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The Destination for your Pity Will Soon be Something Else

This post is not a rejection of aid or charity or volunteering. It’s a rejection of an attitude about Africa.

Last summer, at a chop house in Takoradi, Ghana, an American girl struck up a conversation with me. She was a 3rd year university student volunteering in Ghana for 6 weeks. When I told her I was traveling, she was surprised and seemingly upset that I was not volunteering.

This is a problem. No one should be dismayed that I’m traveling in Ghana. It shouldn’t be controversial that I’m not volunteering.

We brand Africa as the continent of the helpless, a designation augmented by deficient media coverage and the publicity efforts of so many well-meaning non-profits.

Here’s the thing. Africa is moving on without us. We need to re-think how we’re involved. Right now, we’re quick to donate money to charities, but we’re less eager to invest in businesses. Our flawed perception of Africa has done such a good job stripping Africans of agency that we find it hard to believe that Africans can start and run their own enterprises.

People in Africa want to make money as much as anybody else. They want to share ideas because African ideas are as relevant as any other. This market hasn’t even been scraped. Western financiers should come over here and see for themselves what’s going on.

That comes from this piece on African start-ups in TechCrunch Europe, but these stories are appearing everywhere.

Two days ago, Erik Hersman, the guy who co-founded (with the brilliant Juliana Rotich) Ushahidi, wrote about the damage caused by ICT4D terminology. ICT4D is an acronym for Information and Communications Technology for Development. For example, using mobile phones and SMS messaging to expand health education.

No one would argue that expanding health education is a bad thing. The problem is not with the service itself:

…the African technology startup scene is young, but it’s ready to be treated as a real industry with real investors looking to make real returns. When the people who are doing business and making money in African tech get a sniff of an “ICT4D” project, they immediately dismiss it – labeling it as a special needs project where the regular rules don’t apply.

A startup company who is trying to create value and make money, but doing so with what outsiders view as poor or disadvantaged communities, is often pigeonholed internationally as ICT4D. For instance, is Esoko the money-making agricultural product from Ghana, which is now in a dozen countries, an ICT4D company? How about if a company started off by being used in Africa, but then their product went global – such as with Ushahidi?

Second, the funds and work put into this space by the NGOs are creating a false floor in the economy. They’re undermining the community of tech entrepreneurs who could be building the same products and services and charging for it, just like we’d expect any company in the West to do if there was a valuable service worth paying for. If it’s a service that should be supplied by the government, then they’re short-circuiting those responsibilities and subsidizing actions that subvert the public offices away from their duty.

I suggest reading all of it here.

Look, there are a lot of great non-profits. Some of my work on howtodrawcamels.com is devoted to shining a light on them (in Mali, at least). In many places, non-profits do critical work. And there are plenty of volunteering opportunities that effect change without undermining local communities and local labor.

But this idea that Africans are helpless, that the only way for the west to connect with Africa is in the context of aid and development – this idea is misguided and destructive. With or without a change in our attitude, Africa is moving forward. Pay attention or find yourself blindsided later on.


Posting has been light over the past couple of weeks. It will pick up a bit once I am back in Ghana, a couple weeks from now. I have been buried in writing assignments and I’ve been putting work into a few other sites. Look out for a new post on How to Draw Camels profiling Project Muso.

Also, I’ve got 2 new things on the horizon. One is a site/project that will launch sometime after my trip has started. I’m gonna keep the lid on it for now, but I will say that it’s going to have a lot of media. The other thing is the restaurant I am collaborating on with two Ivorian friends in Abidjan. Planning for it has so far involved a lot of phone chats with Faty. But we’re making progress. Looking forward to being there in December.

This week in particular has been difficult; I’ve been trying to keep up with work while also recovering from the haunted reggae show we threw on the porch of my former DC residence. We put on a similar party last year for the opening weekend of the world cup. See pic:

From this year:

The growing crowd

Archives, the best reggae band in DC, setting up shop on our porch.

As I’ve said before, Hobart Street is a special place. Add a few gallons of mulled cider spiked with brandy, bourbon and rum, a grill, roots reggae, rocksteady and dancehall, and a whole bunch of friends, neighbors and complete strangers, and you have a true party. It was a cold day, but we warmed that street up real quick. With much encouragement, we now have plans to make this a twice-a-year event.

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{ 36 comments… add one }

  • Mzuri November 4, 2011, 10:25 am

    Loved your comment, “We brand Africa as the continent of the helpless…”

    I would add that many of us (both outside and inside Africa) tolerate poor business services in an African country because, after all, “It’s an African country, what do you expect?” which is just another perspective of what you’re talking about.

    I got a little lost on the ICT4D example, though. Are you saying ICT4D is a good thing, but is being discounted … or ICT4D is an example of a bad thing? Guess I need to go read your link.

    • phil November 4, 2011, 12:43 pm

      Yes, you’re exactly right. It’s a negative feedback loop and it causes us to to lower our expectations. Good point.

      What I am saying, or really what Erik is saying about ICT4D, is that the actual services are great. The problem is that any ICT project that takes place in africa is automatically labeled ICT4D, whereas the same project in America might be labeled a “civil society innovation.” The ICT4D label affects tech entrepreneurs’ business legitimacy. I would definitely check out his whole piece. It’s a good read.

  • Christy @ Ordinary Traveler November 4, 2011, 4:09 pm

    I never thought about things this way regarding Africa. It completely makes sense. Why not help them become more self-sufficient.

    • phil November 5, 2011, 10:53 am

      This is more about both parties benefitting through investment rather than one helping the other. We typically look at the hierarchy as “we” being able to help “them,” but what if we start looking it as how can they help us?

  • DTravelsRound November 4, 2011, 4:31 pm

    Looking forward to what happens next for you …

  • Caz Makepeace November 4, 2011, 4:32 pm

    Great article Phil! This really opens you up to thinking about Africa in a different life. Constantly regarding someone as helpless is never going to help raise them up. Love it!

    By the way, I’d love to attend that house party one day!

    • phil November 5, 2011, 10:59 am

      You are invited. Make your way to Washington DC sometime next june/july 🙂

  • Adam Pervez November 4, 2011, 4:57 pm

    So, so true. I’m about to publish my own post about volunteering with a medical brigade in Honduras. Very conflicting experience for me and definitely in line with what you are saying here. Great article!

    • phil November 5, 2011, 10:47 am

      look forward to reading it, Adam!

  • Abby November 4, 2011, 8:15 pm

    Excellent essay, Phil. I did some work for my masters many years ago on this topic. Bravo!

    • phil November 5, 2011, 10:59 am

      Thanks, Abby

  • jill November 4, 2011, 8:36 pm

    That’s how I feel about a lot of NGO organizations. I know they’re trying to help, but the goal of making the people they’re helping self – sustainable without their (Westerners) help aka: making the organization itself obsolete is often not a priority. Maybe it’s the belief that Africans are not capable enough to take care of their own people, or maybe it’s a self preservation thing – regardless in the long term it just builds an unhealthy dependence on outside help. Anyway, before I go on ranting even further – just want to say thanks for another great article on this continent. And awesome party! Where’s our invite? 🙂

    • phil November 5, 2011, 11:04 am

      You are also invited!

      I think self-preservation is a big factor. When you think about it, the big NGOs have a lot going on. They have offices and many employees who depend on the org. for a livelihood. I can’t be easy to shut that down or even scale it back. Very troubling in a way..

  • Martin November 6, 2011, 11:33 am

    When I hear about young ppl volunteering I keep thinking of one of Louis CK’s stand up routines:

    “If you’re twenty, you definitely have never done a thing for anybody. Yes, you went to Guatemala on a school trip, and they told you you helped, but you totally did not help. You were a way bigger pain in the ass. You got your picture on Facebook with a shovel, and they got screwed. They hate you now.”

    When ppl hear that I run a business in Africa, I sometimes get the “ok, so you are making money off poor people” response. It’s jokingly, but I kind of think it’s volunteers and people involved in aid that should have more to prove. Getting aid right and avoiding harmful side-effects like creating a begging bowl mentality is so much harder than running a small business. In my business I am a client of some ppl and some ppl are clients to me, and we have an upstanding mutual business relationship that will last as long as the business is good, and doesn’t depend on how long funds last at some western NGO. And nobody is begging, is helpless, or unilaterally depending on anybody else.

    Anyway, that looks like a great party!

    • phil November 6, 2011, 12:04 pm

      YES. Exactly. The whole relationship is different. It’s easy to assume that volunteering and/or aid is an automatic good. People seem to think, “well, if I’m sacrificing my time or donating my money, it has to help out, right?” But often, they’re not looking at the bigger picture and they fail to see the benefits of investing in business.

      Expect an email from me soon, Martin. It’s been a while since we talked and I want to see how everything is going. Take care, Phil

  • Katrina November 6, 2011, 6:44 pm

    You’re so rockin’ cool, Phil. Love how you mix up the topics in your posts and yet stay true to all of them. 😉

  • Kyle November 7, 2011, 6:09 am

    I have nothing to say but, “Yup, exactly.” Like anything else, sometimes NGOs get caught up in self-preservation (much like politics) instead of “making the organization itself obsolete is often not a priority”. It’s a little sad that a lot of wonderful, educated, local people want to work for NGOs not because of some altruistic urge but because, well, it’s the best paying job in town.

    • phil November 7, 2011, 11:03 pm

      Yea, many non-profits grow significantly and become larger operations. It seems in many cases, they lose their effectiveness as they get larger and at the same time, they become more entrenched. And you’re right, in some places NGOs are the only places hiring, another consequence of only investing in certain places.

  • Mzuri November 7, 2011, 8:51 am

    I’m troubled by the contempt expressed in the Louis CK quote. It’s a nice little, “I’m cooler than you because I know the one right way to do it” sound byte, but it does nothing to move any knowledge forward.

    As for local people who want to get employed with a good-paying NGO…. 1) Being nobly poor does not make one a more effective change agent than someone who receives a good wage; 2) there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to be well-compensated for one’s work; and 3) there’s a difference between being compensated well and abusing the donations people make to an NGO (and disrespecting the NGO’s clients) by receiving crazy-large salaries, staying at luxury hotels, dining lavishly, and driving expensive SUVs.

    • phil November 7, 2011, 11:07 pm

      Mzuri, you’re right. From what I understand re: Kyle’s comment, if that is what you are talking about, the problem is not necessarily that the people are well compensated working at an NGO, the problem is that in some cases, all the money in an area has been invested in NGOs and there aren’t other job opportunities.

      • Mzuri November 9, 2011, 11:06 am

        …the problem is that in some cases, all the money in an area has been invested in NGOs and there aren’t other job opportunities.

        I agree with some hesitation.

  • Christy @ Technosyncratic November 8, 2011, 8:22 am

    I really appreciate this post, Phil. I studied activism a lot in college (a degree in Gender Studies will do that), and one thing I learned is that for activism to be effective you have to LISTEN and be willing to serve as a supporting actor. NGOs shouldn’t barge into a community with preconceived notions about what needs “fixing”, they should ask “How can I be most helpful?” or even “Can I be helpful at all?” But I think a lot of the time NGOs don’t approach with that mindset because they wouldn’t like the answer (since, as other comments have indicated, it might make their organizations obsolete).

    ANYway, this doesn’t even address the issue of needing to totally change our paradigm for thinking about Africa. I’m sure there are a ton of mutually-beneficial business opportunities there, we just don’t think about them because we’ve been too busy stripping the continent of its natural resources instead and then pitying Africans for not being able to compete in the international market.

    • phil November 8, 2011, 12:45 pm

      *nods head*

  • Nomadic Samuel November 11, 2011, 7:56 am

    Phil, this is a well thought out post. I agree with you totally that one should never feel guilty about being a traveller as opposed to volunteering. Contributions can be made at a number of levels and travelling is certainly one way that a person can support a number of local businesses and create a positive impact on a destination or region.

    • phil November 12, 2011, 7:19 am

      I agree. I also think there is a certain dignity in traveling somewhere. You are sending the message that you believe the place is worth visiting for its own sake.

  • Laura November 11, 2011, 6:29 pm

    A recent book I read on this issue is called “Dead Aid” and I highly recommend it for anyone scrolling through the comments who is interested in this issue. It annoys me when I hear the words “helpless” and “corrupt” thrown around so much when people talk about Africa…. and almost always by people who have never stepped foot on the continent but they’ve ‘read the news’. Jacqueline Novogratz makes a good argument for the balance of NGOs and for-profit enterprises, and I do think there is room for both. However, I am strongly for self-sufficiency. After working on social business ideas in South Africa this past summer, I believe there is so much room for growth on the continent and NGOs should focus more of their efforts on education and business support. While you get criticized for not volunteering, I always get the critical eye when people discover that I am not going to Africa as a missionary, nor am I going through a church project (I guess that’s what happens when you live in the Bible belt!). Good luck with your trip in Ghana Phil 🙂

    • Laura November 11, 2011, 6:31 pm

      Btw, I was referring to Novogratz’ argument in her book The Blue Sweater.

    • phil November 12, 2011, 7:32 am

      All good reading suggestions. I think “Dead Aid” and Bill Easterly’s “White Man’s Burden” are both provocative and well argued, but I think in many cases the situation is more complex than they suggest. I’m definitely with you as far as support for education and business and from what I’ve read of your volunteering, I think you’re putting your efforts in the right place. My 2 cents anyway..

  • Kyle November 14, 2011, 11:55 pm

    Great post Phil.

    • phil November 15, 2011, 9:23 am

      Thanks man. Did you get that visa>?

      • Kyle November 15, 2011, 10:48 am

        I did. All worked out. I’ll get you my number as soon as I can. Best of luck with your flight tomorrow.

  • pam November 26, 2011, 11:55 am

    I made my first trip to Africa “proper” this year, Kenya and Tanzania. And I was surprised by the existence of what looked to me like a middle class. Folks at the mall who looked like my friends at home, sitting with laptops and lattes, gossiping, generally just living life and going on dates and well, being not what I thought Africa would look like at all. I was really happy to be relieved of my notions about that continent. Don’t get me wrong, I saw lots of crushing poverty, too, and some pretty obscene wealth, but I guess I didn’t expect a middle way to exist at all.

    I’m not sure what my point is, only that your post made me think of this, again.

    • phil November 28, 2011, 7:30 am

      I had very similar thoughts when I first visited Ghana. From Western news reports, films, schooling, nowhere is there a source providing the whole picture. Africa was largely one-dimensional to me until I went there.

  • Nath December 1, 2011, 12:51 pm

    Great post and spot on. I’ve been in Accra about two weeks and already spotted independently-run versions of StartupWeekend and TED Talks in the city. A real entrepreneurial buzz here. But when I’ve mentioned any of it to aid/volunteer sector people they’re usually just nonplussed – typically the question is ‘Which [international] organisation is funding it?’. And if there isn’t an answer to that, it doesn’t seem to mean much.

    • phil December 3, 2011, 7:38 am

      YEs! Tons of stuff going on in Accra. There are also barcamps happening throughout the country. Tamale last weekend and now Ho. I am in Accra as well. Send me an email at phil dot paoletta @ gmail and I’ll pass on my # if you’d like to meet up. Take care, phil

  • Monique March 7, 2013, 5:08 pm

    Your post reminds of an excellent book by Dambiso Moyo “Dead Aid”. Here is a review on the book….some may enjoy to read this book.
    In the past fifty years, more than $1 trillion in development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Has this assistance improved the lives of Africans? No. In fact, across the continent, the recipients of this aid are not better off as a result of it, but worse—much worse.

    In Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo describes the state of postwar development policy in Africa today and unflinchingly confronts one of the greatest myths of our time: that billions of dollars in aid sent from wealthy countries to developing African nations has helped to reduce poverty and increase growth.

    In fact, poverty levels continue to escalate and growth rates have steadily declined—and millions continue to suffer. Provocatively drawing a sharp contrast between African countries that have rejected the aid route and prospered and others that have become aid-dependent and seen poverty increase, Moyo illuminates the way in which overreliance on aid has trapped developing nations in a vicious circle of aid dependency, corruption, market distortion, and further poverty, leaving them with nothing but the “need” for more aid.

    Debunking the current model of international aid, Moyo offers a bold new road map for financing development of the world’s poorest countries that guarantees economic growth and a significant decline in poverty—without reliance on foreign aid or aid-related assistance.

    Dead Aid is an unsettling yet optimistic work, a powerful challenge to the assumptions and arguments that support a profoundly misguided development policy in Africa. And it is a clarion call to a new, more hopeful vision of how to address the desperate poverty that plagues millions.

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