A recent radio program on “This American Life” inspired me to write a rant to the show’s producer, Ira Glass, complaining that the show reinforced a greant number of stereotypes about Northern charity towards Africa and African dependency on Northern aid.
Ira has not gotten back to me – nor have any staff from “This American Life” – but Chris Tenove, the subject of the story, had the good grace to write in response to my rant. He offers some facts in his defense, and the more general point that his story was designed to illustrate his naiveté. I still don’t think the story did its job, but I’m very grateful for Chris’s response, and I include it in full, below. And, at some point when I’m not sleep deprived and about to help run the Global Voices annual meeting, I’ll take him up on his offer for story ideas in Tanzania and Uganda. If you’ve got some ideas, please post them in the comments section.
Hi Ethan. I read your “rant” about my program on This American Life, and I have decided to take you to court for defamation.
Ha! Actually, I really appreciated it. This was the kind of discussion I was hoping that the program would provoke. I would love it if more people decided to dissect my motives, critique my strategy, and propose better solutions.
There are a few quick comments I would like to make, in my defense:
* The village or the local health officials would not have paid for operations for these people. Sierra Leone’s health care system is basically non-existent. The village was hoping to raise money but, as I said in the program, they thought it would take at least a year.
* The 2nd charity donation was to a Sierra Leonean run organization.
* Most of Sierra Leone is rural, war-torn, and poor, so that’s what I described. However, like you, I would love that there be more programs on Africa so that other aspects of the continent would make it into the public imagination of North America.
* I did check in with recipients of my aid a few months after my visits, and all was well. Also, a part of the interview which was not broadcast was me saying: my biggest worry is that the charity might do harm, so I tried to make sure it would not cause conflict in the community, etc.
* I didn’t put in the names of the people I gave money to because I did not want to publicly reveal their health problems or the fact that they were the recipients of aid. That decision should be up to them.
The whole program was supposed to be: “here’s a naif in Africa, here’s what he tries to do, what can we learn from his successes and mistakes.”
I hope they run your rant, or at least part of it.
And, by the way, I hope to be spending a few months in Uganda, Tanzania, and possibly Malawi early next year. If you want to suggest story ideas – and I am very interested in local success stories and interesting use/development of new technology – then fire your suggestions my way!