The answer to all of these questions is no. We are so used to commonsense understandings of ‘humanitarian’ aid as an obvious good, however, that it might be difficult to see how anyone could raise any questions or criticism about United States and European aid agencies at work in West Africa. To begin to understand why these questions and criticisms are necessary, we need to place the current narrative about Western humanitarian aid in perspective.
The Usual Story: African Problems, American Solutions
Let us briefly recall some other, recent stories about humanitarian interventions and the ways that these stories have been told. Lila Abu-Lughod (2002; 2013) observes that the latest North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military intervention in Afghanistan, which began in 2001 and is ongoing, is partly justified by a narrative about (helpless) brown women requiring rescue from (savage) brown men by (white) Westerners. In her book Dark Threats and White Knights, Sherene Razack (2004) writes about the ways that the Canadian media and public framed the ‘Somalia Affair’. This was told as a story of ‘white knights’ returning traumatized, even insane, from their interaction with the ‘dark threat’ posed by chaotic, savage Somalians: Canadian ‘peacekeepers’ beat a Somali teenager to death, among other acts of torture, because they became ‘contaminated’ by the local savagery. Francis Adyanga Akena (2014) among others, has written about the now-infamous Kony 2012 video, a factually inaccurate and misleading fundraising film about the leader of the Ugandan rebel group, the Lord’s Revolutionary Army, Joseph Kony. The video, by a California-based non-governmental organization (NGO), called for military actions and donations by Americans to rescue Africans understood either as victims or savages. This last may appear different from the other narratives because it was so grossly misleading about the most basic facts. Arguably, however, the credulity that helped the Kony video ‘go viral’ was made possible by the familiarity of the narrative: heroic white Americans proffer aid to helpless Africans requiring rescue from other, violent and savage Africans. Now, at the American University of Paris, we are ‘exhorted’ to support an initiative that emphasizes the heroics of a white American in Liberia (Schenck 2014), a place apparently helpless without the solutions provided by ‘US-government health workers’.
Despite important differences, all of these narratives have something in common: they cast the (white) West as the source of civilized solutions and rescue, while (dark) Africa/the Middle East is a place of incompetence, chaos, disease, and/or contagion. With respect to the Ebola crisis, National Geographic News recently repeated a variant on the familiar narrative, suggesting that the disease is spreading because of “cultural beliefs” and “superstition” in West Africa (Thompson 2014): “deficient” African cultures and deficient African understanding are the problems in the effort to eradicate Ebola. In such narratives, Africans, Muslims and formerly colonized peoples are pure victims, when they are not savages — or merely peoples made stupid with ‘superstition’. Such narratives are deeply stigmatizing. They can easily be mobilized to legitimate all sorts of interventions, some perhaps justified, others not. With many others, I would argue that it is important to critically interrogate such self-confident — and, when told from North America and Europe, self-congratulatory – narratives. Otherwise, we simply reproduce centuries-old colonial stories about ‘white saviours’ and ‘dark threats’.
A New hypothesis: American problems, African solutions
If West Africans are our equals, and not merely the pitiable, ignorant subjects of our charity and expertise, we need to take refusals of Western aid, for instance, seriously and not dismiss these as irrational ‘superstition’. This includes recognizing the very problematic histories of recent ‘humanitarian’ aid in West Africa and indeed, in much of the so-called developing world. Such aid has often included ‘dumping’ of unwanted Western products on populations of the global South (eg., Oxfam 2005; Shah 2005), the experimental and sometimes deadly use of drug trials on African populations (eg. Washington 2007; Smith 2011) and the spectacular failure of both emergency and long-term aid in places like Haiti, which has an estimated 12 000 NGOs and despite – or because of this –exists as a perpetual catastrophe zone (eg., Karunakara 2010; Johnston 2014). Western aid is not always, obviously good and may even be part of the problem.
Indeed, the imagery around humanitarian aid is a part of the problem, for many. The founder of the “This is New Africa” movement, Fuse ODG (2014), for instance, emphasizes that the seriousness of the Ebola crisis does not make any narrative about Africa acceptable. Taking specific exception to Bob Geldof’s new Band Aid single, in which he was asked to participate, he writes: “I, like many others, am sick of the whole concept of Africa – a resource-rich continent with unbridled potential – always being seen as diseased, infested and poverty-stricken… But the shock-factor strategy they (Band Aid) have used since the 1980s has sparked a whole wave of “good cause” organisations that have been irresponsible with regard to the images shown to the rest of the world. It’s been totally one-sided. That’s understandable in part, as they wouldn’t raise much money if they showed the affluence, wealth, and happy lifestyles that exist in the continent. But in the process of doing all this “good work” a huge imbalance has been created…” Indeed, Fuse ODG writes that, “… being African was not something to be proud of because of all the negative connotations it conjured up, and it drove me to be almost ashamed of who I was.” “One-sided” racialized imagery around an entire, diverse continent is problematic, not least because this denies diverse African agency and accomplishment and so stigmatizes entire populations.
Because it radically simplifies and stigmatizes, such imagery may inform wrong-headed and damaging policies, especially when combined with related world-wide political-economic inequalities. Doctor Benjamin U. Nwosu, for instance, is virulently critical of “global” institutions beholden to billionaire donors rather than the populations they are supposedly helping. Critiquing the Geneva-based World Health Organization, Nwosu (2014) writes: “The WHO approach to the Ebola pandemic is not to eradicate the virus, but to contain it in Africa. Create concentration camps in Africa, round up affected patients and their traumatized contacts, seal the gates, and let them all die off, and then cremate their bodies like the Nazis did.…” Whether or not you agree with this characterization, the anger and distrust behind this kind of statement should give anyone pause, not least those about to tell self-confident stories around Western aid and Western-centered organizations. The ‘containing’ of Africans appears here as a new form of murderous apartheid legitimated by the threat of ‘contagion’. Since cremation is not a usual practice in much of Liberia, this health measure may be understood as particularly disrespectful to grieving families (The Guardian 2014), even if Nwosu had not evoked the charged imagery of the Nazi genocide against Jews.
In a different register, but similarly emphasizing the ways that the organization of aid reflects donor and colonial state interests, the New York Times (Gettelman 2014) observes that the Ebola aid effort has been carved up along colonial lines: “Several months ago, Western powers divided Ebola responsibilities in West Africa along historical lines, with the United States helping Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves in 1822; France helping a former colony, Guinea; and Britain helping its own former colony, Sierra Leone.” Such practices arguably create further problems with respect to coordination across borders, never mind the strong neo-colonial implications and mistrust that such a division of labour may engender.
If Western aid is not always unproblematic, then diverse African societies are not necessarily devoid of solutions. At the reference provided below, for instance, you can find a list of nearly one hundred mostly West African based NGOs or civil society organizations, who signed a petition calling for a coordinated West African oversight of efforts to combat Ebola (Modernghana 2014). Carefully researching and supporting these organizations may be a useful starting pointagainst automatic assumptions that only Western, American NGOs have any expertise or practical help to offer. Likewise, the global South may be an important source of analyses, informing action, unavailable in the West. Two useful sources, among others, are the Malaysia-based Third World Network (www.thirdworldnetwork.net; and it’s Africa branch, www.twnafrica.org) and the Thailand-based Focus on the Global South (www.focusweb.org). Similarly, for alternatives to mainstream humanitarianism and ‘development’ discourse and practices, see associations like Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era, based in the Philippines or here in Paris, France, the Centre de recherche et d’information sur le développement. In addition, the CRID has a French-language magazine Altermondes, emphasizing world-wide analyses from the perspectives of civil society actors in the global South. If the dominant narrative about white knights and dark threats leads to singular solutions, recognition of agency and analyses from the so-called Third World opens up our eyes to other possibilities, including support for West African initiatives. They may not all be better than any given American or European initiative but nor should it be automatically assumed that they are worse.
A Contrapuntal story; and complex realities
The ‘reverse hypothesis’ that I’ve laid out is a deliberately contrapuntal story. It’s meant to make us re-think some common-sense assumptions — about Western aid as expert, heroic and always-helpful and about Africa (and the global South) as undifferentiated places of incompetence, chaos and contagion. This allows us to think critically about Western and American aid, including whether or not it is necessary and if so, how to do it better, while inviting us to seriously consider and mobilize diverse African sources of potential help, including from civil society. But if we go beyond the contrapuntal narrative, we must begin to address even more complex truths. For instance, there are fifty four countries in the vast continent of Africa, each with its own histories, not least given borders drawn up by colonial powers. There are diverse international and regional organizations, playing a wide range of roles on the African continent, from various bodies of the United Nations to institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. There are rich bodies of civil society and important contributions by African intellectuals both in Africa and in the diaspora. There are states, which are not necessarily unitary actors. There are various financial interests, including Chinese state investment, multinational corporations with head offices outside of Africa, as well as more regional and local forms of both capital and labour. As part of this and in addition to it, there are many African actors and voices that must be attended to, including artists, intellectuals, politicians, professionals, civil society actors and more – these do not speak with one voice and inevitably, there will be conflicting perspectives. But if we ignore these actors altogether, we ignore complexities that have serious implications for both Western and African agency, including in the current crisis.
Where does that leave us? With the reality that Ebola is an obvious scourge. But with the recognition, too, that we should not be too hasty in supporting the dominant narrative, one that casts the problems as always-African and the solutions as always-American or European NGOs. That story of “white knights’ and ‘dark threats’ is not innocent but carries with it it’s own dangers. At best, it is a radical simplification of the diverse realities of a vast, complex continent with many actors. At worst, it stigmatizes a whole continent of people, as well as the African diaspora. In practice, the narrative of white knights and dark threats may mean that Africans with expertise are ignored, while American actors are uncritically supported. This simple story, often told, threatens to contaminate our ability to see clearly and to find practical solutions right now and in the future.
For some quick satirical takes on aspects of humanitarian aid and the current Ebola crisis, see:
http://www.africafornorway.no– eg. ‘Africa for Norway! New charity single out now…’
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHO1a1kvZGo– eg., The Daily Show: Spot the Africa!
Abu‐Lughod, Lila. 2002. “Do Muslim women really need saving? Anthropological reflections on cultural relativism and its others.” American anthropologist 104 (3) : 783-790.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2013. Do Muslim Women Need Saving?. Harvard University Press.
Akena, Francis Adyanga. 2014. “Poornography and the Entrenchment of Western Hegemony: Deconstructing the Kony 2012 Video.” Socialist Studies/Études Socialistes 10(1). Open access: www.socialiststudies.com/index.php/sss/article/view/356
Gettelman, Jeffrey. 2014. As Ebola rages, poor planning thwarts efforts. New York Times. December 4. Available at: www.nytimes.com/2014/12/07/world/africa/as-ebola-rages-in-sierra-leone-poor-planning-thwarts-efforts.html
Guardian. 2014. ‘Ebola cremation ruling prompts secret burials in Liberia.’ October 24. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/24/ebola-cremation-ruling-secret-burials-liberia
Johnston, Jake. 2014. “Outsourcing Haiti: how disaster relief became a disaster of its own.” Boston Review. January 16. Accessible at: www.bostonreview.net/world/jake-johnston-haiti-earthquake-aid-caracol
Karunakara, Unni. 2010. “Haiti: Where aid failed.” The Guardian. December 28. Available at: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/dec/28/haiti-cholera-earthquake-aid-agencies-failure
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Nwosu, Benjamin U. 2014. ‘Ebola: How global institutions fail third world’. Sahara Reporters. September 4. Available at: secure.saharareporters.com/2014/09/09/ebola-how-global-institutions-fail-third-world-nations-dr-benjamin-u-nwosu
ODG, Fuse. 2014. ‘Why I had to turn down band-aid’. The Guardian. November 19 Available at: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/19/turn-down-band-aid-bob-geldof-africa-fuse-odg
Oxfam International. 2005. Food aid or hidden dumping? Separating the wheat from the chaff. Available at: www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/bp71_food_aid.pdf
Razack, Sherene. 2004. Dark threats and white knights: The Somalia affair, peacekeeping, and the new imperialism. University of Toronto Press, 2004.
Schenck, Celeste. 2014. “Message from the President and state of the university address”. Email to the American University of Paris, faculty, students, staff and Board of Directors. November 4.
Shah, Anup. 2005. “Food Aid as Dumping”. Global Issues. Available at: www.globalissues.org/article/10/food-aid-as-dumping
Smith, David. 2011. The Guardian. “Pfizer pays out to Nigerian families of meningitis drug trial victims”. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/aug/11/pfizer-nigeria-meningitis-drug-compensation
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Thompson, Dick. 2014. “Ebola’s Deadly Spread in Africa Driven by Public Health Failures, Cultural Beliefs”. National Geographic. July 2. Available at: news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/07/140702-ebola-epidemic-fever-world-health-guinea-sierra-leone-liberia/
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Washington, Harriet 2006. A. Medical apartheid: The dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present. Random House.
Washington, Harriet. 2007. “Why Africa Fears Western Medicine.” New York Times. July 31. Available at: www.nytimes.com/2007/07/31/opinion/31washington.html