A revised and extended version of this blog has been published as a position paper in the journal Critical Literacy. To access the article, go to: http://www.academia.edu/2966954/Humanitarian_Relations_Emotion_and_the_Limits_of_Critique
As we enter the holiday season, the seasonal plethora of appeals to aid “needy Africa” has begun. Wandering around the campus of UBC Okanagan, and indeed the shopping plazas of Kelowna, there are posters for UBC’s Global Gala with the clichéd image of a stoic African child looking up, and the logo of a stethoscope encircling Africa, the diaphragm on the “heart” of the continent, depicting how Africa and its people as ill, and we can cure them. What are we to make of this imagery? What does it mean to depict an entire continent as ill? What does it mean to assume that we are healers? We are invited to attend the gala, where we will get a three course meal, and dance to live entertainment with the proceeds of our ticket going to the purchase of health care supplies, which nursing students will take to Ghana and Zambia. But, why is it that a clinical practicum experience for nursing students – where they will be mentored by Ghanaian and Zambia health professionals – must be presented to us in the terms of “us” helping a needy “them”?
At this time of year, there are lots of ads on TV and websites inviting us “make a difference”, “save a life”, be the change by collecting our loose change, and buy goats for needy farmers in the Global South rather than stuff for ourselves. Soon, though thankfully I have yet to hear it, Band Aid’s “Do They Know its Christmas” written to raise awareness of famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s will be played every hour or so on most commercial radio stations. In the song, the particular situation of a food crisis in Ethiopia was dehistoricized and depoliticized as a natural and normal disaster and Ethiopia became all of Africa. Now, nearly 30 years later, the context of the song is even more distant. The song’s lyrics, then, seem even more degrading and culturally insensitive than they did at the time it was first performed: There’s a world outside your window / and it’s a world of dreaded fear; there won’t be any snow in Africa this Christmas; Where nothing ever grows, or rain or rivers flow; feed the world, let them know its Christmas time. Why is it that this song is still played, and still heard as benevolent and warm?
In this context of another holiday season and the repeated inane question of whether Africa knows it is Christmas, it is particularly refreshing (not too mention entertaining) to watch and listen to “Africa for Norway”, the Radi-Aid song to save Norwegians from frostbite. The video has a group of African artists singing to raise awareness of the plight of suffering Norwegians and collect radiators to be sent to that northern country to spread some warmth, light, and smiles, as Breezy V, the leader of the initiative explains in the video. Of course, the video is a satire, seeking to denaturalize the stereotypically degrading images of Africa that are so “natural” in the pop culture of Norway and Canada too. By turning the tables (to draw on the lyrics of the song), and showing how simplistic and inaccurate the “African” depiction of Norway is, folks in Norway, and in the West more generally, are to make the connection that maybe our representations of “Africa” are similarly simplistic and inaccurate.
When you get beyond the video and check out the website, the satire, and its lesson are made overt. “What if this video was the only information they got about Norway. What would they think about Norway?” The collective “we” is invoked for the initiative, demanding change: The changes identified in the ‘What do we want?’ section of the site include: an end to the exploitation of stereotypes for humanitarian fundraising; better information about what is going on in the world; that the media show more respect when it portrays Africa; and that aid must be based on needs not good intentions.
While we don’t get any meaningful information on the organizers of the spoof, the site doesn’t hide the fact that it is actually the project of The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH), in collaboration with a number of other Norwegian development agencies. While the music for the song was written by South African musician, Wathiq Hoosain, the lyrics were written by a (white) Norwegian country band, called Bretton Woods. No mention is made of any collaboration with “African” organizations. (Indeed, apart from the work of South African comedian Trevor Noah, who spoofs UNICEF ads, the inspirations for the video are all European). It would seem that Breezy V is not the leader of the initiative, and indeed he may not be an “African” rapper at all. (A google search turned up nothing for ‘Breezy V’, though there is a hip hop artist called V Breezy, from Alabama, in the USA). From what I can gather from the SAIH website (thanks to google translation to English) the organization has its roots in anti-apartheid organizing within the Norwegian academy and it describes its work as solidarity and development. It works primarily in the area of education, providing assistance and support to projects in Bolivia, Nicaragua, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. While the politics of the organization seem a little more radical than the typical humanitarian agency in Canada (in that they have campaigned against the exploitative practices of Norwegian natural resources companies in the Western Sahara, for instance) the work of the agency seems primarily focused on providing “assistance” to people in the Global South.
I must say, that it was with some disappointment that I realized this video was made in Norway, by Norwegians. Why was I disappointed? Based on how the project is described and explained on the website, it seems to function within the tradition of white/European/Western humanitarians speaking of and for the other. Today, it’s a bit more rare for white folks to literally take the voice of Africans and present it as an African voice, so I hope I’m getting it wrong, and that the credits on the website mask an actual collaboration with the folks in the video, rather than those black bodies simply being actors, performing roles created by and for white folks (again). Knowing that this is the project of a Western “international assistance” organization, I reread the video and wonder just how effective it can be in troubling the stereotypes of Africa, and to what extent it limits the problem to that of misrepresentations. The tables are turned, but only within the logic of Euro-centric constructions of Africa as a homogeneous place, without distinct nations or communities. It is, after all, “Africa for Norway”.
As the examples I refer to in the opening of this piece attest, the work of identifying and challenging negative stereotypes and misrepresentations of Africa is essential, and so my purpose here is not to criticize the Radi-Aid project so much as query its limits. Does this satire go much deeper than clichéd and demeaning representations of Africa and, perhaps the ineffectiveness and silly logic of some forms of aid (Africans sending radiators to Norway)? For instance, how are we to read the lines: “Here in Africa we’ve had our problems too / with poverty, corruption, HIV and crime / Norway gave a helping hand / they taught us what to do / and now it’s payback time.” Do these lines satirize the idea that Norway has given a helping hand, or, ultimately, do they affirm that idea, to some extent, as the focus of the satire is on the simplistic way in which Norway is represented in the video? Do these lyrics satirize the idea that Norwegians teach Africans what to do, or affirm the idea that Norway continues to need to provide such educational assistance, but in ways that are not so demeaning? And by extension, as a reader in Canada, does enjoying the satire of this video appeal to us to investigate the irony of our desire to “help” and “teach” and “care” for unfortunate others? Does it even trouble the collective pronoun “we” for the way that “we” is often not actually collective or inclusive, and – in Canada – it reflects a history of settlement-invasion, wherein “we” are a product of colonial violence (here, and elsewhere)? How are we to interpret pay-back? Are we to see the need to understand our role not as charitable givers but people who have an obligation to redress injustice? Or, does the satire mainly allow us just to see that images of Africans in aid appeals are degrading, and maybe we should seek more positive and complex images of Africans?
Importantly, the initiative seems to want to go beyond the problem of negative or positive images of the Global South (check out Lilie Chouliaraki’s work on this). The “We” of the Radi-Aid project wants not only to know more about the “positive developments” in Africa but wants “more attention on how western countries have a negative impact on developing countries”. How effective can this satire be, if the video (its imagery and lyrics) do not so much as hint at what these negative impacts might be, never mind the western actions that could possibly cause poverty and suffering? The project challenges the “shorthand” of humanitarian development discourse – the stoic child looking up at the benevolent saviour (that would be you, the viewer of the poster) and the idea that Africa is (only) a place of poverty, corruption, HIV and crime, – but it’s suggestion that the policies and practices of Western governments might have had some negative impacts is relegated to a line in a list of demands; it remains at the level of a phrase that I’m not sure can function as a “shorthand” for the typical viewer in Canada, and I suspect in Norway as well.
What sort of negative impacts do “Western countries” have on the peoples, communities, and countries of Africa? How are those negative impacts linked to why we are in the position to provide the assistance and aid (i.e. our “wealth”). Here is a beginning to such a list:
- Many OECD states (that’s Canada and the other rich nations) subsidize agriculture in a way that makes the produce of farmers in Africa and elsewhere less competitive; for instance subsidies for beet sugar farmers in Europe that impact what Africans can get for cane sugar
- The OECD states dump surplus grains and other agricultural products (like powdered milk) into economies in the Global South, putting producers of food products (like dairy farmers) out of business.
- Trade and tariff policies in the OECD put African products at a disadvantage;
- Debt – while the Make Poverty History and Jubilee campaigns made this a priority, for a short while, the so-called Western “forgiveness” of the debt of countries in the Global South did not go far enough, and much “aid” continues to take the form of loans that need to be “paid back” with interest.
- The industrialization of agriculture and the science of food mean that small-scale farmers in India and Malawi and elsewhere need to buy corporate seeds that require petroleum-based fertilizer and hence require loans and debt. Farmer suicide is a growing problem, producing enormous hardship.
- The military weapons used in African wars are not made in Africa.
- Folks like me expect the pleasure we get from coffee, cocoa, bananas, and computers, all of which require cheap (sometimes free/slave) labour and violent working conditions for people in the mines of Congo, the cocoa fields of Cote d’Ivoire, and the factories of China
- “Aid” and “Assistance” are often a huge part of the problem, creating or exacerbating injustice and inequality (what would it mean to use these terms instead of “poverty”?). For instance, IMF/World Bank structural adjustment plans, large scale development projects, or building schools in places where A) there is no budget for teachers, materials or upkeep, and B) few prospects for those receiving a formal education)
- colonialism – not as a word meant to invoke white “guilt” but an ongoing system that created export-driven, resource-based, primarily single-commodity economies designed to “develop” Europe; not to mention a system that affirmed white folks as humanitarians, with the best of intentions, seeking to aid, educate, uplift, and civilize those awaiting entrance into modernity
Radi-Aid largely repeats the similar spoof, HelpSweden, which appeals to people to A) question demeaning stereotypes of Africa but also to provide more and better aid to Africa; the problem is still understood primarily as Africa’s lack and misfortune and the solution is the Millennium Development Goals not meaningful transformation of the dominant global economic and political order. The Band Aid mentality is certainly a problem. But the problem isn’t only simplistic, homogenizing, and degrading representations of Africa – and I sense that’s as far as this satire dares to go. Rather, we need to do the hard, complex, and fraught work of understanding how humanitarianism serves as a structure of attitude and reference – a way we think about the world and our place in it. As long as we conceive of solidarity with those who suffer as enacting assistance and aid, we don’t question the inequality of our social positions. Our perceptions need to change, but we can’t divorce perception from position. How can we challenge or end the sort of stereotypes Radi-Aid is directed towards without also challenging and doing away with aid and assistance, as material practices and the primary lens through which we understand global problems?