My approach on donating in Africa when I’m a white man from Europe (2)

School materials

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

This piece is the second of a three-article series in connection to the GLEN program I’m enrolled in and has originally been published on GLEN Slovakia’s blog. It has been written while I was still completing my internship in Togo, from 15th July to 15th October 2016.

I’m living in Togo for more than 2 months now, currently doing a three-months-internship in a Togolese NGO dedicated to promote agroecology with local farmers around the city of Kpalimé. This is a part of several educational activities coordinated by the GLEN program from Slovakia.

About 3 weeks ago, I started a little campaign of donations limited to my circle of friends in order to help few Togolese people and organizations with their needs that they cannot or struggle to cover. The system is entirely based on the mutual trust that I will actually spend the money that my friends pledge to give and that they will refund this money to me when I’m back to Bratislava.

This idea arose with the observation of my own inability to help since I do not have much money. On one side I was seeing the needs; on the second I had a possibility to partially cover them, with this system of donations. I can do it, so I’m doing it. Being able to do something should never be a sufficient reason to actually do something. However in this case, I would have perceived myself as being morally wrong not to cover essential needs while I could do it. It’s like if you see someone caught in flood, struggling to swim and reach the river bank and you are walking nearby with a life vest. You also know that some friends have a rope, and maybe one even has a little boat available nearby. Would you let the person struggling and keep walking, or do you send your life vest and call for the help of your friends?

You know the answer, and you know what I do, and will keep doing until I come back to Slovakia.

However, things are not as easy as the story of the person caught in the flood. Giving is a double-edged sword, and more harm than good can be made through donations.

Before my departure to Togo, I and 40 other young Europeans participated to educational seminars organized by GLEN. I got familiar with important concepts and ideas such as white privilege, White Savior Complex, power structures, institutional racism, or intersectionality.

“The white savior complex is about assimilation. It’s about feeling superior to another culture. It’s about validating your own personal, individual experience through the lives and experiences of other marginalized peoples. It’s taking their struggle (even if it’s a sometimes imagined or exaggerated struggle) and making it about how much of a good person you are.” – Uncredited quote on Tumblr

The power structures of “developed countries” over the “developing countries”, coupled with the white savior complex, leads to the following ironic situation: Good hearted Europe gives millions of euros for Africa’s development in the form of grants for countless NGOs, which the quality of work can be doubted. And at the same time, Europe benefits from unfair trade and fiscal laws, uses its economic power to impose its own prices on imported goods such as coffee and cocoa, and bribes African politicians to make sure that no African popular leader will ever stand up and protest against this unfair and outrageous situation of subordination.

Considering this, you start to understand that being good-hearted is not enough. Launching the rope to save the person from the flood is nice, but if you steal his wallet afterwards, how good a person are you? The problem is that at the individual level, the good hearted European citizen might not see the geopolitics of power structures that steal the money of the person you try to save. Yet, coming from Europe, you represent it. You are the face of Europe when you come in an African country with your French accent and your white skin. So what you do and how you do it should be done in a way that you do not perpetuate the situation of subordination and confirm your white privilege. The hand of the donor is always above the one of the receiver.

In her Confessions Of A (Former) White Savior, Janice Erlbaum says :

« I think it’s possible for a white person to be of service to people of color without automatically reinforcing their racist assumptions. I think it’s tricky, but I think it’s possible. »

You are right Janice. It’s tricky.

This is why I follow a set of personal rules which I created for myself, and I implement a series of actions that come with my donations. I’m not 100% sure if they are perfect in all circumstances (I’m actually full of doubts), but if one day someone ends up in a similar situation like me, I hope this can be a source of inspiration.

  1. At first, don’t travel with the purpose to help. If you really want to help and do justice, that is not the best way to help. Like I wrote in my call for donations targeting my European friends:

Please keep in mind that these are not sustainable donations. This is not saving a child or a farmer, that won’t fix anything in the long run. This is just to make life fairly easier in the short-term, and maybe give a little chance to study better and longer. Keep in mind that you will help more by consuming locally, moderately, using less high tech stuff, by fighting against economic growth, unfair trade and fiscal laws, and for more democracy, than giving few euros.”

  1. Give only to those you have a closer relationship with. I’m giving to people that I know because we shared moments of life together, not because I came to help them. We met because we are neighbors, or during a swim in the waterfalls, or drinking in a café, or simply through mutual friends. We met several times to hang out, and as our mutual trust grows, it comes a time when they start sharing with me their struggles, their ambitions, their opinion, and I listen. When they talked, they didn’t necessarily ask for help. Some of the people I met also didn’t have any particular issue. But when they had difficulties, I answered with something like: “well, if I manage to gather some money, would you accept my help?” If they agreed, then I knew that if I could, I would know where to allocate some extra money.

But the person agreeing to receive some help is not enough.

  1. Do not interfere with the existing web of solidarity. This is typically how you can cause more harm than good. Imagine a boy whose parents cannot pay for the school. But for many years, a richer local neighbor is paying every year for the school fees and supplies of the poorest kids of the neighborhood. Now comes the European with a big smile and you decide to pay the school fees and supplies for the boy. Maybe you just excluded this boy from the circle of solidarity, and after this one year of school that you paid, he’ll have no one to help him anymore, because of you. Maybe you just prevented a child to become what he wanted to become. You need to ask questions like: “Why am I needed this year?”, “How were you doing before?”, “What happened that now you need me and you cannot anymore cover this need on your own?”, “What did you already try to do to cover your need?”, “What else can you do?”, “How would you do without me?” And sometimes: “Do you actually need this?”, “Can we think of another way?” And to be able to ask these questions and obtain reliable answers, you need to have a trusting relationship (see point 2). Whatever the answer, you need to make sure that there is no other better way than your help. You need to make sure that you are the last resort. If I see that a local person such as a relative or a member of the community can and will already help, then I don’t donate. And if I cannot spend all the money that my friends wanted me to give, then I’ll just tell that they don’t need to refund me as much. 
  2. Giving doesn’t necessarily mean material stuff. If you are willing to help, then sometimes your time has more value than your money. Sometimes, I met people with projects. Some people I met asked for help in the form of advice, knowledge, contacts, or simply what I think about it. For example: “You went to a business school? Well, I have a project and I made a business plan, could you have a look at it?” Or, “You are working in project management? As it happens, I am drafting a new project for my NGO, can we discuss together about it?”

That leads me to the series of actions. Along with material stuff, I try to share forms of knowledge and what I believe is wisdom. I believe this is much more important for the long-term than the material help.

  1. For any help related to education, I give the following article (shared to me by another GLEN member) that I translated in French and printed:

The Profound Ways That Schooling Harms Society, by Carol Black

My intention is to discuss it after they read it to make sure they understood it and to share our opinions. I will tell them that my objective is not to make them reject French dictated schooling, but rather to make them aware of other approaches so that they become more curious and try to learn beyond the French curriculum, and so that maybe one day they can offer a chance for their children to emancipate themselves.

  1. I also translated and printed documents about degrowth. Beyond documents that I give, I already talk a lot to them (and everybody actually) about the philosophy behind degrowth and what it actually means. I already wrote an article for GLEN than explains better my views and why it matters for Africa too.

In substance, I explain that we should all, North and South, get away from capitalism and the Western model of development. For it is the cause of the problem, not the solution. It is the imperial necessity of economic growth in the West that is at the origin of structural poverty and inequalities in Africa. It is our model of economic growth based on continuous extraction and production that is at the origin of the global ecological crisis. Therefore, we must stop it. I tell them how I strive to live in a frugal and simple way in Europe, knowing that we have to reduce the wealth of the rich societies so that the poorer societies can also live decently. I finally tell that we need to find a point of stability, in which we would all have a little, but just what we need to live well, and that this can never happen within the current economic system, and probably political system too. For example, most people didn’t know that the phones that they and we use are made possible thanks to African natural resources, most of the time extracted in inhuman conditions. Ask Fairphone about their struggle to make a phone actually fair…

  1. Finally, I wrote down points of wisdom and general advices that I also printed and that I share around. When I give the paper, I do not say: “Here, I know you know nothing about life so I’m charitable and I’m giving you some wisdom”. I say: “Maybe some things aren’t new to you, maybe some other can inspire you, I don’t know. I just think it might be nice to read this and hear your opinion about it”.

In this paper, I talk about why it is important to accept not to know everything and ask questions in order to progress. How making mistakes is okay, as long as you learn from them. How judging people for their bad behavior is counter-productive, since what they need is probably love and compassion to understand their problem, not judgment. Why leisure provided by technology should always be used with moderation. Why and how giving can be a double-edged sword. The importance to always diversify sources of information in order to understand something, to never take for granted what is in only one source (a person, a state, a book, a newspaper, a TV channel…). How communication with humility and respect is the key to solve most relational problem. That making peace with the past is the key to take advantage of the present moment, that what others think of you are none of your concern, that nobody and nothing should be the reason of your happiness except yourself, not to compare your life with the one of others, and more wisdom of this kind.

Regarding the last three points, I’m thinking to do the same back in Bratislava, Slovakia. Offline actions might just be much stronger than sharing inspirational quotes and articles on Facebook.

To finish, I would like to call for all my readers to be open to criticize me on every single point. I have never done what I do now. As I said, I’m full of doubts, and just as fallible as anyone else.

PS: The use of the term “Africa” is for the ease of writing. The reader should keep in mind that what is said here doesn’t necessarily apply to all African countries.

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About me
I'm passionate about sustainable lifestyles and urban agriculture. I believe that community-supported initiatives and bottom-up policies are key to foster necessary societal changes. I'm an advocate of degrowth, agro-ecology, sharing economy and participatory democracy. Based in Bratislava, Slovakia, I like learning, reading, writing, sharing, hiking, dancing, eating, and celebrating.
Nicolas Giroux
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