When does Western aid to Africa hinder more than it helps?

Western mission to Africa can be problematic, Michael Badriaki tells Krish Kandiah

Michael Badriaki was born in Kisumu, Kenya and raised in Uganda. He now lives in North America and works with organizations that bring aid and development to Africa to help them understand cultural dynamics in development. Krish Kandiah met Michael in Cape Town to hear his perspective on aid work across Africa.

What do you think are the primary unhelpful images that the western media are portraying about Africa?

When I moved to America, I met lovely people who were eager to know about Africa and at the same time, I was taken aback by the pervasive unfair images of Africa that dominate minds in the West. On one hand it is the idyllic exotic Africa of animal lovers with zebras, herds of buffalo and elephants. But when it comes to the perception of humanity in Africa it is quite devastating and grim.

It seems that many people's view of Africa is as skewed as portraying America as being made up of Klu Klux Klan members living in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Where do you think this one-sided view of Africa as a helpless victim comes from?

The negative outlook of the continent requires a geopolitical historical explanation which would be lengthy. But, unfortunately bad news and sensationalism sells in a consumer culture. While some mission organisations do helpful things, some have also played their part in building unhelpful assumptions of Africa. Nicholas Kristoff, a senior journalist at NY Times wrote an article called 'Following God Abroad' in which he calls American evangelicals the new internationalists or new agents of American foreign policy. The language and images used in many missions' reports about experiences in Africa are startling. We are dealing with an inbred and quite unfortunate mindset that is at an epidemic level and church groups are unwittingly a part of it.

But could the bad news image actually do some good? The negative images help charities raise money for Africa, for example, some water campaigns enable many people to see that sanitation and water safety are key needs in the continent.

I am glad that people are increasingly conscious of justice issues and I think better yet for Christians, because human flourishing is about the redemption of humanity wholistically. Most people in Africa tend to be grateful for assistance but not when the dehumanizing means of charities justify the end. I am glad that people are being resuscitated from this terrible binary view of spirituality, [this division] of the sacred and the secular. But I think some of the social justice camps haven't really thought it through. To somehow come out from the boredom of the sacredness of religion and then jump onto social justice without understanding that divine justice is deeply a sacred issue as well is problematic. By divine justice, I refer to God's empowerment of the church to redress injustices. Perhaps the blind spot is the silent incentive of how charity has become a very lucrative business for some of the well-intended American Christian philanthropists - they are the ones who gain the most from the negative images. If mutual partnership is not taken seriously beyond the tokenism of "we hire and work with the locals over there", then the privileged will always gain, but the poor will only be treated as worthy of bad charity work, particularly in global south. Such power driven and remote controlled drone type-aid that goes to Africa, is always indicative of a lack of a comprehensive long term strategy that take investment with the people who are supposedly affected and impacted by these issues seriously.

But, some would say, if a charity provides a well to rescue a village from unsanitary conditions and provides clean drinking water, what can be wrong with that?

Clean water is good any time. We all agree. What needs to be questioned is the assumption perpetuated by charities that access to clean water does not exist in African villages and that Africans are doing nothing about certain water challenges until charities show up. This is not true. Uganda, for example, has an abundance of water. Water access has improved to 72.8 per cent in urban areas and 64 per cent in rural areas. Failure to highlight such hope and progress undermines dignity and human agency.

So the image of a child drinking muddy water with dead flies in it, or worse containing human excrement – is that fiction?

I've experienced abject poverty and that's not fiction but they are also extreme situations which actually have more to do with parenting issues, poor governance and lack of education etc, than with whether or not there is a borehole somewhere. Many Africans are experts at treating water by boiling it before consuming it, where are those images? We are misled by consumeristic biases which capitalise victimhood. How frustrating!

Those images promote the stereotypes of Africans as uncivilized because they can't afford taps for the children and are not clever enough not to drink faeces. So these adverts are Afropessimistic, it's the mind of benevolent hegemony that seeks to dominate and misrepresent a people's story, so that they can extract the most out of them.

What do you think the development agencies should be doing and saying?

Organizations should be truthful and respectful in relating with humanity and acknowledging human dignity. Organizations must take seriously the need to be culturally adaptive in order to achieve goals and navigate cultural barriers. Christian organizations should ultimately seek to be prayerful, innovative and in mutual partnership with credible African leaders. As equals, they should support competent and compassionate African practitioners who are already participating in the common good. For example, if you are interested in clean water, collaborate with viable entities like Uganda's National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) which operates and provides water and sewerage services. Invest generously in social capital, research, testing ideas, monitoring and evaluation.

Organizations must fight the cultural obsession with horrible, fabricated situations to play on the already existing image that Africa is this dark and lazy, half-human, half-child, dominated continent. The temptations is huge and these kinds of prejudices, are easy to sell to people.

What is the alternative for Christians to blaming, infantalising or patronising Africans for the problems?

We need to remain centered and humble as Christians in the triune God because such attitudes are indicative of God's attributes of love, grace, helping that works. We should express generosity on steroids! And value restorative leadership, divine justice, compassion and joy in the Holy Spirit. That centered place keeps us in the heart of the gospel where greater love is where we lay down our lives. Laying down our lives for someone doesn't take dignity away from them or demonize them, it doesn't condescend them, it really is anti-heroism.

I don't want to be a benevolent hegemonist, or a protectionist, or a hero, but I do want to be generous with my life and my skills and my finances into the African situation. What are some useful ways I can do that?

I think that what people need to reconsider, is giving their lives through relating to people as a priority. We live in a globalizing world that allows for being known and knowing people. This is critical for cultivating a global eternal perspective. When you are relational and interdependent, you know who is credibly doing holistic work with measured impact and that's where your financial resources should go. When a man or woman who has experienced the love of God decides to be present with other people, there is nothing as generous as that and I think the western world needs to understand this. Most cultures in Africa, as imperfect as it may be, have familiarity with a sense of connection to one another through principles like Ubuntu, hospitality, the mutuality, these things that God has allowed us to share that are priceless. I am so floored by some Christians in the West who think that the best thing to give are finances or material stuff I mean, oh my foot! As if Jesus could have flashed us with money, sent us a trillion dollars and not died on the cross! Giving ourselves is primary. Giving resources is secondary. Westerners should give to compassionate and competent leaders in Africa, who research, test ideas, monitor and constantly evaluate in order to achieve measured impact of behavioral change in development. This is leadership entrepreneurship, but these people can be hard to find, but with diligence and consultation genuine partnership is possible.

Listening to Michael I found myself profoundly challenged. It made me want to ask more questions before I responded to a moving video or a impassioned charity plea. It made me want to ask at what level Africans were included in making decisions about solutions in their own situation, whether agencies were working with or around local governments.

Dr Krish Kandiah is a Contributing Editor to Christian Today. He President of London School of Theology and founder of the adoption and fostering charity: Home for Good.