’t thought about that. Good point.

  2. I’ve seen both sides of the Expat coin. Those who troll through markets to get their quick shot of this exotic life to share with others when they return to suburbia. And those who are shopping for fresh vegetables, drinking a beer with a village elder, learning the children’s names and experiencing a cultural sharing that is unique. I love Africa for many reasons, if nothing else, it gave me a more appreciative view of my own American life.

  3. Thanks for this posting on expat behaviour in Africa. I’ve seen similar disgusting behavior here in Europe as well and sometimes it makes you want to punch ’em in the mouth. As you said EZ there are some real dumba–es out here and it does nothing to help show what America is all about. I’m sure that some Europeans would agree about their expat trash.

    I learned very quickly long ago that living and working abroad was not a personal experience for me alone but a real privelage with responsibilities one must meet for all the folks back home (the nation).

    Personally, I think that we not only need to be careful about who’s coming into the States that may cause the nation harm, but we need to be extra careful about which citizens we let out and let loose upon the world at large. We can do better that this, oder?

  4. I lived in a rural village in Ghana as a Peace Corps volunteer, and did go native maybe a bit too much. I never considered your point that acceptance of the host culture and inattention to your native culture did a disservice to your mission. I’ll have some thinking to do about that. Thanks

  5. Thanks for the reply, Traveler. I find the whole question of “going native” pretty damned confusing myself, and I’ve always had admiration for my friends who’ve really embraced the experience of living in another culture. More than anything else, I find myself defending friends who’ve found themselves working in positions where they can’t – for a variety of professional reasons – go native, and wondering what a legitimate way for them to live and work in a country like Ghana looks like. That, or I’m just trying to justify why I stay in aircon hotels in Africa these days… :-)

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