Sunday, August 9, 2009

Aid in Africa

While reading today's local newspaper, I came across this article.

It's a feel-good piece about a local 21-year-old, Liza Kessling, who is planning on going to nursing or medical school, then moving to the Ivory Coast to be a full-time missionary doctor. And it makes me angry.

One reason it affects me this way is that it portrays Ivory Coast residents in an extremely one-dimensional light; they are simply recipients of aid, caricatures to be pitied, and little more. Even the one man mentioned by name, "Mr. Gonai," is hardly more than a tool to demonstrate Kessling's generosity and extroverted character.

Beyond that, this article extols the virtues of international development work without acknowledging any of its complexities and frustrations. Granted, the author is describing a mission trip, and not a program expressly designed for development work, but there is an element of public health promotion to the missionaries' activities that allows me to categorize it as "international development work." Anyway, in the two and a half months that Kessling spent in West Africa, she was able to gain an experience that few in US have had, and the fact that she was able to address some public health issues while she was in the Ivory Coast is admirable.

But she wasn't around to witness what happened after she left. People lose, or sell for profit, the drugs the missionaries distributed. Toothbrushes and anti-malarial medications are used up. Lessons on hygiene and healthy eating don't take root overnight, and these habits may not realistically be possible to maintain. It's the worst of the idealistic and superficial "Let's fix Africa!" approach. And, unfortunately, many people in the US view international aid work in these simplistic terms -- including, obviously, the authors of this article, and probably the majority of the readers who will view it.

I'm not saying that Peace Corps is a whole lot better in this respect, and I certainly don't want to imply that my own experiences in Peace Corps somehow more "valuable" or allowed me to make more of a "difference" than Kessler's experiences in West Africa. Two years might be enough time to get past the initial "look at me, I'm saving the world" excitement phase and to enter into the frustrated/jaded one, but in the grand scheme of things, it's very difficult to have a real impact in that amount of time. But, at the very least, Peace Corps attempts to foster sustainable development work, even if the program itself and all the bureaucracy and politics that go along with it sometimes get in the way of the organization's own goals.

Of course, you can't measure "good." And there's really no reason for me to be upset when I see a fluffy article like this one. Still, I can't help but feel that portrayals of international development work such as this one are detrimental -- they promote unrealistic expectations for potential development workers and don't give credit to those who have really made an effort to acknowledge and overcome the real hurdles inherent in this type of work. Furthermore, on some level, they are patronizing and insulting -- as though all people in developing countries are so backward and stupid that their problems can be fixed with a simple lesson from a missionary and a few drugs.

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