Saving "Africa"

Recently, there has been a lot of work coming out of various multilateral and bilateral organizations (WHO, WorldBank, IMF, etc) about how effective aid really is. If you think about it, you hear a lot on the news and other forms of media about “saving Africa” or “the AIDS epidemic,” or “the energy crisis.” What do any of these terms really mean? I can tell you right now – they don’t really mean anything. What is “Africa”? What specifically do we mean when we say “energy crisis”? These terms are far too general, which brings me to a point that Dr. Mark Padilla, a professor of public health and anthropology has raised in much of his work – the all-around lack of institutional ethnography. I think many of my peers view ethnography as a bunch of “just so” stories, or one person’s opinion of something, or worse yet, not “scientific” enough. To these people, first of all, I ask how “scientific” is science? Not science as an idealistic pursuit of “Truth” (yes, with a capital T, I am going there) but science as it is practiced, in reality, in the so-called “social sciences.” Even in the “hard sciences,” for that matter. These terms are a couple more that don’t mean much, but that’s a whole other issue.

To prevent myself from ranting too much, I will stick to my point. Institutional ethnography is the reflection of either members of an institution or of outsiders on many facets of the “institution” itself. What type of ideology does it propagate? How are its members socialized? What does it do, as compared to what it “says” it will do (i. e. mission statements, and so forth)? Why is any of this important? Well, if you take a look at aid organizations, it becomes very relevant. First of all, consider the strain on our local and the global economy, and it is very clear that foreign aid is going to be cut drastically. In an article by Jeffrey Sachs, entitled “How Aid Can Work,” he notes that we are spending $550 billion on the military EACH YEAR, compared with just $4 billion on aid to Africa. And that was without this impending recession. Imagine now how that will suffer, just as one example of what will be cut…but I’m willing to bet that if John McCain is elected into office, that $550 billion will not go down, it will go up. It seems there is a problem here that is typical for our country, where we do not act preventively, instead, we act responsively. I do not think that the military is unnecessary, but I do think our willingness to ignore problematic situations, then employ the military as a response IS unnecessary and not just that – it’s scary. We have to re-evaluate the way we view our relationship with other countries in the world, and one way to do so is to overhaul the way we think of “aid” and the way that public and private organizations, as well as the government, dispenses it.

There have been an endless number of campaigns to “fix” an endless number of problems. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, IMF, the World Bank, these are just a couple examples of different types of aid organizations. But what do these organizations do? In a recent report from the UK Food Group, entitled “More Aid for African Agriculture,”  discusses a specific issue – but at the same time, is problematic. “African Agriculture” is not a good source for aid. What we need is specific regional focus to aid attempts, and this becomes very clear from the problems outlined in this report (which I highly recommend taking a look at, if you have the time). But donors do not want to hear that – aid organizations do not necessarily want to hear that. It is far more complicated to tackle all of the specific issues of each region (that’s not each country, but each REGION), given a highly variable set of political, cultural, environmental, and social factors which will NECESSARILY lead to different outcomes when one unitary aid policy or donation fund is utilized. Another thing donors (or governments, for that matter) do not want to hear is that the problems which are most pressing are perhaps those that (1) cannot be solved by more money or, and maybe what is more accurate is, (2) that these problems do not have easy, tangible goals which can be written up into a grant proposal and funded in such a way that there is a clear end point to the “project.” Because it’s not just a project, it’s people’s lives.

The thing is, as this article and many others like it reflect, this is extremely complicated. It is much harder to provide tangible goals when you decide to look at a place region by region and have to figure out not only what is going to work for that region, but also how to get different regions to come together, which becomes necessary when they are under the leadership of a single government. I can think of similar examples in public health – not to go on a tangent, but just to provide an example of something I am a little more familiar with. For instance, let’s say there is a certain disease (e. g. malaria) affecting a region. It would be a very tangible, fundable goal to try to provide medication for X number of people. But does giving people pills really solve the problem? Will it really decrease the number of malaria cases? Maybe. But maybe not. What is really necessary is something called “upstream” thinking, where you look further up the “stream” to see what is causing the more micro-level problems downstream. Perhaps there are certain environmental factors leading to a higher prevalence of malaria, or problems in how aid reaches individual people. Of course, it is likely a combination of both and even more factors, and how exactly do you propose to fund that in a grant proposal? It is hard. So thinking about the examples from this article, I think that improved governance and African ownership are really important because they directly affect how effective any aid-based programs are. People really have to care, believe what they are doing is going to effectively change their current situation, and have governance that respects them (and which they respect) in order for any sort of change to occur. I realize this is a generalized statement and I haven’t hit on too many particulars in the article, but the problem here is not in simply not acknowledging particulars but in the entire way we think about and view aid to “Africa,” or anywhere. Or any project, any goal, any population. 

When considering the importance of anthropological work to solving these types of global problems, the lack of institutional ethnography thus is actually pretty important. We need to reflect on how these institutions – from the WHO to the World Bank to USAID, etc. – are structured, what they are doing vs. what they say they will do, and what types of ideology they are propagating. Why are they advocating certain positions, and what are their interests? While these questions may seem obvious, there is surprisingly little work done on institutions in this manner. The organizations themselves, also need to allow for self-reflectivity, and I think that for instance, in bilateral organizations, the local governing body or ministry has to pose questions to the organization that may be administering the aid. And vice versa. This is kind of a theoretical point, but I think it is so important to really evoking any change. This is how aid effectiveness can be improved – by looking at the existing structures of power, how they serve those IN power, and how this can be changed.

I guess the point of all of this is the result of a lot of self-reflectivity over the course of the past year. It is easy for so-called “hard scientists” to place themselves on some moral high ground, and look down on “social scientists” with contempt. But think about it this way.  Take what a lot of aid organizations have been saying about the need for vast changes in agriculture in Africa. There have been a lot of advances in organic agriculture (as discussed in particular in the Badgley 2007 article I will cite at the end of this), and that’s great. So these might be called “scientific,”  or “technological” advances. But has the development of such scientific strategies actually changed a whole lot about, say, the way agriculture is done in Malawi or Mali? The link here is not just that, oh the technology has not “reached” these areas. It is more than that. What technology is specifically being considered, and how can external technology be effectively used in conjunction with existing local structures…or can it? What are local technologies? I think in this literature, there tends to be perhaps an ignorance of local technology and how it may be possible to combine local technologies/ideas with external ones.

Badgley, C. et al. (2007). “Organic agriculture and the global food supply.” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems: 22(2); 86–108.

Sachs, J. (2007). “How Aid Can Work.” NY Review of Books. (review of Easterly’s White Man’s Burden)

UK Food Group. “More Aid For African Agriculture.”

2 thoughts on “Saving "Africa"

  1. Great article, I completely agree. There are so many examples of how unintelligent aid has hurt more than helped developing countries (which account for more than just “Africa”). Focus needs to be placed on developing businesses in countries, which is why organizations like are so great. You can give any size loan you want (I think as small as $5) that’s interest free, but what it will do is build up small business owners and provide jobs in those countries. And you’re right, the role of anthropologists can’t be underestimated to understand the culture and what will work within their social constructs and frameworks.

  2. Embarrassingly, I just now read this all the way through. I’m slow. COMMENTS!That last part reminds me of a story my physical anthro prof in undergrad told us once: back in the day US govt people were hired to help a central american population that was suffering malnutrition from failed crops due to weather. The US people introduced hybrid corn that would withstand the lousy weather in the region. Thinking they fixed things, they left. US people came back a year or so later to discover that another drought/flood/natural disaster was occurring, and that people were still starving despite the introduction of the hybrid super corn. Some investigation showed that farmers had stopped using the super seeds in favor of the old normal corn. Further inquiry with the locals showed that they would rather eat corn that tasted good and risk starving during bad weather times than grow and eat the hybrid corn that apparently didn’t taste as good, or make for yummy tortillas. Moral of the story? If an anthropologist had been on the team, s/he might have discovered this inconsistency with the plan, and the US aid might have actually been able to help had they known the full cultural context. Science-y solutions are worthless if they don’t fit the culture!As a side note, go to I’m interested to know what you think of donating laptops to kids in these countries… helping or hurting? (hurting = taking away useful aid in favor of fake aid)HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s