I have real mixed feelings about the latest web video from Survival International. (You can see it here – I’m annoyingly not able to embed it because it’s not on YouTube.)
Go and have a look.
Back safely? You see the problem, right? They’ve rummaged through the musty cupboards of discredited western ideologies, picked out the Noble Savage, dusted it off and set it to a killer soundtrack.
I hate to be too critical, as I’m sure there are some settings where tribal people were getting along just fine without development interventions, and participatory community project building just screwed everything up for them. Survival’s whole thing is to work to safeguard those types of communities, and that’s their prerogative, no question.
The problem is that There You Go leaves viewers with the distinct impression that all of Africa is a happy frolicking ground for happy natives in traditional costume who spend their days chillaxing and living off the fat of the land until some evil egghead from a foreign NGO comes and screws everything up.
It’s obvious enough, but it’s worth stating again: there’s a monstrous falsification of African realities at play here.
Most people in Africa are caught in an untenable middle ground between traditional ways of life that had already stopped being feasible by the time independence came and a modernity their societies haven’t quite gotten the knack of. It’s not a very happy middle ground either; idealized images of gorgeous Ethiopians staring purposefully off into the distance don’t make up for the realities of poor health, unattainable education and chronic hunger that hundreds of millions of Africans face day-in-and-day-out.
It may be that aid is an ineffective way to deal with the very serious problems of partial modernization that plague Africa – that’s an argument I’m much more sympathetic to – but to trash the aid industry writ-large as mobilized to address imaginary problems is more than a stretch, it’s a lie.
What’s troubling is that Survival is so clearly targeting this video outside the development world, hoping for a viral hit among people who don’t really think much or know much about Africa. The conclusion it obviously hopes to elicit – a knowing shrug coupled with an “I knew it, this aid stuff is a crazy racket” seem to me wildly destructive.
Again, Survival is entitled to advocate for the people they want to advocate for. But this is really not the way to go about it. There’s a crazy amount of baby going down the drain along with that bathwater, and it isn’t ok.