Posted by: Nathaniel | June 16, 2008

When does this critique become its own cliche?

With an indignation that can barely fit in 500 words, long time Der Spiegel East Africa correspondent Thilo Thielke writes an Easterly-esque crowd pleaser: “Development Aid Workers Are Killing Africa.”

It would have some valuable points if it wasn’t so predictably wrapped up in its own rancor. His basic argument is that the “planned economy” that comes with western aid is, in fact, at the root of Africa’s poverty. Rambling widely and largely forgoing examples for easy caricatures, Thielke can’t ever seem to decide whether to fully blame the aid workers who just want their jobs forever or the autocratic governments they conspire with to keep the poor poor. You can almost feel the spittle flying from his lips.

The most frustrating and self-deceptive line of the article is this:

“These developmental aid workers, whose reports largely shape our image of Africa, behave this way to a certain extent out of an instinct for self-preservation that they believe the Africans don’t have. Without help, they say, all the Africans will starve. And, indeed, without aid, all the helpers would also be out of a job.”

The reality is that the reports of development aid workers don’t usually make it to the larger American audience. The types of people who read development reports tend to be professionals who are up on the broader discussion of trade vs aid, local ownership, blended value, etc. A better critique might be to suggest that the marketing materials of aid organizations shape our image of Africa. This is certainly true, to an extent. Who hasn’t seen an add with Walter Coppage surrounded by fly-infested kids. Hell, I don’t even know who Walter Coppage is outside of those ads.

The even BIGGER reality is that the actor most complicit in deciding what we do, and maybe just as importantly, what we don’t see are the journalists, editors, and ad departments that decide what Americans (or Germans, or whomever) have access to read in print and see on TV. And surprise surprise, it ain’t portraits of un-corrupt ministers of finance or self-sufficient middle class Africans.

Bryan Mealer, author of “All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo”, put this better than any one else I’ve come across:

“We’d suffered four days with no stories, and neither of us had really left our apartment. We’d enjoyed a nice run before hitting the current slump. In mid-March, United Nations humanitarian chief Jan Egeland had announced that Congo had become “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” a disaster that was being virtually ignored by the rest of the world.

Dave and I took this as fantastic news, because it meant we’d somehow edged out the tsunami in Asia and the genocide in Sudan in terms of absolute misery. The announcement did wonders for getting my stories printed in American papers. If the story had a heady lead of cannibalism, endangered gorillas, or little girls being raped with machetes, then it might have big enough wings to survive its journey across the Atlantic. Everything else was like punting in a hailstorm. Stories left the desk and crashed straight into a watery grave, where a half-century of dispatches of bothersome African despair boils at the bottom.”

As rightly excited as we are about the power of new media to expose people to a much broader world, the reality is that those who do consume news still mostly get it from TV and major outlets like Time Magazine, or Der Spiegel for that matter. So long as those outlets peddle misery from their pages, or ignore it because anxious advertisers don’t want people thinking about genocide when they’re looking at their happy ad for child-safe detergent, there will be little we can do to have a productive and diverse conversation about philanthropy, humanitarianism, and international development.

This article discredited itself the moment it chose a pandering, patently sensationalist title “Development Aid Workers are Killing Africa.” Considering Thielke doesn’t even really argue that, its hard for me to believe that was chosen for any reason other than to shock.

The issues of trade vs. aid, local empowerment, hunger and government reform in Africa are far to important for the conversation to remain at this base level. Many of the critiques that seem to lay just under Thielke’s abstraction and demonization are actually right on, but unfortunately for him and for us, the people and organizations who most need to be part of the conversation won’t make it past the title.

For those interested in real, substantive discussions of these issues, I recommend starting with an organization, One Acre Fund, that’s exploring how to improve agricultural yields by organizing farmers to form local markets. Another good starting point is to explore CARE’s 2007 decision to forgo food aid donations from the US government, on the grounds that they hurt local markets and did more harm than good.



  1. […] on June 28, 2008 by Nathaniel The “trade vs. aid” conversation is one we’ve started and will come back to, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff in A.T. Kearny’s annual […]

  2. Nate,

    Thanks for the comment over at Appfrica. I think Thilo was being a little sensationalist and that does over shadow his point, however I think the logic behind his statement is supported by a number of things. People that share this thought like Andrew Mwenda are making the first steps towards rethinking Africa in recognizing accountability and helping Africans to look out for the best interests of Africa.

    Jon Gosier

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