The Optimist

Sharing the Burden

Why Africa doesn't need your white guilt anymore.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

It’s 113 years since Rudyard Kipling — poet propagandist for empire — exhorted Americans, newly ensconced as the colonial power in the Philippines, to "Take up the White Man’s burden/The savage wars of peace/Fill full the mouth of Famine/And bid the sickness cease." A century and change later, a new survey suggests people in the rich world have attitudes towards developing countries that would make Kipling proud. And not only are their views completely out of touch with what is going on in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but they are positively harmful to continued progress in the developing and rich worlds alike.

The survey, by Intermedia, looks at popular attitudes towards international development in countries including Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. The good news for harried aid-agency staff fearful of swinging budget cuts is that there are a lot of people in Europe and America who care about global development. Between 31 percent (U.S.) and 50 percent (Britain) of the four rich-country populations surveyed are interested in international development or global health issues and have "participated in social or political engagement" (from donating to volunteering to blogging to tweeting) in the past six months. The report calls them "interested citizens."

But here’s the bad news: asked who was primarily responsible for addressing the challenges of developing countries, interested citizens in rich countries suggested outsiders — as much or more than they did governments in poorer countries. In France, 52 percent felt the primary responsibility fell to rich world governments and international organizations compared to only 26 percent for governments in the developing world. In Britain, the same shares were 27 percent and 50 percent. In the United States, each view had an equal 39 percent support.

At first sight, the fact that a considerable proportion of the citizens of the rich world believe rich governments have to do all of the heavy lifting to get poor countries to develop might seem like a good thing for aid agencies and charities. But before popping the champagne bottles, those agencies might want to look at what underlies that belief — a sense that people and governments in the developing world are completely useless at helping themselves.

A recent study in Britain suggested that the dominant image of developing countries remains "malnutrition and pot-bellied young children desperate for help with flies on their faces." Perhaps that’s not surprising when a survey by journalist Marlon Miller looking at ten years of Africa coverage by major U.S. print media found the most common topic of articles was conflict, corruption, and crime. Or when well-intentioned efforts to mobilize support for famine relief or bringing war criminals to justice in Africa tend to emphasize the worst of the continent and play up the role of outsiders.

But the stereotype of Africa’s helplessness at the hands of its violent and kleptocratic governments is a real problem — not least for those trying to help. To be somewhat simplistic, it suggests that the continent is locked in a dark-age hell-hole. There’s close to "a universal feeling that efforts have long been made to combat poverty in places like Africa and yet little has changed" suggests a British study. And there’s a common explanation for why that’s the case, according to Intermedia. Only between 16 percent (in France) and 29 percent (in Britain) of interested citizens in rich countries disagreed with the statement that "most financial aid to developing countries [is] wasted." Between 44 percent (in the United States) and 66 percent (France) agreed.

Other surveys point in the same direction — and suggest that this cynicism has an impact on support for foreign aid. Between September 2008 and February 2010, while the percentage of people in the United Kingdom suggesting that corruption in poor country governments makes it pointless to give money climbed from 44 percent to 57 percent, support for increased government action to reduce global poverty slipped from 49 percent to 35 percent. In the United States, meanwhile, the median respondent suggests that 60 percent of U.S. aid money ends up in the hands of corrupt government officials — which might help to explain why so few Americans support increasing budgets for foreign aid.

Even people of goodwill in the West are stuck with a bad case of the white man’s burden complex, then: We must help, because they are so helpless. That attitude leads to bad aid — the type run out of donor-country capitals with little involvement of beneficiary governments or citizens on the ground — with the irony that reamsworth of evaluation studies suggest it is exactly this aid that is some of the most likely to fail. It also leads to aid fatigue: "What? They’re still helpless after all our help?" Worse, it surely depresses other powerful forms of engagement between North and South — like private investment, trade, and travel. Who would think of setting up a factory or going on holiday to a region supposedly engulfed in war, run by crooks and psychopaths, and starving to the last man?

As it happens, the white man’s burden complex is also a completely inaccurate view of the world. The quality of life across the planet is higher than it has ever been. Incomes are rising — the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day worldwide has been more than but in half since 1990. Mortality is falling — about two million children born this year will live to their fifth birthday who would have died were mortality rates unchanged from 10 years ago. And education rates are climbing across every developing region — with more than three quarters of primary school children actually in school in the "basket case" of sub-Saharan Africa, for example. And on the subject of Africa, eight economies in the region ended the last decade twice the size they’d started it.

Furthermore, the overwhelming reason for all of this change isn’t charitable giving by the people and governments of rich countries, it’s the efforts of the people and governments of the developing world themselves. Compared to how small aid flows are in relation to the size of most recipient economies, development assistance has had an outsized role — successes such as the eradication of smallpox and rinderpest depended crucially on aid, for example. Nonetheless, such assistance accounts for an average of about 1 percent of the GDP of recipient countries. Assume for the sake of argument (and not based on any evidence) that aid is a tenfold more powerful tool for development than local incomes, that still means the development story is 90 percent about the domestic activities of the developing world and only 10 percent about outsiders.

That’s a message charities and aid agencies themselves should be hammering home at every opportunity, not just because it is right, but out of self interest. Because it is the immense progress that we’ve seen in the developing world that provides the best evidence that aid can play a role in support of change. After all, if there hadn’t been any change, there wouldn’t be anything to take credit for. As it is, there’s enough good news around that aid agencies taking only partial credit can still claim spectacular returns to their investments.

Focus groups among interested citizens in the West carried out by Intermedia suggest that important "triggers to engagement" when it came to activities like donating or volunteering were an emotional response to something they saw or heard, evidence that development efforts could have positive outcomes and a sense of empowerment — that they could make a difference. But the trick for aid organizations that want to sustain commitment and work effectively with the developing world is to ensure that the sense of empowerment among their supporters doesn’t involve a feeling that aid recipients are powerless. The message — and the truth — is that aid works when it supports people in the developing world in their immense, ongoing, and incredibly successful efforts to make their own lives better.

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