Ebola. Safari. Starving Children. These are words non-Africans often ignorantly associate with Africa and sparks a desire for them to be the “white savior” of the villages in a “third world” continent.
This seems to be the case for Band Aid, a charity founded by former British Popstar Bob Gedolf. In the mid-80s, Geldof initially formed a supergroup of British and Irish recording artists to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia.
As of recently, Band Aid lost British-Ghanian rapper Fuse ODF as a potential collaborator. According to The Guardian, Fuse ODG cited negative stereotypes displayed by Bandaid’s 30th anniversary version of theChristmas Song to help raise money to fight Ebola.
Fuse ODG makes a great point. The primary reasons are celebrities, like Gedolf, routinely stereotype Africans as helpless creatures in need of white saviors. Geldof’s intention at this point doesn’t matter, because that is what happened.
It is important to acknowledge that the Ebola outbreak in three small nations are indeed an urgent humanitarian cause. We can all agree on that case. It is also imperative to be generous. We should donate to local organizations such as the Africa Responds Partners and other credible charities to address the immediate need. We also need to support the rapid discover and deployment of Ebola vaccines and therapies.
With charming lines like “where a kiss of love can kill you and there’s death in every tear,” and “There is no peace and joy in West Africa this Christmas.” For what its worth, I happen to be from Senegal, a West African nation in which the one Ebola case that was diagnosed was promptly controlled. There is a great deal of peace and joy in Senegal and many other West African nations, despite the Ebola crisis.
Interestingly enough, the shameful song was coincidentally released at the same time as the premieres of Poverty Inc.
From They Know It’s Christmas (a 2011 cover by the American Television Show) to Glee, the general problem is that there is a worldwide culture perpetuating a sentimental, yet harmful image of Africans as helpless and dependent.
As an African entrepreneur, I realized that exaggerated generalization negatively portrays Africa directly. Furthermore it reduces my ability to create jobs and promote education, dignity, and respect in Senegal. I’ve found that while Americans are willing to donate to African charities, few Americans would consider visiting or investing in Africa. This is a problem.
I want to pause and help you understand just how damaging these negative images are for the long-term well-being of Africans. First, consider the fact that millions of Americans are willing to give donations, but do not want to invest in Africa.
The implication is that we are unpleasant creatures who may be helped at a distance, but no one wants to get close to us. Meanwhile, Africa has many beautiful spas, resorts, beaches, wildlife safaris, nature preserves, live music events, etc. Moreover, while our hospitality industries are not as well developed as I would like, the only way that we will develop a more sophisticated hospitality industry is if more people vacation with us. Geldof’s message ends up being a direct attack on our future as a tourist destination.
The failure to invest in Africa is even more serious. Few people regard investment as a morally urgent cause, but it is. Although one still finds anti-capitalists here and there, it is abundantly clear the only way any nation has ever moved from poverty to prosperity is by the means of entrepreneurial capitalism In the past thirty years, India, China, and other developing nations have become climbing the road to prosperity, in large part because many thousands of investors decided to invest billions of dollars in business activity in those nations. The result has been a stunning increase in broad-based prosperity: In China, average urban wages have increased from $1,000 to more than $6,000 in the past twenty years (for hundreds of millions of workers). As someone who hails from an African nation with a GDP per capita of roughly $1,000, I can’t tell you how transformational a six-fold increase in wages would be. Africa needs more capitalists investing in African entrepreneurs. But before this can happen, we need respect.
Several years ago, Dwyer Gunn of the New York Times interviewed my husband, Michael Strong, about his book, “Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World’s Problems”. A trouble question was asked to Strong that accurately depicts the Western world’s lack of understanding of Africa:“I understand how China and India can benefit from more entrepreneurial capitalism. But isn’t Africa in more of a stage of agricultural development?”
I flew out of my seat in outrage. Gunn is a caring, decent person with a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Columbia specializing in Africa. At the time she was carrying the credibility of the NYT — one of the most respected media sources in the world. And she didn’t take the idea of African entrepreneurs seriously?
Few years ago, I met with an entrepreneur in the San Francisco Bay Area who had made his millions and wanted to “make a difference” now. When I explained how my company, Tiossan, would create jobs and finance high-end schools in Senegal, while also creating dignity and respect by creating the first high-end African consumer brand, he looked at me as if I was an alien.
For him, “helping Africa” could only mean providing charity for the poor, pathetic African children he had seen in hundreds of NGO marketing campaigns. The very notion of “high-end” and Africa was inconceivable to him.
I have spoken at dozens of conferences on college campuses and around the world. Whenever I speak about the dignity and respect Africans deserve to the African audience in the United States or abroad, I receive standing ovations. It’s because they too feel the pain and disrespect of these stereotypes that hurt Africa’s future. Conversely, when I say the same thing to Euro-American audiences I get blank stares asking me what about the wells? Imagine for a moment what it is like for an African. Non-Africans see only three things when thinking of Africa: comfortable, wealthy, charming white people; dirty needy Africans; and the “caring” white person in midst of a group of needy black faces.
Meanwhile, back home in Senegal, the very poor will hold broken cell phones to their ears pretending to be talking on the phone, because they want to be respected as movers and shakers. Women of all economic classes put a great deal of effort to make their hair and dress clean, colorful, and attractive. We stand tall and proud as we enjoy each other in our communities. There is dust, there is poverty, and there are challenges in life. But we are human beings. Please give us the respect we deserve and earn.
Several years ago, one of Jeff Sachs’ Millennium Villages featured a sign, “Don’t Feed the Villagers” to the tourists who came to look at the villagers. The notions that you are the white saviors and we are an opportunity for you to show how much you care are more repulsive to us than you can imagine.
Learn to watch African wildlife specials with a new eye, noting the dignity with which African wildlife is portrayed: zebras, lions, giraffes, and wildebeest are all moving in slow motion majesty with an inspiring soundtrack that thrills the heart. Now, note the role of African human beings: sometimes playing a secondary role to the white naturalist, but never with the dignity granted to a giraffe. Meanwhile, one flies through international airports assaulted by the faces of black children with flies in their eyes. Give, give, give to help the pathetic Africans.
As Poverty, Inc addresses the primary reason Africa is poor is not because Africans don’t have enough stuff, nor is it because Africa hasn’t received enough aid or charity. The primary reason Africa is poor is, because people in poverty lack the institutions of justice that would enable to create prosperity for their families and communities. Celebrities can’t help by reaffirming ignorant stereotypes of Africa as a barren, dependable, hopeless continent. In Bob Geldof’s case, he could’ve made a stronger positive impact by focusing on singing about property rights, rule of law, justice in courts, and entrepreneurship — making those concepts sexy and popular to those who wouldn’t care otherwise.
Now some of the fastest growing nations on earth are African. Yes, Ebola is an urgent humanitarian cause that must be addressed, but we have long passed the point where it is legitimate (if it ever was) to re-enforce the stereotypes of a billion people when we have a very specific health crisis at hand.