Charity in Africa; helping or harming?

Some have given up on Africa, aid and charity have proven to be inadequate and merely keeps the industry of ‘international aid’ alive as so much of their funds disappear in the massive overheads of advisors and committees. Some however still believe that aid and charitable efforts in Africa help and improve something.

This is a dilemma we won’t solve easily or soon as this has been a decade if not centuries long issue with many faces and many sides. 

While traveling through Southern Africa many places have shown the negative side of what some call charity; the piles of second-hand clothing on the markets, kindly donated and immediately sold in bulk for cash so others can sell it item per item on the street markets. The big brand-new Toyota Landcruiser’s with ‘advisors’ in the back seat being driven around in comfort to analyze and advice on Africa’s true needs as they feel. Does it help?

 

painting faces

In Zambia, Malawi, Botswana or South Africa many who travel will encounter children waving and smiling, only out for a wave back, or a smile. Some places unfortunately have children chase any car with white people screaming ‘Sweeeeeets’ or ‘give me money’. They didn’t come up with this idea themselves, this was instigated by tourists and travelers who buy sweets to take with them and hand them out like they are the next Messiah. Please don’t… your so-called charity is nothing more then your selfish way of feeling good about your giving. It doesn’t help and eventually ends in kids throwing stones at cars as they are ignored when screaming their biggest hope; getting some sweets or money from tourists in their fancy cars. 

For those that volunteer or spend more time in Africa then just a holiday with the intention to help projects in need, it is often a question and a good question it is. Do I truly help with being here? Such a big question can not be explained easily I believe but the answer very much lies in how conscious you are of the results of your presence and input. 
Some great and not so great examples have passed through the years of working in the Gap Year industry. From building schools to sending individual children through school, from teaching sports to thousands of children to improving living standards for many stuck in residential institutions. Those are the highlights but that always comes with some down sides as well like the 2 young volunteers still throwing sweets out of the car window despite telling them not to and laughing at scrambling kids to those that only want to take the whole orphanage to a fast food restaurant to ‘treat’ them to something special. 

If you think long and hard enough, you might find some arguments why giving children sweets or money would be okay but if you think a bit longer, I hope most people understand that this has little to do with charity or helping. It only strengthens the image of white people who come and buy everything for them, it increases the feeling of entitlement to gifts and donations and expectations that do not help a single bit. Not that some of those initiatives don’t come from a good heart or the right intentions, however they lead more to negative outcomes than any progress.

So ‘how do I help’ remains the question and I think some points can be easily agreed on. When donating, don’t single out individual children but support the schools so resources can be used for all and hopefully to the benefit of many. Don’t give money to people begging, you only enforce their lifestyle and often that money goes to alcohol or other substances, rather visit a local non-profit to ask them for their needs and decide then what you can do without making promises too big to keep. Teach something rather then just give, the strength of empowerment rather than dependency is much larger and will truly inspire and motivate those that are ready for it. Expect nothing in return, Africa is not waiting for the next Mzungu (white person) to come and save them because Africa doesn’t need saving. That is up to them and not for the wealthy to decide to see how much of their scraps and used items can buy off their guilt for their colonial wealth, industries relying on cheap resources or cheap labor.

 

brushing teeth

If you want to help, help but do it with thinking about your actions, what is the result of your wish to support and what will the long-term possible outcomes be. Support on an equal basis and not with the arrogance of ‘the west knows best’ of what they need in Africa. Invest your time rather then just your money and work on a respected and equal foundation to see how your fortune to be born in a wealthy country, to travel and own a passport, to drink clean water and choose a sport you like, can help those who do not have such possibilities as a given in life. Many beautiful things can happen if the aid which is given today would change in collaboration. 

Take the plunge, travel wide and help where you can but think about the outcome and that giving sweets to children is doing the opposite from what we need. 
See you in Africa.
Martijn

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