Do-Goodyness vs. Doing Good (some thoughts on “white savior” issues in Africa)

Imagine you are a parent of school age children here in Andover. The state has a budget crisis and stops paying the teachers. Some stay in exchange for food, but the majority of them are gone. But don’t worry, they tell you, we are going to replace the teachers with 19 and 20 year old college students from Switzerland. Some of them are majoring in education, some of them aren’t, but hey, they’re really enthusiastic. These college students will come for 4-8 weeks at a time, and then leave to be replaced by new college students. Even though these eager volunteers have never been to the US before, know little to nothing about our culture, and have little to no teaching experience, we expect you to be thrilled about this and very grateful for their time. These new temporary teachers will take pictures of your children without your permission and splatter them all over the internet. They will go home and share how the experience of teaching your children changed their lives, but there will be no assessment or follow up or any sustainable means of measuring the effectiveness of this teaching on your child’s education. There will be no conversation on a long term solution that includes trained, experienced, and sustainable educators from within your community. Ask yourself if you would find this acceptable, and then consider that this is what happens all over Africa and in other developing countries.


I’m by no means implying that caring volunteers who are willing and excited to provide services have even an ounce of malicious intent. Quite the opposite actually, but it doesn’t always translate in the way that we imagine it will or intend it to.  This phenomenon is what I call do-goodyness. This is our genuine, well intentioned desire to do good things for the world. It stems from our heartfelt sadness and frustration at seeing suffering and violence and poverty, and our senses of justice and fairness and the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all beings. It is, I believe, a personality trait to be proud of. Our do-goodyness motivates us to be generous with our money, our time, and often both – in support of causes we believe will reduce suffering.  But belief in doing good, and good intentions do not ensure good results.


Often, these truly well intentioned thoughts and actions can end up being condescending, patronizing, or simply not helpful or sustainable. When an American or European who has never stepped foot in an African country or maybe went to visit for a couple of weeks decides he or she knows what people in Africa need, there is very often a lack of research, evidence, data, and knowledge of cultural, economic, and environmental nuances. We tend to approach perceived needs in Africa from our own paradigms and perspectives instead of theirs,  or from the limited vantage point of an outsider – and this is a problem.


The most obvious and widely known example of this is the “Kony 2012″ campaign.  To keep it short, this was a white American man’s attempt to demand US involvement in the capturing of the leader of a guerrilla army, guilty of murder, rape, and a laundry list of other human rights atrocities. In the “viral video”, he focused on Kony’s time in Uganda, despite the fact that it was widely known Kony and his army had left Uganda for the remote jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo years prior.

The attention this video received did more harm than good.  First of all, it oversimplified the conflict to a borderline offensive degree. From watching that video, you would get the idea that Kony’s army was full of monsters, and the Ugandan government was “the good guys”. Kony IS a monster, but his army is made up of young boys, some of whom have been kidnapped, some of whom volunteered because the alternative was watching their mother or sister be raped,  who have and will continue to protect him with their lives. Many of these boys have escaped and have been rehabilitated. They’re not all monsters. It wasn’t mentioned in the film that capturing Kony would undoubtedly result in killing a bunch of children. Additionally, the film fails to mention that the Ugandan Army also uses child soldiers and along with the Rwandan army, took an active role in genocide in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Basically, this was not the simplistic “good guy vs bad guy” scenario portrayed in the film.

Perhaps more damaging than the oversimplifying of a tremendously complex civil situation was the evoking of pity for Uganda. In the same year that Lonely Planet named it THE  top travel destination on Earth, this video was released making Uganda look like a war-torn, unstable hell hole. Parts of it may be, but this would be like showing foreigners a dumbed-down 20 minute film about the current conditions in Detroit without clarifying that it wasn’t representative of the entire United States, or even the state of Michigan.


Again these are hypotheticals, but imagine if after all of the work we’ve done for marriage equality in the last 10 years, a very vocal group of Swedish folks decided we weren’t doing a good enough job, and started a campaign using pictures of sad looking Americans, taking sound bites from Michelle Bachmann, and thoughtfully commenting on how sorry they felt for us and our backwards ways, encouraging action from other countries to “help” us backed by a melancholy soundtrack. And what would the civil rights movement have looked like with the involvement of foreign troops?  We are quick to look down upon some of these countries that seem to be in a constant state of war, but how did this country look less than a hundred years into independence?


When Americans or Europeans decide they can “fix” an issue in Africa, very rarely do they understand the cultural and social and economic nuances of the region or country or people they want to fix.   Another example:  one morning when I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I woke up to see a donkey grazing on the grass in front of my window. After nearly a month in the country, this was the first time I’d seen a donkey. Where did he come from? I asked.  From a European NGO (I forget which country) a few years back, I was told. A thoughtful visitor had observed the women in the region hunched over from carrying supplies and crops to and from the market and decided to donate donkeys, so that they could carry the heavy loads instead of the women. Only, they failed to consider the expense of feeding and keeping a donkey. It ended up being more of a burden than a blessing for most, and a lot of the donkeys ended up being eaten.  My friend in the yard was one of the lucky ones, I guess. That was a little anecdote I only know about because I happened to see a donkey in the middle of the eastern Congo and ask about it, and you know honestly, I probably would have heard a proposal to give donkeys to farming families in the Congo and thought it was a great idea. Because I don’t actually live there.    Similarly, TOMS shoe donation program has been criticized by some for not taking in to consideration that by handing out free shoes to everyone in a village, they could be decimating the income of those who make, repair, and sell shoes in the community. Do they do more harm than good, or more good than harm? Its hard to say without research, and that research doesn’t seem to exist (I lean towards more good than harm in this case, but I see where the critics are coming from). 


Alternatively, Pigs for Peace is a microfinance group based in DRC, created and led by Dr. Nancy Glass, a professor of nursing at Johns Hopkins University. Pigs for Peace provides a woman with a female pig as well as training on caring for the pig and veterinary services. When the pig gives birth, 2 piglets are returned to the program – one as repayment and one as interest. Those piglets are then given to women in the village, and so on. The pigs provide income and food for families, and also build a sense of community and responsibility in regions devastated by rape and genocide. Dr. Glass conducted extensive research and consulted Congolese health, agriculture, and microfinance experts in order to design a program that is culturally appropriate, sustainable, and has measurable, beneficial outcomes. Pigs for Peace didn’t just seem like a good idea, it was evidence based, and continually assessed for effectiveness. This is transcending dogoodyness into doing good. Though we won’t all have NIH grants and resources from Johns Hopkins, this type of progam can and should serve as a model for all interventions in developing countries.

So it may sound like I’m being a bit of a downer here – don’t go to Africa to volunteer unless you’re an MD, phD, or can commit to a year of work, but thats not really what I’m getting at.  This is more about awareness of how to channel our “do-goodyness” in an effective way, because I doubt anyone who goes through the effort of getting to Africa wants to be patronizing, but often we are.


A woman named Mindy Budgor recently published a book titled “Warrior Princess: My Quest to Become the First Female Maasai Warrior”. Mindy is the daughter of millionaires in California, and after making her own millions, felt bored and unfulfilled, so she treated herself to a 3 week safari in Kenya. While on Safari, she was saddened to discover that in the Maasai culture, women cannot be considered warriors. So she took it upon herself to show those backwards Maasai that women can be warriors, and writes that after months of intense sessions with a personal trainer back here in the States, she returned to Kenya wearing “Under Armor and pearls” and red Chanel nailpolish that made her feel “fierce”. She speaks of herself as though this was an act of selflessness for the women of the Maasai.

The fact is, its not our role to decide what an African country needs. It is our role to observe, to listen, to be aware.  The amount of condescension, paternalism, colonialism, and downright narcissism wrapped up in this one story dizzying. Not to mention the cover of her book – a white woman wearing expensive gold jewelry and holding a Maasai spear wearing Chanel nail polish, is incredibly exploitative and offensive.  I don’t blame Mindy Budgor for her initial thought (yay womens rights!) – or even her incredibly cliche reason for going on safari in Kenya (because all of the Gucci and Prada in the world still left her feeling “empty” – yawn). Where I do fault her is making the trip, engrossing herself in a foreign culture, and still believing she had the authority to push her agenda on a people she has no actual expertise in or connection to who did not seek or need her help.  The fact that she has the audacity to refer to herself as a “Maasai Warrior Princess” after spending 3 weeks in a village would be funny if not so horrifyingly patronizing.


I know this is an extreme example, but it epitomizes the problem with well-intentioned charitable work in Africa.  It is incredible that so many of us have had the privilege of global travel, and even better that xenophobia is quickly becoming outdated as more and more people leave their comfort zones for foreign lands.  Curiosity of the unknown and unfamiliar is part of our human nature, and the curiosity is mutual… when I visited a women’s co-operative in Burundi, a few young girls timidly asked if they could touch my hair. That being said, there is a respectful way to participate in and contribute to life in Africa. Calling yourself a warrior princess and exploiting an already exploited people for your own personal fulfillment/agenda isn’t it.  

In response to the book, a ACTUAL Maasai woman had this to say: “We are not looking for a spokeswoman. Mindy does not represent us. She does not understand our struggles and cannot speak for us. We have a voice, and we stand up to speak for what matters to us: education for our girls, equal opportunities and economic empowerment for our women, decent healthcare, and clean water.”


If you want to go to Africa, by all means go. I would shout it from the rooftops, GO!!  But do not go because you want to save people and you think you know how. Go because you want to. Go because you are curious. Go shop, eat, drink, take tours, meet people, ask questions and be an observant visitor, because that’s what you are. Contributing to local businesses helps reduce suffering in Africa in the same way it reduces suffering here. When you want to take pictures, ask permission, and if they ask for money in exchange, give them some. Go without an agenda except to see and hear, taste and smell.

Truly ending colonialism means African people get to decide what African people want and need. We need to be asking the right questions. Who is running this organization, where is it based, what is the source of funding, is it evidence based, is it sustainable, is it focused on providing goods or services, or training people within the community to provide goods and services, etc. When you want to help, seek out businesses and organizations created by and run by people who are actually from the countries or communities they are trying to aid. Look for organizations that do not take foreign undergrad volunteers because instead they hire and train community members.

Research has shown that community-directed health interventions are far more sustainable and successful than those that rely more heavily on foreign involvement. This is Paul Farmer’s model that has been immensely successful in Haiti and other countries.  This is why I have remained involved with Dr. Shungu and UFAR.  I lucked out, because I was so naive at the time I started working with him to the issues I’ve just discussed, but UFAR was formed by a Congolese microbiologist, who in addition to actually being Congolese, met with ministers of health, local doctors, and community leaders all over the country to make sure he had a comprehensive understanding of what was needed before he got to work. The success of his mission lies almost entirely in the hands of trained local community health workers, providing education and empowerment to men and women who will live their entire lives in these communities – not Americans who have come for a visit.

My role in this organization has been to raise money and awareness. What happens with that money is not, nor should it ever be, up to an outsider. When I went to DRC last year, I went with a very different perspective than I did on my first trip. I went to observe and witness the work that had been done and the work that still needs to be done. Ironically enough, that led to conversations about things that I actually CAN do to help, now that I have training and experience in a specific field.  It also led to a different experience because I allowed myself to be a tourist and not a volunteer. I shopped to my heart’s content, went out to bars, listened to live music, drank the local beers, and made a couple of great friends.  One of those friends stands out as a particularly great example of my overall point. Lawerence formed an organization called Green Youth Conservation Uganda. He’s a young, educated guy who’d be best described as middle class. He needs tents, because he takes local kids on camping trips to encourage a respect and appreciation of nature. No one needs to feel sorry for him, he’s awesome and successful. It would be a shame to see money and resources go to an American, even with the same goals, when it could be going to him.


In the end it all comes down to the Golden Rule. We should not find behaviors acceptable in Africa that we would not find acceptable here simply because the people are poor and there are fewer laws to protect them (getting permission before photographing children is a prime example of this). Start conversations with asking people “what can I do to help?” instead of telling people what they need. If you have an agenda, no matter how noble you think it may be, set it aside, because people from Africa are not different from people from Boston, or people from Spain – the poverty and unrest that exist within the continent do not permit us to decide or pretend to know what is best for its people. If you want to help, push yourself transcend do-goodyness to doing good.

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4 Responses to Do-Goodyness vs. Doing Good (some thoughts on “white savior” issues in Africa)

  1. Richard Hudak says:

    Reblogged this on The Considered Kula and commented:
    I heard the blogger deliver this as a sermon at church. I think it’s a caution to those of us in the yoga community who would do “seva” abroad abstracted from the context of the people we would seek to serve.

  2. Richard Hudak says:

    I would love to have my class read this and then Skype with you about it.

  3. Celia Hitchins says:

    great story. thanks for letting me see a side that I hadn’t considered. when r u guys traveling to DRC?

    Date: Thu, 27 Feb 2014 03:38:33 +0000

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