I don’t generally write letters to the editor. I get to air my opinions on this blog and that’s usually good enough for me.
But I was listening to my favorite radio show – the one that gets me through my three hour drive from Lanesboro to Cambridge – This American Life, and they ran an Africa story, which they rarely do. And it was bad. Really bad. And so I wrote a letter to Ira Glass, the show’s executive producer and interviewer on the piece that pissed me off. (And while I believe This American Life when they tell me they read their email, as a blogger, I’ll rant here as well to ensure that someone reads it.)
A quick summary of the 20-minute segment, which you’re welcome to listen to (RealAudio), if you’d like: Chris Tenove is a Canadian journalist who travels to all sorts of funky places. He’s the kind of guy who believes in saving the world, and he has an idea: “charitable tourism”. People can visit deeply impoverished places, learn a bit about life there, and give a substantial financial gift. He talks about the idea to some professional aid workers – who think it’s a really bad idea – and then decides to try it out, visiting two villages in Sierra Leone and paying for people to have operations at nearby hospitals. The first experiment goes well, but in the second case he feels like he’s exploiting the people he’s trying to help. Still, he thinks the idea of charitable tourism could work if someone more organized tried it.
My rant follows below the line.
Dear Ira (and crew, but the letter’s to Ira) –
Congratulations on the recent tenth anniversary of This American Life. I’ve been a fan of the show for the past six years and a religious listener the past three, downloading episodes through Audible and enjoying them on my 350-mile roundtrip commute. (Don’t worry, I do the drive only once a week.) I just checked my iPod and there are currently 62 episodes I liked enough to save them for future listening. In other words, I love what you guys do week after week, and look forward to new episodes in much the same way children wait for Christmas presents.
All that said, the first act of Episode 302, “Strangers in a Strange Land” – your interview with Chris Tenove – is the first piece that’s inspired me to write to you in response. It’s a sad truth that people write to complain, not to praise, and, alas, that’s why I’m writing. I was deeply disappointed with the interview and question the wisdom of putting it on the air.
This American Life rarely runs stories on Africa. That’s certainly understandable – the show isn’t titled “This African Life” (and probably wouldn’t have the listenership it does if it focused on African issues.) But in the only story in 2005 I can recall that mentioned Africa, you and Tenove managed to reinforce the majority of stupid Africa stereotypes I’ve encountered in 12 years of working on African issues and periodically living on the continent. The messages I took from the piece:
– Africans are helpless. Without Tenove, his Sierra Leonean friend wouldn’t have ever found a way to get surgery for his injury. Obviously the man – who, incidently, Tenove seems to have forgotten the name of – wouldn’t be able to raise the money on his own. His village surely wouldn’t rally to his aid. Government health programs or non-government organizations surely couldn’t help. Nope, better bring in a Canadian so those Africans will get something done.
– Well-meaning whites are the solution to Africa’s problems. While he felt guilty about one of his two experiments, Tenove managed to pay for two operations, making two lives better. He concludes that, while he isn’t be organized enough to get the “charitable tourism” idea off the ground, surely someone else could get lots of well-meaning whites to come to Africa and solve some problems.
– All it takes is money. Both you and Tenove marvel at the fact that it costs only $150 to pay for the nameless man’s surgery. Clearly, small amounts of money can make a huge difference. Let’s ramp this thing up, shall we?
– Africa is war-torn, rural and dirt poor. Certainly the Africans we encounter in this piece are. If we were only exposed to this shocking poverty, surely we’d do something.
These four oversimplifications, misunderstandings and untruths tend to underpin most discussions of Africa in America. You guys certainly aren’t alone – smart men like Dr. Jeffrey Sachs fall into the “all it takes is money” trap, and most American journalists buy the “war-torn, rural and dirt poor” bit. Sally Struthers has done wonders selling the “Africans are helpless” and “Well-meaning whites are the solution” memes. I’m not surprised that your story reinforced these stereotypes, just disappointed.
There’s a reason the aid workers Tenove spoke with thought his plan was an ill-advised one: it was. It’s the sort of idea most travellers have on their first trip to a developing country. “Hey, I feel really guilty about how much more I have than the people I have around me. Let me give it away to somebody.” People who work in international development actually have to think through questions like “Are the right people receiving my help?”, “How do I spread my resources around equitably?”, “Am I damaging a local business or charity by bringing in help from outside?”, “What are the consequences for other projects or people who work in this community?”, “What, if any, were the impacts of my project?” and so on.
Tenove conveniently got out of town immediately after giving his gift. He has no idea whether the nameless man he helped was the neediest person in the village. He doesn’t know if his gift started a feud between the man and another family who had a child in need of surgery. Person to person village-level charity sometimes has the unfortunate effect of creating major resentments between people in a community – I know of a traveller like Tenove who, by financially supporting a single mother in the DRC, inadvertently got her ostracized from her community by other jealous villagers.
Perhaps the point of the story was to show us how misguided Tenove was and force us to wrestle with the conflicting ideas of “wanting to do good” and “not knowing how”. If so, it was too subtle for me. Tenove didn’t seem to learn any lesson from his trip other than “Well, I couldn’t get it to work well, but someone else might be able to.” I didn’t get the sense from your questions or reactions to his story that you had any insights into why Tenove’s experiment didn’t work. I guess Africa’s just baffling.
What frustrated me most is that there are lots and lots of great stories about Americans trying to help communities in Africa and either succeeding, or failing in far more interesting ways than Tenove failed. Roughly half of all Peace Corps volunteers come back to the US and fundraise for the communities they’ve left. They’ve lived in these communities for two to three years and have some idea of what local priorities and needs are, and how to direct the money. Talk to my friend Scott about his long, complicated relationship with Liberia after serving as a PCV there decades ago – the phonecalls in the middle of the night from families he’s trying to help, the difficulty of helping friends from afar in a country without a functioning phone or postal system.
Do a story on the phenomenon of “development chiefs”, the indigenous version of Tenove’s charitable tourism. In 1993, my friend Jessica was invited to become the “Queen Mother” of a village in the Volta Region of Ghana. This is a common technique to get yovo (white folks) to give money to a village. What’s uncommon is that Jessica moved there for a month to teach at the high school, then returned annually on trips from the US and Europe to distribute money she’d raised for projects in the community. A dozen years in, she’s a trusted advisor to the leaders of the village, often asked to weigh in on matters of community planning.
Talk to the African taxi drivers in Chicago. On a recent cab ride in Chicago, I met a man who leads the local Ashanti community association in the city. These community associations function as social clubs, support networks for new immigrants and fundraising groups to support projects at home. Far more money flows to Africa through remittances than from formal aid mechanisms – these American Africans are the folks making it possible for families to get out of rural poverty to a much greater extent than USAID or the World Bank.
Interview some of the geeks who are involved with interesting technology and development projects in Africa. Talk to the guys who drove a 4×4 around Uganda using a laser printer to create books for schoolchildren in Gulu as part of the Internet Bookmobile/Anywhere Books project. Profile the geeks who went to Mali to bring wireless internet access to community radio radio stations with the organization I helped found, Geekcorps.
You made the great decision – in the same episode as the unfortunate Tenove piece – to have milbloggers read their writing. Why not ask Africans living and blogging in America to read their work? Let me recommend Emeka Okafor of Timbuktu Chronicles and Africa Unchained, who’s on a ceaseless quest to challenge American impressions of Africa with tale after tale of indigenous entrepreneurism.
The question of what happens when Americans encounter Africa, when Africans encounter America, and what each thinks about the other place is a great one. Please don’t let my rant scare you off doing another story like the one that pissed me off. Do one that’s better.
(Or better yet, two full episodes! “What do we think about Africa?” and “Africans in America”. Just think of all the juicy quotes you could put in the mouth of Torey Malatia.)
I always love listening to you. Thanks for listening to me.