Sally Struthers go home

Been struggling with how to put into words something I’ve felt visiting the poorer areas of Ghana.

Like most Westerners my concept of poverty in Africa is heavily informed by aid campaign advertisements. (I blame Sally Struthers completely.) Pre-programmed, one just sort of expects to find misery and unhappiness: sobbing, curled children with distended bellies; emaciated frowns from doorways; a total lack of joy.

I have seen none of this. In fact, if there’s any emotion I see more frequently than others it is happiness.

Now, before you say that I have confined myself to upscale, urban areas, I’ll note that most of the first two weeks’ work was in the field in tiny villages without electricity, running water, or any infrastructure whatsoever.

Certainly there is much misery and want in Africa. Failed states, pestilence, warfare — take your pick. But the longer I am in Africa the more I realize that we’ve been conditioned to believe that Africans are not happy. Purely from a aid organization sales perspective this makes sense: if people are happy with their plight in Africa why send your support check in?

It comes down to this: standard of living is not the same thing as quality of life. Would Ghanaians love to have other amenities that first-world citizens enjoy? Perhaps. Are they in abject misery because they do not? No way.

In thinking that Ghanaians’ quality of life suffers because their standard of living is below ours we’re making a cliched blunder, guessing at the perspective of someone else through the filter of your own cultural sensibilities. It’s arrogant.

Africa could use help, there’s no doubt. But aid will never be effective if we provide it based on caricatures of behavior meant to tug at us emotionally. So, Sally, go home. I know children lack food and die of horrible illnesses in Africa. But images like that mask the real complexity of the needs and promise of African society. Let’s be more honest.

3 Responses to “Sally Struthers go home”

  1. Rob O. says :

    Since you have a decidedly more informed perspective, John, I’d be very interested in your thoughts on the whole One Laptop Per Child initiative that aims to put cheap notebooks in the hands of exactly the kinds of villagers that you’ve been visiting.
    I’ve been very critical of this, believing that the monies spent on this could be far better used to address other, more vital needs – like basic civic infrastructures. But as you pointed out, my perceptions of the needs of these “Third World” people are bound to be terribly Western-skewed and might even be totally off the mark.
    Of course, I also don’t believe that computers are a magic bullet for improved education or quality of life in this – or any other – country…
    So, what’re your thoughts on the worthiness of putting the Internet in the hands of rural Africans or other Third World people?

  2. Darren says :

    Interesting post.
    I do find those aid agency adverts a little patronising and pretty uninspiring. The “if you could give just two pounds a month” thing with sad looking African child has always put me off more than anything. Showing it in such a negative light always makes it look a bit hopeless and a lost cause. As well as being more representative of what it’s really like, they could raise more funds by being a bit more creative.
    I wonder if anyone has done a more socially interactive approach to aid provision?
    It’s totally out of context here, but there’s some website that women who want breast enlargements, but can’t afford them advertise on and people (men) can donate to them, the giveback is that they get to see pictures of what their money has bought and have some kind of interaction with them. It’s the most creepy thing I’ve ever heard of, but I do wonder if some similar more personal approach to donating money could work?

  3. Saul Wainwright says :

    I think you raise an incredibly important issue. As someone that grew up in Africa, poor but not abject, and have traveled to some of the poorest parts of Africa I agree that “happiness” is experienced often regardless of your “material” conditions.
    This said – there are basics that we all need to feel a sense of “humanity”. They are age old things that the great philosophers have talked about for eons. In modern terms they are things like – fresh water, food, clothing, security and a place to sleep.
    In America we think that this means – Gucci, 3600 sq foot houses, every imaginable food and more. We have excess but think it is what will get us closer to satisfaction and happiness.
    Africa needs to build up the basic necessities – this is what leaders in Africa are starting to talk about.
    the image of Africa in America is sooo distorted – but this is true for the image of America in Africa too.
    We all come up with easy to grab soundbites. It is our challenge as citizens to change those views and challenge those perceptions.
    Thanks for the great post.