Grandiose Efforts To "Save Africa" Are Doing More Harm Than Good

The problem with charity in developing countries is that it often prioritizes the white or Western savior over the communities that should be receiving the benefits.
Publish date:
December 4, 2014
charity, africa, ebola, Voluntourism

The white and western world has an obsession with saving Africa.

Whether it's donating money, volunteering at an orphanage or making a charity single, rescuing the destitute African people from their supposed daily horrors is a popular western pastime.

For those of us who don't directly engage in charity efforts, we talk about Africa and its 1.1 billion inhabitants, 54 countries, and over 1000 languages languages as if it were a country and not a continent. We compare ourselves, civilized, advanced, healthy, well-fed, fortunate western counties, to the starving, miserable, incapable, and simple people in Africa who desperately need our help. When talking about Africa, we tend to generalize the continent and its people. How many times have you heard the phrases "starving children in Africa" or “volunteering in Africa,” as opposed to someone mentioning a specific African country?

Generalizing and oversimplifying the problems of the entire continent makes it easy for us to justify efforts to save it. Poor people need money. Sick people need medicine. Starving people need food. Orphans need hugs and teddy bears. And since those impoverished, powerless, incompetent Africans can’t do it themselves, we must do it for them.

Raising money and volunteering to help those who are needy likely stem from good intentions, and it makes us feel good about ourselves. The problem with charity and volunteering in developing countries is that it often prioritizes the white or western savior over the communities that should be receiving the benefits. Efforts to save Africa are rooted in racism and colonialism, and they do more harm than good.

On November 17th, Band-Aid, a group of artists including Chris Martin, Ed Sheeran, and One Direction released a 30th anniversary edition of "Do They Know It’s Christmas" to raise money to help fight Ebola. Critics of the previous and current editions of the single cite the patronizing, inaccurate lyrics, poverty porn in the music video, and stereotypes that the song perpetuates about the entire continent. The title itself is an example of the careless ignorance that many western saviors have about the continent.

Christianity is widely practiced in Africa, so in fact they do know it’s Christmas. Because the original song portrayed Africans as monolithic, helpless and incapable, Solome Lemma writes that “many Africans still associate it with a dark period in which our humanity, dignity and agency were trumped by sensationalist humanitarianism.” The current edition of the song fails to mention that Nigeria, Senegal, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have all controlled their Ebola outbreaks.

Rather than tell the complex truth about the Ebola epidemic, Band-Aid has decided to distort and simplify the narrative in an effort to provoke an emotional response, and subsequently a donation, from the listener. International development aid in general is often offensive, poorly researched, misguided, provides little to no sustainable relief, and only serves to contribute to the white savior industrial complex, and feed the egos of people from developed countries who want to pat themselves on the back. Michael Hobbes argues that “Maybe the problem isn’t that international development doesn’t work. It’s that it can’t.”

Voluntourism is another example of why charity work in Africa is wasteful, useless, and problematic. These types of trips usually do not accomplish anything meaningful for the community, while the voluntourist gets a few pictures of them holding brown babies to post on Facebook or Instagram. Projects are often poorly planned by voluntourism companies who couldn’t care less, and poorly executed because the volunteer does not have the necessary skills to complete it.

Meanwhile, locals who do have the necessary skills to do the work are out of a job. Voluntourism perpetuates the idea that Africans are savages who don’t even know how to dig wells, build orphanages, or paint houses, so we westerners have to come in and do these very simple tasks for them.

For centuries, countries across the continent were exploited for people and resources that were used to prop up white and western civilizations. Some historians would argue that this mining of the continent for profit has contributed to some of the conditions today. After years of colonizing and harvesting their land, resources, and people, we still have the audacity to demand influence in African countries so that we can “help” them. It’s probably safe to say that historically, white people and westerners have done enough.

We don’t need to save Africa because there are locals who know their communities better than some foreigner who wanted an adventurous vacation, and who are already working towards solutions. Africa is full of engineers, entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers, community organizers, and others who work day to day on issues facing their people. People across the continent are sick and tired of westerners coming in to try to tell them how to do things. Many Africans would argue that they don’t need or want our help. In fact, a group of West African musicians have made their own song about the Ebola epidemic.

Instead of trying to save Africa, it’s time we start thinking critically about how the continent is portrayed in the media, as well as the problems with aid and voluntourism, and recognize that those who know best about how to solve local problems are those who live there.