“They drove away, leaving me by the side of the road. That was to be fairly typical of my experience with aid workers in rural Africa: they were, in general, oafish self-dramatizing prigs and often, complete bastards.”
Well, that’ll teach them for not giving Paul Theroux a lift across the Ethiopia/Kenya border. The quote above is on page 155 of Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux, ISBN 0-241-14048-x
I always enjoy reading Theroux’s books, and Dark Star Safari is no exception. It was published in 2002 and I’ve been waiting for a period clear of other things in order to read it, so that I can savour it.
Theroux isn’t keen about many of the charities and aid agencies that work in Africa, and quite rightly so. A great deal of aid is wasted. The well-intentioned externally-aided project to build a textile factory somewhere in Africa – it will probably fail sometime after the project is completed and the aid people have gone home. The cast-off T-shirts that people in the West send to Africa through some charity or other – they probably ensured that the textile factory failed. The schoolbags that some people send – they will probably ensure that the local leather worker is put out of work. The enormous amounts of funds that are often made available by banks to developing countries – they have the effect of undermining democracy in the recipient countries – because why should a government worry about what it’s voters think when the sources of real income come from outside the country? Theroux knows all of this. He revisits towns which, over the years, have had vast amounts of aid invested in them, and he sees little or no benefit from when he was there thirty years previously. On page 286 he cites several books about the decline in African fortunes as a result of donor aid. There’s also Moyo’s book, Dead Aid.
This is not to say that all aid is bad. Emergency aid is important. Some charities do good work. Personally, as a librarian, I like Book Aid International which doesn’t simply send rubbish old books to Africa, but rather allows African librarians to pick and choose which books they want for their libraries from those donated. I wrote about this in the past. I like Mary’s Meals, which provides lunches of local food, cooked by locals, to school kids who otherwise would not eat during the school day.
But an awful lot of other charity and aid work is not only a waste of time and money, but can actually do harm as well. As well as the pictures of poor kids from Africa which we see so frequently on TV, how about some items on success stories in Africa. Africa is a big place, and there are many successful businesses, but you wouldn’t know this from TV and newspapers in the West. As an individual, if you want to help people there, don’t just give money in some tear-jerk reaction, but instead one of the things you can do is buy stuff from Africa when there’s a choice of products, or food, that you need. There’s plenty to buy. For example, do you like my African kikoi?
I’m enjoying my Fair Trade coffee whilst I write this. I’m also currently working on some things designed to help researchers in developing countries. Some good researchers can be tempted away from working in universities in Africa if they can’t get access to new research findings, and other researchers obviously need access to good information. INASP help to negotiate deals for libraries in developing countries that enable researchers there get access to thousands of scholarly journals. 45 such publishers are listed here. I’m currently working on providing customised current awareness services to twenty libraries in developing countries, at no cost to those libraries, through JournalTOCs Premium, the institutional version of JournalTOCs. I get some pay (hourly, and much less than consultancy rates) for this work, provided through an EPSRC grant.
Here is Theroux at his best: “The smoke from the fires lit in braziers, the stink of the pissed-on walls, the grafitti, the dust piles, the brick shards, the baked mud, the neighborhood so decrepit and worn, so pulverized, it looked as though it had been made out of wholewheat flour and baked five thousand years ago and was now turning back into little crumbs. And yet I loved riding through the crepuscular dusk, parting the air that was penetrated with food smells and smoke and garbage, jogging through the puddles, with the muezzin howling, the dogs barking, the children chasing my sorry pony – the lovely evening sky showing through the dust cloud and striped bright yellow and cobalt blue. And then the pyramid, smaller than I had expected, so brown and corrugatted and geometric it looked like giant origami folded from cardboard.”
I wish more authors could write like that. In Dark Star Safari, Theroux reports on his travels along some interesting roads and rivers on his trip from Cairo to Cape Town. I particularly enjoyed reading about his journey down the Shire from the Elephant Marsh, in southern Malawi.
I had intended to quote some other passages from Dark Star Safari, but I won’t, because its best if you read the book yourself.