February 23, 2014

GUEST ROOM | African Aid: Your Help Might Hurt

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By DANIEL LUMONYA

We must not underestimate the impact of the variety of uncoordinated projects being implemented in an attempt to better Africa’s current social crisis. Before I came to Cornell, I taught a community development class at Makerere University in Uganda. I often started my class by posing a question. “Suppose several half-trained surgeons are simultaneously treating a patient with arbitrary surgeries, anesthesia and antibiotics,” I said. “What will happen to the patient?” The students always answered the same way. Rather than heal, the patient would definitely die. I question whether everyone who wishes to help has the competence necessary to do so, and I question their merit to call themselves “helpers.” I worry about the consequences of diverse “helping” activities, especially since many people are unaware of their ultimate combined effects.

Being at Cornell has helped me appreciate the validity of this analogy. The division of nutritional sciences is implementing infant feeding projects in Uganda and Zimbabwe, and the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management is piloting a cattle insurance scheme in Kenya –– that’s not to mention the several student-led service trips to the continent. Still, this is a tiny fraction of the diversity of such projects and endeavors run by many other universities, international development agencies and non-profit organizations. All over Africa you can see these multifarious projects sometimes addressing the same problem, in the same place and in different ways.

I doubt neither the sincerity of the motives of people seeking to help in Africa nor their commitment to help –– even though I suspect that some people are in it only to spice up their resumes and nourish their careers. Rather, I question whether everyone who wishes to help has the competence necessary to do so, and I question their merit to call themselves “helpers.” I worry about the consequences of diverse “helping” activities, especially since many people are unaware of their ultimate combined effects.

My primary concern, however, isn’t the effects of uncoordinated aid that may leave its recipients materially worse off than how they originally were. I am more concerned about the less tangible, less obvious, less visible impacts of these projects: They may strengthen existing structures of oppression, and they may silence or displace conversations about inequality and exploitation. They may erode accountability, breed corruption, destroy local technology and reinforce white superiority while intensifying black inferiority.

If you are sincere about your desire to help, then prepare yourself for the task. Read as much literature on international development as you can find, educate yourself, raise your self-awareness and be humble and willing to learn. Take six months away from the comfort of your privilege, and travel to Africa to eat, drink, sleep and spend time with the people that you seek to save. Explore the rest of their country. Learn their language, and live their ways. Only then will you understand the structures of oppression that make and keep people poor, hungry, sick, vulnerable, isolated and deprived.

After you have done this, I am sure you will hesitate to call yourself –– or even allow other people to refer to you –– as a “helper.” You may realize how very little you know about the people you wish to save or about what they have to deal with every day. In fact, you may soon realize that your projects are no different from treating a compound fracture with a band aid or a cavity with Tylenol. In both cases, you will leave the patient worse off than how you found them. So if you choose to go to Africa without the proper knowledge and skills, go with the intention of visiting, not helping: Go to learn, not to save.

Contemporary Africa is analogous to a huge demonstration garden where novices conduct alternative experiments, try different remedies and go about dirtying their hands so they may know how it feels. As Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, government, Columbia University, might say, Africa is a place where the privileged go to do their philanthropy in the hope that it will assuage their guilt. Too often the Western academic community has been complicit in reinforcing structures of power that produce depravity. You shouldn’t be one of them. Development, like surgery, is serious business. Done badly, development, like bad surgery, will exacerbate sickness and kill.

Daniel Lumonya is a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Feedback may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Columns appear periodically throughout the semester.

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