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Madonna, Bono, Clooney cannot save Africa, only Africans can

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We need to take responsibility for ourselves, to empower our people. External assistance is okay. But we need to begin with our own solutions.

And so it was that on my flight from Amsterdam to Dubai I stumbled upon a documentary on poverty in Malawi by singer Madonna. Like most Western movies, documentaries and news about our continent, this too was a story of Africa’s persistent failure and the efforts of the West to save us from the vagaries of nature and the “rapacity” of our rulers.

Madonna, Clooney and BonoMadonna, Clooney and BonoThe script had the usual suspects; children with mucus filled noses and jigger infested feet, orphans without food or shelter, the poor living in grass thatched huts, a miserable-looking mother with a malnourished child tied to her back as she stretched her emaciated hands to receive charity from a white aid worker. Against the backdrop of these images are interviews with those trying to save the people of Malawi – Bill Clinton, Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Farmer, Erick Borgstein and Victoria Keelan.

There are a few Malawians brought in to tell the story of course; a member of parliament, a church leader, the deputy minister of local government, a civil society activist, the minister of foreign affairs and a Malawian PhD holder. As expected, the people of Malawi are presented as passive victims of nature and bad government; with their story to tame and harness nature for their survival, and their political struggles to change their reality, conspicuously absent. Their emancipation from misery, Sachs and Farmer tell us, is the responsibility of the rich people of the Western world.

“The West has a duty,” Sachs says with confidence and certainty, “to help these people have a future.” Clinton agrees entirely. In short, the people of Malawi are not supposed to be active participants in their own emancipation. They are supposed to be passive recipients of international charity.

As I watched the Madonna documentary, I remembered that some months back I had watched actor George Clooney and activist John Prendergast on Larry King Live talking about Darfur. The story of Darfur was not being told by those who suffer the costs of the crisis. It was Clooney and Prendergast who were speaking for and on behalf of the suffering people of that region. This suffering has now become an opportunity for celebrities living in opulence to show off their humanity.

Clooney was hopelessly out of depth on the problems of Darfur – coming across as someone who had been hastily mobilised to support a cause he did not know much about. Yet Larry King was more interested in interviewing him. Prendergast seemed better informed, yet King was disinterested in what he had to say.

But both Clooney and Prendergast shared one narrative; that the salvation of the people of Darfur will not come from their own struggles. It would come from the charitable actions of an abstract entity called the “international community” through its obligation “to protect”; oh, and of course the great and most benevolent of all – the altruistic and exceptional people of America without whose kindness the world would not exist, at least not as we know it today.

In spite of knowing the facts, Prendergast was superficial; he seemed ignorant of the structural and historical processes that are shaping politics and conflict in that region. He did not seem to understand the complexity of the problem. Yet he still would have shed more light on it had Larry King cared more about the people of Darfur than about giving Clooney airtime to exhibit his humanity.

Many Western interventions to save Africa are rarely about the supposed victims. Instead, they are platforms for Western people to exhibit their altruism. Evolutionary psychology tells us that women tend to fall in love with men who exhibit kindness and generosity, attributes that gave our ancestors decisive advantage in the dating market and therefore made them successful reproductively.

The Larry King show featuring Clooney and Prendergast was not intended to highlight the suffering of the people of Darfur; their daily struggles to overcome adversity, their aspirations and their hopes. It sought to promote the narrative of America as saviour of the world.

So this brings me back to Madonna and her struggle to save Malawi. That central African country is a democracy – at least as Washington, Paris and London would prefer – with a free press, an elected parliament and elites alternating in power from ruling to opposition party etc. Yet as the story unfolds, the deputy minister for local government complains that children of her constituents regularly come begging her for fees. “I try to help,” she says, “But I cannot help everyone.” And what is the cost of fees? It is only $ 12 per term.

The minister of foreign affairs, Joyce Banda, also features in the documentary explaining the lack of vision, poor leadership at the local level (as if the central government is better) and the increasing spread of superstition in the country. She seems unable to see that people are increasingly turning to traditional healers (whom she calls “witch doctors”, a colonial categorisation) because public hospitals are malfunctioning.

So, the failure of Malawi’s democracy to serve ordinary people was obvious. Why should a minister pay fees for her constituents from her personal income? Why isn’t Malawi’s democratic process fostering an impersonal application of public policy? Clearly the people of Malawi are not rights-bearing citizens. They are clients of these powerful politicians. That is why they do not demand rights from the state but beg for favours from their MPs.

As I write this article, there are more Malawian doctors trained at government expense living and working in Britain than there are in Malawi itself. Malawian professionals have voted with their feet and left. Yet the world may remain happy with Malawi because it meets the conventional models of a democracy. Africa needs to begin a conversation about how its people are integrated into the emerging democratic structures.

Throughout the documentary, Malawi and through it Africa is stripped of self initiative. The story of persistent failure and misery makes you think that there is nothing positive that happens in that country – except of course Madonna’s  apparent wonderment that in spite of their poverty, Malawians are still happy: The children play, the youths smile and cheer, the elderly laugh and hug each other in mutual affection.

What is missing is the story of innovation in Malawi; the business people who are creating new ways to make money and therefore employing hundreds of thousands; the farmers who are improving their wellbeing through adoption of modern farming technologies; young professionals like those in Kenya who created mobile money that is changing life on our continent without foreign aid; and small traders and craftsmen and women who are creating many things out of nothing.

Even in rural Malawi, it is not only a story of misery; there is innovation: That is the story of the great William Kakamba whom I met at the TED Conference in Arusha in June 2007. Coming from a poor home, with his parents living in a grass thatched house, Kakamba read in a local library about how to generate electricity using windmills. He went home and created one using rudimentary tools and there it was – electricity.

Kakamba is not alone; similar stories abound across this continent. There is the story of Victor Mugai, a young Kenyan I taught at Yale University. His father and mother died when he was seven, his sisters married in their early teens and he had to raise himself and his young brother. At eight, he built his own clock; at 10, he built a television set and at 14, he built a rocket – all out of his grass thatched hut in rural Kenya. Yet he had the audacity to dream of studying in America. Without the help or knowledge of his government, he struggled and was helped to get a scholarship to Yale where he is studying nuclear physics.

But it is also the story of Fred Balagadde; best student in O levels in Uganda in 1998: He struggled, went to the US, paid his own fees and finally did his PhD in bio technology at California Institute of Technology and Stanford University. He invented a micro chemostat, a first-of-its-kind microfabricated fluidic chip that mimics a biological cell culture environment in a highly complex web of tiny pumps and human hair-sized water hoses, all controlled by a multitasking computer. This pioneering research, that has left many in the Silicon Valley scratching their heads, can diagnose 98 percent of all diseases without help of a doctor.

There are a million and one Africans doing these things – in villages, in towns, on the continent and abroad. But this story of innovation is often disarticulated from political life in Africa because we have a perverted democracy where the political process seeks to enhance the privileges of a few at the expense of the many.

There are many people from the West who genuinely believe Africans can be helped to help themselves. Often, this section of Western interest in Africa finds talented people like Mugai, Kakamba and Balagadde and helps them to achieve their dreams clearly recognising that these are the continent’s change agents. But such help is the exception, not the rule. For most Westerners, the attraction is in helping where the television cameras are watching and hence gain worldwide publicity.

I admit that our governments have been abysmal in promoting our innovative youths. One of the few countries in Africa hungrily looking for its best brains to serve it is Rwanda; for if Kakamba, Mugai and Balagadde were Rwandan, they would be the focus of government policy and action. And it is not a surprise that human rights groups hate Rwanda calling it a police state; and a section of Africa’s ill informed intellectual class agrees. Good enough Rwandans tell their story differently in opinion polls by such institutions as Gallup Poll – 95% say they have confidence in their public institutions, making the country 4th in the entire world.

Yet Madonna’s documentary was not without good insights. The PhD Mathew Chikoanda says “the problem we have, not just in Malawi but across Africa is this victim mentality – the tendency to shift blame for our problems from ourselves to other people.” I agreed entirely. However, I would add that while our problems are largely domestically generated and the demands to solve them are locally articulated, the framework of discussing the solution is always a textbook theory developed out of the experience of other countries. Part of Africa’s predicament is born of this persistent mismatch between demands and solutions.

Chikoanda went on quoting a Malawi proverb that “No one can share your head in your absence.” So we need to take responsibility for ourselves. We need to empower our people. External assistance is okay. But we need to begin with our own solutions. Chikoanda was touching on something I feel passionately about. And it is in Rwanda that I have seen this begin to happen. And this could be largely because in their moment of national catastrophe, the people of Rwanda saw the international community cut and run. They learnt self reliance the hard way.

Towards the end, Clinton comes back with a comment – “Africans are ready to tackle their own problems,” he says, “but they are looking for someone to help them, to empower them.” Possibly, but why can’t we empower ourselves and only let others help us on our own terms? Besides, who are these helpers? What are their interests and motivations? Well, Africa has been involved in years of parroting the view of others about who we are, what we are and what we need. It is time for us to compose our own song and sing it. Madonna and all the kind people of this world cannot save Africa. Only Africans can save themselves.

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Comments (57)Add Comment
Actions Speak Louder than Words: Clooney for President of South Sudan
written by Ocheto, March 26, 2011
Clooney should be named an honorary President of South Sudan. Most Hollywood "star elite" have never pretended to solve anybody's problems, but what they do best is to shine the spotlight on the problem issues and areas. They are best at shaming the corrupt bureaucracies to action. They are advocates; they don't pretend to know the intricacies of governance, which is woefully lacking in most Africa. For example Clooney's actions made Bashir think twice about attacking the people of southern Sudan. In case of human rights violations, he was going to watch them and provide the video as evidence in the court of law. “Only African can save Africa” is a worn out, shallow cliché that doesn't mean much. Actions speak louder than words.
Africans should continue to work with the "international community"
written by Ocheto, March 26, 2011
Africans are part of the world community, so especially in the new digitally interconnected world Africa will and should work with the international community to shine spotlight on the problem issues of cruel, corrupt and unaccountable governing dictatorships. There isn't and there never was one solution, a magic bullet to solving Africa's problems. The suggestion that only Africans can save Africa seems to preclude Africans working with or within the framework of the international community. Nothing could be so simplistic, narrowly focused or parochial and wrong.
Africa should should pursue own/unique strategies for development!!!
written by Steve Kuriigamba, March 27, 2011
Thanks Andrew...
The assumption that Africa would develop by following the footpaths of the Anglo-Saxon development experience system and under the neoliberal, Washington consensus ideology is totally Wrong!! Contrary to Africa’s social values, these ethnocentric models place heavy emphasis on free markets, deregulation, privatization and the limited role the state has to play in the development process.

I believe that the only way Africa can reclaim its development in the 21st century is if its development process is rooted in African systems of thought and is people-centred rather than western capitalist models transplanted by apostles of external agencies. The starting point would be to rapidly pursue agrarian strategies of development.
written by matt, March 28, 2011
andrew ur so right, i have always thought that self initiative is the way to go, none of the successful people i know waited for someone to hold their hand, they simply learnt the art of self reliance
written by Major Adam Kifaliso, March 28, 2011
If we have leaders like m7 , we need more people like Hollywood philanthropist m7 spent money on elections he knew he was to rig and steal , contracts were offered worldwide to print ballot papers when in fact NewVision Group printed more ballot papers which were used to secure m7's 68% win . Can you imagine m7 has a jet when have no money to go to work
Slacktivism in Africa
written by Michael Kirkpatrick, March 29, 2011
There is a lot of debate and discussion in the academic community and the professional aid industry regarding the effectiveness of programs and policies in developing parts of the world. There are college degrees offered in the subject. There are countless jobs related to delivering services and implementing projects to alleviate poverty. There are books published every year that detail danger, death, destruction, and disease in Africa.

To read more:
Celebrity Activism in Africa
written by Michael Kirkpatrick, March 29, 2011
Africa has become a playground for some celebrities in the last several years. This is not a new phenomenon. They are following in the footsteps of Goofy who courageously traveled to Africa in 1945.

To read more:
Overlooking the capacity of local NGOs (part 1)
written by Jennifer Lentfer, March 29, 2011
I've worked for many years with the leaders of Eye of the Child, Malawi's leading child rights advocacy organization, which led the civil society charge for an injunction against both of Madonna's adoptions. Though they were not successful in preventing the adoptions, they have been very successful in forging closer ties with government officials to support them to navigate tricky donor relations with such funders and foundations as Madonna's, as well as to reform Malawi’s contradictory laws governing adoption and child protection.
Overlooking the capacity of local NGOs (part 2)
written by Jennifer Lentfer, March 29, 2011
I'm glad the Kabbalah Foundation is admitting to its failures and squandered millions (see the latest on this debacle here:

But beyond the celebrity, there is another story to take notice of--the behind-the-scenes persistence, vision, and impact of the local leaders and organizations who are working to solve their own country's problems, on their own terms. This is a story we cannot hear enough.
written by Won nyaci, March 29, 2011
Brothers and sistas, these so called celebs are just a front for the illuminati, to help them run the world; Madona actually has a 'lodge' in London. The illuminati own all the world's powerful media houses, AP, Reuters and all the entertainment companies that promote these celebs.
Ouster of Gaddaffi: Why the International Community can be effective
written by Ocheto, March 29, 2011
The anonymous facelessness of the international community is both its weakness and strength. It is weakness is that it is hard to mobilse to agree and act appropriately and swiftly. By contrast in a hierachical organization the lines of command and discipline are clearly defined, decision making is easier. Unfortunately that is also it's weakness because a hierachical organizaton is easy to bring down, by decapitating its head. With international community there is not one define leader that Gaddafi can attack. So like a man trapped in the dark he is swinging blindly not knowing where and when the next blow is going to land. The opposition leadership was/is right to keep low.
Can African elites also save Africa?
written by Last word, March 30, 2011
What hope is there when African elites including law makers who are supposed to be shaping the future can be bought like groceries to abandon their principles and stop thinking for themselves? We have been informed by a previous edition of this column that most elites in Uganda are this way inclined having been corrupted by the rulling regime. With so many unprincipled elites how can we find solutions to the problems we face? Bashing western celebs isn't the answer. We must start holding our leaders to account for each and every single mistake they make. What right do we have to complain when we fail to condem election thieves but instead go along with the fraud? Why can't Africa take the lead in solving problmes on the continent?
African despots or Western Imperialism
written by Agaba Rugaba, March 30, 2011
Our African elite need to divorce themselves from these politicians or else, our hollywood brothers will continue to diagnise whether correctly or otherwise, our problems.Look at Jamwa, every one claims he is a smart chap, why did he ever allow to play into the politicians hands? They say when you dance with pigs, you must be ready to get dirty. Then there is Mutebile, Kassekende at BOU, and Kassami and Muhankanizi at MoF, very brilliant guys, but you see how Gen. M7 is soon embarrassing their "London college of economics" brains? They appear before the media with the minister of finance in tow, but these smart guys cant explain the inflation, weakened shilling etc.
written by Major Adam Kifaliso, March 30, 2011
The finance minister Sydha Bumba is a disgrace , she attributed the low value of the shilling to geopolitical problems not geo economic problems , she has been talking rubbish ever since the was given the post , we all know M7 uses old fashioned ladies like her and Mama Janet to siphon funds from the govt for his personal needs , The General has to hide in old bikoyi to rob Uganda , there is nothing different between Jamwa and m7, one is pocketing on premature NSSF bonds and the other one oil, Ugandans must kick this hopeless dictator soon ,before its too late
written by Major Adam Kifaliso, March 30, 2011
Ever since Museveni took office the number of toilets per person decreased , when m7 sometimes talks to a crowd of 30 ,000 ,its usually him with a toilet , whole towns and markets have no toilets , in Kampala some cabinet ministers use the famous flying toilets , some one has to be so kind to come to our rescue , Andrew why don't you blame Museveni who robs and wastes public funds ? How do you want poor people to be empowered by primitive African dictators ?
Mwenda like Museveni Selling their Souls to Devils
written by Ocheto, March 30, 2011
Mwenda has gone from excusing the corrupt governments to now blaming the celebricities. He is the kind of people who have sold themselves to the devils: corrupt governments, bureaucrats and technocrats. Bashing the people is a profitable enterprise; Museveni did it to gain international acclaim. He referred to people as backwards and primitive. Here Mwenda is doing the same thing. Its good in the ears of the biased international fora, but it is a sell out for cheap dollars and fame. The problem is corrupt governments. Madonna problem failed to build the school because she didn't pay bribes to the corrupt governments. And she is trying to build a school for girls? There boys come first, girls a distant second.
Celebrities are only well meaning
written by Ocheto, March 30, 2011
Celebrities are well meaning people who have no ill intentions, which are altruistic. And what they choose to do with their money and time is their business. Mwenda and his corrupt compatriots are the real enemies of the people.
written by Major Adam Kifaliso, March 30, 2011
I'm failing to notice the difference between Tamale Mirundi and Andrew Mwhonda ! I think both should have been women
Our Leaders are drowning us.
written by Agaba Rugaba, March 31, 2011
Africans dont lack self initiative but our leaders have done us a diservice. By virtue of their positions, they must create and facilitate an environment where innovation and great ideas thrive, short of that, even the best brains wont go far with their enterpreneural concepts, innovations etc. All we want museveni & co to do is provide infrastructure e.g roads, dams, health facilities, liberal pension sector, good and fair tax regime, sensible administrative units not village districts, the rest will take care of itself based on the fundamentals of capitalism and the cardinal laws of demand and supply. I dont expect museveni to put dinner on my table or pay for my holiday in Amuru Safari lodge!!!
written by Elisabeth, March 31, 2011
A wonderful article and I full heartedly agree. Though not as sophisticated I proposed similar ideas during my studies. I've been part of a North-South collaboration study program, with students from different parts of Africa and from Northern Europe. Being white I found my self constantly having to defend my views that Africans have to take responsibility for their own development. The counterargument "But you are white and from the West, you put us in this position, now you help us out!". And these were bright master students.. I'm at loss to how things will change, if this is their position.
It is the West that exploits Africa, not the other way around
written by Ocheto, March 31, 2011
The most intellectually dishonest arguement, perpetrated by the likes of Mwenda who in such of fame and fortune in the west, is that Africa benefits from the west. Nothing could be further the truth. The arrow of exploitation points from Africa to the west. For example: even as Bob Geldof was raising money for the famine stricken Ethiopia, Ethiopia was bleeding more money to the west than it was getting from the socalled aid. The problem with Africa is there so many in African leadership roles who collaborating with west in the exploitation. Things will change for better when the exploitation stops. It will happen, believe me.
The Introduction Celebricities is Tabloid Journalism
written by Ocheto, March 31, 2011
The introduction of celebrities is diversionary, trash, and tabloid journalism. There was such a newspaper, Red Pepper, which indulged in such trashy, tabloid reporting. It made a splash when initially it held sway over a titillated readership for a while, but It didn't last as it folded quickly.
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I couldn't agree more!
written by bwambale daniel, April 01, 2011
Andrew, thanks a lot for sharing your views in such a candid and touching way. I am always amazed Andrew at whether the Ugandan government has what is called a spotter process. We actually have very great kids at Makerere whose innovations are life changing( positively) but with a government scared of an innovative indigenous group of people, i can't blame the westerners for thinking that way,otherwise why do we keep running away if we have great ideas to these great research institutions like MIT? We need a real structural change Andrew, the real fight is for power to do great things like Kagame.
Ocheto and co. you are being dishonest!
written by bwambale daniel, April 01, 2011
I can't fail but recognise the irony in Ocheto's submission that Andrew is intellectually dishonest. While i don't often agree with him, Mwenda can't be accused of stating at any point(i started following his articles as an S.3 student in 2003),that Africa benefits from the west. In fact, he has vehemently defended the fact that Africa doesn't need any Aid to develop. If he was so inclined, Mwenda could have chosen to stay in the states and be declared an expert on African affairs while earning a million dollar stipend at say The New York Times. Instead, he set up The Independent, employs meritoriously and would be doing more if he wasn't afraid to stand for President. i stand by my word, he doesn't say we benefit from the West.
The last thing Africa Needs is Western Pity Parties
written by Ocheto, April 01, 2011
It is intellectually dishonest to argue that Africa doesn't need aid and then in the same instance excuse the rampat abuses of power - corruptio, despotism, nepotism, tribalism, lack of basic freedoms and accountability - the very ills that are the cancerous core to Africa's well being and prosperity. You cannot participate in the engorging of the Africa's capabilities and then turn around like an arsonist who is fighting the fire he lit, to now pity the people you victimized. And what has working for The New York Times got to do with this, anyway? The New York Times is part of the western media that "brainwashed" Africans hope to emulate, when their interests never concide with Africa's.
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written by James, April 03, 2011
Can we just get Africa to a relatively peaceful place where people are more-or-less not dying of AIDs all the time and their isn't a genicide every second tuesday? The continent is just one massive humanitarion clusterf*ck so I applaud anyone who is willing to put in the work to fix as much of it as they can. We make fun of these actor/activists. But if they weren't actors too, we wouldn't even notice them. Nothing would seperate them from the thousands of average joes working in the Peace corps etc ...

Africa didn't get so bad without outside help, and it won't get better with out it either.
written by Sabiiti Martin, April 16, 2011
Lets begin with you Andrew, you are rich by Uganda's standards, do you have any child you have adopted and are caring for him/her? There are many organisations in Uganda that are looking after Children but what is disappointing is that almost all the sponsors of those Children are Americans, Canadians, Australians etc. I worked with a children project at a church and these whites would come to visit the children. During my conversations with them I found out that some of them don't even own cars in the countries! Here you find one person with 6cars! Instead of doing something we attack and criticise those who are doing something.
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written by Kirsten, April 12, 2013
Great article and contribution to the aid debate. Aid is an important vehicle in development, but it is also highly politisized, and an expression of power relations- it also reinforces the victim complex and undermines the agency of Africans, which in the long run is helping no one. The publicized celebrity aspect of it all is an issue itself, some might argue it does more good than it does harm, but it in my opinion if you dont have a clue butt out and donate your resources to someone that does instead of reinforcing an overarchining rhetoric that Africans cannot help themselves!
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Anyone can help
written by Djifa Kothor , October 20, 2013
Many Africans have die going to Europe, because poverty on the African continent is real. If you are doing well for your self saying it. But those Africans who need help should get it from Madonna , Clooney and Bono. Kenya your country is a has the biggest ghetto in east Africa, what are doing about? It has become fashionable to attack Westerners for trying to help the poor of Africa that many like you have forgotten, people who often have been marginalized or called lazy. But every time documentary come on about the poor of Africa the likes of you becuz of your guilty start attacking Clooney and Bono. Let them help, put aside your ego.
written by Dawn, February 11, 2014
RE: "Evolutionary psychology tells us that women tend to fall in love with men who exhibit kindness and generosity, attributes that gave our ancestors decisive advantage in the dating market and therefore made them successful reproductively."


So the feminine, leaning towards compassion and empathy, are thrown out the door under "dating market" guise?!

Guise all you want, it is what it is, empathy and love rule and ROCK.

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