Poor, or patronised?

December 2007

Poor, or patronised? I'm not sure what to make of this article about ‘charity presents'.

On the mismatch between the expectations of NGOs, and what the recipients of NGO help actually want:

The Ghanaians interviewed in WORLDwrite's film dream of living in concrete houses instead of mud huts; of owning washing machines instead of having to trek to a bore hole several times a day to fetch water. They want motor-powered fishing boats instead of wooden canoes, which have to be dragged to the shore by hand. They want university education, not lessons in how to use a condom; and they prefer having regular work in factories to the hand-to-mouth existence offered by NGOs' micro-credit schemes. They do not, as the charity Water Aid argues, think that extracting water by rope pumps from hand-dug wells constitutes ‘appropriate technology'.

It seems that those in the third world just want to be living like us:

In truth, the kind of things that the Ghanaians interviewed in Keeping Africa Small really want – houses, cars, 9-to-5 jobs – are entirely ‘unrelated' to anything that appears in the Oxfam Unwrapped catalogue: alpacas, condoms, dung.

It does seem pretty patronising:

Surely an organisation with such a big budget can come up with more inspiring and fun Christmas gifts than goats and dung? Or are the poor not allowed to have fun?

Or how about at least acknowledging that people in developing countries should have the right to get their hands on the kind of consumption goods we in the West enjoy and take for granted? Oxfam and others claim to be working towards ‘global equality' – but campaigns that offer only small-scale solutions to Third World problems, and which do not put the case for everyone's right to aspire to, and reach, the living standards we have in the West, are not championing anything like genuine equality. They are championing coping mechanisms, and an attitude of make-do-and-mend.

The bigger question raised, I think, is whether (as we claim) we do actually know what they need better than they do. It's also worth asking how much of it is vicarious; maybe we think that subsistence would be a better, more satisfying life, so we do our best to keep the third world away from what we see as pointless consumerism?

This, of course, raises other questions, especially if the things they desire are things we know are ultimately unsustainable and destructive – cars and consumerism and McD's and plenty of toys for everyone. How do we help the poor when the poor want things that will do even more damage to their environments? Do we (the rich west) have any right to try and stop them, considering our part in both their poverty and in the destruction already done to the planet?

UPDATE: See also the BBC with do goats make great gifts?

KT commented:

I have to say I think that's bollocks. The fact that people might want more than we're giving them doesn't mean that what we do give has no value. And it seems like much more good could be achieved by giving 50 people the means to subsistence farming than by giving 5 people a washing machine. Sure that could be seen as patronising, deciding what's best for someone else and all that, but there's also a question of what's most efficient and realistic.

Coming across as patronising is the flipside (or one of the flipsides) of any act of generosity, with one's friends as well as with starving kids in Africa. But, you know... I'm sure they could refuse help if they felt that strongly about it.

The World Vision 'Gifts of Hope' catalogue states at least (if we can assume we can believe them) that the gifts available are things that have been specifically requested by communities.

I think the questions you raise in your last paragraph are very important. Why would we want to drag the third world down to our level of reckless hedonism? Surely we should aim for the very best outcome, which would be providing the disadvantaged with resources and autonomy, and also the means to discern better than we have done what to do with it.

KT commented:

It also puts me in mind of the whole Nestle thing where they get breast-feeding mothers hooked on milk formula until their own milk dries up, and then they find they can't afford to keep buying the stuff, and the babies die. Why get a culture hooked on mod-cons that they can't afford and don't have the infrastructure to support? What good's a washing machine if you don't have running water? Best at least start by helping them support their families.

Matt commented:

Thanks KT, that's a helpful response. I shall continue to ponder this issue.

Tim commented:

Frankly I'm dubious of the claim that "they prefer having regular work in factories to the hand-to-mouth existence offered by NGOs' micro-credit schemes." The conditions of the question and answer are not indicated.

Did the person questioned assume the factory job was guaranteed to be permanent? In my experience Western companies that own factories in the Majority World are not too slow "to lay people off"?

Did they have an accurate idea of wages and conditions? Many of my students in Congo believed wages in Western owned factories in Kinshasa were about 10x bigger than they really were.

Sure if Bill Gates wanted to give a couple of billion to that one city they could all have washing machines, but I can't afford even one billion... I might stretch for a goat or two - so some kid (pun intended) may get better food for a year or two... If that's paternalistic and patronising, then I can point you to several tens of millions of people in Congo who would love to be patronised...