And now, a rant from our listeners…

I don’t generally write letters to the editor. I get to air my opinions on this blog and that’s usually good enough for me.

But I was listening to my favorite radio show – the one that gets me through my three hour drive from Lanesboro to Cambridge – This American Life, and they ran an Africa story, which they rarely do. And it was bad. Really bad. And so I wrote a letter to Ira Glass, the show’s executive producer and interviewer on the piece that pissed me off. (And while I believe This American Life when they tell me they read their email, as a blogger, I’ll rant here as well to ensure that someone reads it.)

A quick summary of the 20-minute segment, which you’re welcome to listen to (RealAudio), if you’d like: Chris Tenove is a Canadian journalist who travels to all sorts of funky places. He’s the kind of guy who believes in saving the world, and he has an idea: “charitable tourism”. People can visit deeply impoverished places, learn a bit about life there, and give a substantial financial gift. He talks about the idea to some professional aid workers – who think it’s a really bad idea – and then decides to try it out, visiting two villages in Sierra Leone and paying for people to have operations at nearby hospitals. The first experiment goes well, but in the second case he feels like he’s exploiting the people he’s trying to help. Still, he thinks the idea of charitable tourism could work if someone more organized tried it.

My rant follows below the line.


Dear Ira (and crew, but the letter’s to Ira) –

Congratulations on the recent tenth anniversary of This American Life. I’ve been a fan of the show for the past six years and a religious listener the past three, downloading episodes through Audible and enjoying them on my 350-mile roundtrip commute. (Don’t worry, I do the drive only once a week.) I just checked my iPod and there are currently 62 episodes I liked enough to save them for future listening. In other words, I love what you guys do week after week, and look forward to new episodes in much the same way children wait for Christmas presents.

All that said, the first act of Episode 302, “Strangers in a Strange Land” – your interview with Chris Tenove – is the first piece that’s inspired me to write to you in response. It’s a sad truth that people write to complain, not to praise, and, alas, that’s why I’m writing. I was deeply disappointed with the interview and question the wisdom of putting it on the air.

This American Life rarely runs stories on Africa. That’s certainly understandable – the show isn’t titled “This African Life” (and probably wouldn’t have the listenership it does if it focused on African issues.) But in the only story in 2005 I can recall that mentioned Africa, you and Tenove managed to reinforce the majority of stupid Africa stereotypes I’ve encountered in 12 years of working on African issues and periodically living on the continent. The messages I took from the piece:

– Africans are helpless. Without Tenove, his Sierra Leonean friend wouldn’t have ever found a way to get surgery for his injury. Obviously the man – who, incidently, Tenove seems to have forgotten the name of – wouldn’t be able to raise the money on his own. His village surely wouldn’t rally to his aid. Government health programs or non-government organizations surely couldn’t help. Nope, better bring in a Canadian so those Africans will get something done.

– Well-meaning whites are the solution to Africa’s problems. While he felt guilty about one of his two experiments, Tenove managed to pay for two operations, making two lives better. He concludes that, while he isn’t be organized enough to get the “charitable tourism” idea off the ground, surely someone else could get lots of well-meaning whites to come to Africa and solve some problems.

– All it takes is money. Both you and Tenove marvel at the fact that it costs only $150 to pay for the nameless man’s surgery. Clearly, small amounts of money can make a huge difference. Let’s ramp this thing up, shall we?

– Africa is war-torn, rural and dirt poor. Certainly the Africans we encounter in this piece are. If we were only exposed to this shocking poverty, surely we’d do something.

These four oversimplifications, misunderstandings and untruths tend to underpin most discussions of Africa in America. You guys certainly aren’t alone – smart men like Dr. Jeffrey Sachs fall into the “all it takes is money” trap, and most American journalists buy the “war-torn, rural and dirt poor” bit. Sally Struthers has done wonders selling the “Africans are helpless” and “Well-meaning whites are the solution” memes. I’m not surprised that your story reinforced these stereotypes, just disappointed.

There’s a reason the aid workers Tenove spoke with thought his plan was an ill-advised one: it was. It’s the sort of idea most travellers have on their first trip to a developing country. “Hey, I feel really guilty about how much more I have than the people I have around me. Let me give it away to somebody.” People who work in international development actually have to think through questions like “Are the right people receiving my help?”, “How do I spread my resources around equitably?”, “Am I damaging a local business or charity by bringing in help from outside?”, “What are the consequences for other projects or people who work in this community?”, “What, if any, were the impacts of my project?” and so on.

Tenove conveniently got out of town immediately after giving his gift. He has no idea whether the nameless man he helped was the neediest person in the village. He doesn’t know if his gift started a feud between the man and another family who had a child in need of surgery. Person to person village-level charity sometimes has the unfortunate effect of creating major resentments between people in a community – I know of a traveller like Tenove who, by financially supporting a single mother in the DRC, inadvertently got her ostracized from her community by other jealous villagers.

Perhaps the point of the story was to show us how misguided Tenove was and force us to wrestle with the conflicting ideas of “wanting to do good” and “not knowing how”. If so, it was too subtle for me. Tenove didn’t seem to learn any lesson from his trip other than “Well, I couldn’t get it to work well, but someone else might be able to.” I didn’t get the sense from your questions or reactions to his story that you had any insights into why Tenove’s experiment didn’t work. I guess Africa’s just baffling.

What frustrated me most is that there are lots and lots of great stories about Americans trying to help communities in Africa and either succeeding, or failing in far more interesting ways than Tenove failed. Roughly half of all Peace Corps volunteers come back to the US and fundraise for the communities they’ve left. They’ve lived in these communities for two to three years and have some idea of what local priorities and needs are, and how to direct the money. Talk to my friend Scott about his long, complicated relationship with Liberia after serving as a PCV there decades ago – the phonecalls in the middle of the night from families he’s trying to help, the difficulty of helping friends from afar in a country without a functioning phone or postal system.

Do a story on the phenomenon of “development chiefs”, the indigenous version of Tenove’s charitable tourism. In 1993, my friend Jessica was invited to become the “Queen Mother” of a village in the Volta Region of Ghana. This is a common technique to get yovo (white folks) to give money to a village. What’s uncommon is that Jessica moved there for a month to teach at the high school, then returned annually on trips from the US and Europe to distribute money she’d raised for projects in the community. A dozen years in, she’s a trusted advisor to the leaders of the village, often asked to weigh in on matters of community planning.

Talk to the African taxi drivers in Chicago. On a recent cab ride in Chicago, I met a man who leads the local Ashanti community association in the city. These community associations function as social clubs, support networks for new immigrants and fundraising groups to support projects at home. Far more money flows to Africa through remittances than from formal aid mechanisms – these American Africans are the folks making it possible for families to get out of rural poverty to a much greater extent than USAID or the World Bank.

Interview some of the geeks who are involved with interesting technology and development projects in Africa. Talk to the guys who drove a 4×4 around Uganda using a laser printer to create books for schoolchildren in Gulu as part of the Internet Bookmobile/Anywhere Books project. Profile the geeks who went to Mali to bring wireless internet access to community radio radio stations with the organization I helped found, Geekcorps.

You made the great decision – in the same episode as the unfortunate Tenove piece – to have milbloggers read their writing. Why not ask Africans living and blogging in America to read their work? Let me recommend Emeka Okafor of Timbuktu Chronicles and Africa Unchained, who’s on a ceaseless quest to challenge American impressions of Africa with tale after tale of indigenous entrepreneurism.

The question of what happens when Americans encounter Africa, when Africans encounter America, and what each thinks about the other place is a great one. Please don’t let my rant scare you off doing another story like the one that pissed me off. Do one that’s better.

(Or better yet, two full episodes! “What do we think about Africa?” and “Africans in America”. Just think of all the juicy quotes you could put in the mouth of Torey Malatia.)

I always love listening to you. Thanks for listening to me.

-Ethan Zuckerman

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12 Responses to And now, a rant from our listeners…

  1. John Powers says:

    Wow if only I could learn to be so nice when ranting! I haven’t heard the episode you refer to, but I did hear the promos for it.

    You write: “The question of what happens when Americans encounter Africa, when Africans encounter America, and what each thinks about the other place is a great one.”

    I agree with you, but also have a bit more sympathy with Chris Tenove and even the premise of the segment–ha! and I haven’t even heard it. I guess the reason is that I’m kind of a screw-up too.

    Recently, I started blogging so my friends could get a little better idea of my interest in Africa, with the hope, of course, that it might pique their interests too. I’m surprised how hard it is to post. It’s never a lack of subject matter, but finding something useful to say. And how to discuss enormous problems on the continent without perpetuating dismal stereotypes is very hard. I’m not good at it, but I don’t feel bad about trying.

    Being “pissed off” can be useful and your wonderful letter is a good example of that. Still, Americans new to this encounter with Africans, well, lots of us are going to be rough around the edges. Don’t panic, sometimes all it takes is a little time and experience.

    Your great letter will get Ira’s attention. And I hope he does do another program. Your wonderful blog is a great antidote for what ails us.

  2. Kate says:

    That’s a very good letter. I hope they’re paying attention.

    You know, those four stereotypes are all the more frustrating because I keep stumbling over similar ones in my 1920’s reading. Some ideas take a lot of resisting. But clearly, the resistance is getting louder.

  3. Carl says:

    A similar thing happens whenever someone proposes some (usually illusory) new technology that will “transform the third word”, such as the recent MIT $100 laptop hoax. The whole media seems to swallow it every time.

  4. merkato says:

    Ethan,

    Great post. As an African in America I have been a little taken aback by what the left thinks of Africa. Woe the subtle thrashing one gets lest one dares to suggest that something got lost in translation when “well meaning whites” speaking wistfully about what a basket case Africa is. You get the “at least I care enough to talk about it” line which I think is supposed to make you feel like an ingrate. In talking to a friend who is a very smart Democratic Party operative, I told him about all the things wrong with Bob Geldoff—not the man personally (that’s his therapist’s/therapists’ job), but with what Live Aid did to people . He was not swayed. “Even if one dollar went to someone, then I’m happy.” And this is from a smart, smart man. (Read “Cruel to be kind” , The Guardian, June 2005. It took 20 years, but they saw the errors of their ways and now we have DATA.org. Much better.

    The thing is, all the leaders knighted as “enlightened” by American presidents (I speak of Clinton and Carter) have turned out to be thugs. But try getting either one of them to say so. Mention this to anyone on the left, and you are greeted with a cold stare. Then contempt. “At least Jimmy Carter is doing something.” Yes, true. Actually, he is doing lots of wonderful things. But he is also one of the greatest supporters of autocrats like Prime Minister Meles of Ethiopia… the glazing of the eyes starts here and it is downhill from there.

    An article in Slate gives Africans a choice:
    “So take your pick: Blair’s utopian overreaching or Bush’s incompetence. I’m unsure which form of neglect Africans should prefer.”
    It is the most honest assessment I have read so far. (I prefer incompetence myself because the other choice begets people like Jeffrey Sachs.

    I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed your post.

  5. Brian says:

    I heard the piece too. I didn’t have quite as hostile a reaction to it, though the stereotypes you mentioned were there. It wouldn’t have bothered me if, as you say, they’d done other stories on Africa that make challenged those stereotypes. That said, I think the questions the journalist raised in his piece are quite relevant. It touches on broader questions about fighting poverty, development aid and the like. As I’m sure you know, even in the NGO industry, there isn’t unanimity on such questions. Maybe what he did was a bad idea, but he fully admitted he wasn’t sure if it was going to work. He fully admitted it was an experiment. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having the discussion, though I agree that a fuller context would’ve helped.

  6. afroM says:

    I do listen to This American Life occasionally and like the stories they do, but missed this particular episode.
    Here’s hoping that they do listen to your excellent ideas, that would make for better stories.

  7. Kate says:

    Tonight, I caught the end of Three By Five on the BBC (on my local NPR station); they were talking about AIDS relief, and I thought of your post again. The last four or five questions hammered in the fact that “wealthy countries” were supplying this new treatment and strongly suggested that if those donors let their attention wander, this aid program would collapse. World Health Services runs the program. I don’t know the economics of it, but those stereotypes all neatly appeared.

    They did speak local people and officials, and I especially remember one African volunteer. The new medication is expensive, and many people go without food in order to afford it. The new medication is also very strong, and taking it without food can be dangerous. This volunteer and her group provide food for patients on the medication. And she had real stength. The questioner tried to add drama; the volunteer knew exactly what she was doing, and answered him straight. No one was going to call this “tragic fate” and deny the work she did or the pain she saw.

    Have you seen anyone die?
    Of course. I live there.

    Whatever faults I find, thanks to that show I got to hear her voice for a few seconds. And the laughter in it. I’m glad of that.

  8. Josh says:

    Great rant. Great comments. Just wanted to post a working link to the “Cruel to be kind” article that merkato referenced:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/hearafrica05/story/0,15756,1513358,00.html

  9. ndesanjo says:

    I listened to the episode and almost vomitted.

    Recently, I was in a meeting in North Carolina. We were trying to come up with “community service” ideas for kids in Greensboro. One lady proposed that we ask the kids to collect some stuff and send them to “poor” Africans. I was against the idea. First, this kind of approach to “community service” teaches kids that poverty and social problems are out there, far, far away. Second, the kids we were talking about happen to be surrounded by abject poverty. And some of them are comming from families with limited income. I asked the lady why send the stuff to Africa while two blocks away from where we were meeting most families were struggling. I mentioned that most of those families came to our organization asking for help to get their kids some christmas gifts. I also pointed out that if I look at my life in Africa, I see myself extremely priviledged compared to the families in the neighborhood (in the US) I was referring to.

    We might have different opinions about what we need to do to end poverty, but one thing we need not be be debating about is the fact that poverty is everywhere. Chris should come to North Carolina with his money! This idea that when somebody in the North has money and wants to help the best place to go is the South has to be challenged. The challenge will help those of us from Africa who are trying to change the attitude of our people (in Africa) by telling them that we can do ourselves most of the things we ask for help from outside.

    One of the dangers of living in a place (the US, in this case) where the media/journalists talk about poverty or AIDS as if it is something foreign is that citizens tend to think that if people in other countries are so poor and fighting all the time then there is no need to change their government or policies, “we would rather have corporate controlled government and live like we do than be like those people in Africa. At least we are not fighting or dying of hunger.” Keeping the status quo becomes the solution.

    During Cheney/Edwards debate, they were asked a question about AIDS among African American women. They were specifically told not to talk about AIDS in Africa. What did they do? They ended up talking about what they are going to do to help Africa deal with AIDS pandemic! Cheney admitted that he did not know that AIDS was a big problem among African American women. I understand. If you live in a place where the media is a tool of social control, where the media wants you to think that everything is fine except when it comes to Africa and elsewhere, what do you expect?

    If you listened to radio and tv programs in the US dedicated to World AIDS Day, you may think that it was African AIDS Day!

    Ethan, thanks for the rant!

  10. Liz says:

    Ethan – this is a great discussion. I hope you’ll post Ira’s response, when you get it.

    Liz
    Albany, NY

  11. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Chris Tenove responds!

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