The Concoction

An Ethiopian woman's musings on Africa, the world and everything in between

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        Tuesday, May 09, 2006
        A spade is a spade
        Perhaps an Ethiopian doing charity work in the US sounds like the paradox of the century, but here I am involved in yet another charity work. This time in the US (the last times being in Ethiopia and Brussels).

        My next post will go into some disturbing details of what I have found out during a training session to become an advocate against domestic violence. But, this post is a sort of prelude to that and a general observation about the differences in charity/development work in Africa and the US.

        I find the contradictions in the concept of being "developed" and the difference in the use of language used in "developed" and "developing" nations when defining the same approaches very fascinating.

        Let us put things in perspective
        According to US News, there are more than 800,000 charity organizations in the US. Based on the fact that there are more than 20 charity organizations working in Parramore, a tiny area in the center of Orlando, Florida, is an indication that the majority of these 800,000 charity organizations operate in the US. I know charity organizations are very diverse in the US and some obscure ones are lumped up with serious ones, according to my definition of obscure and serious. You don’t expect me to have equal regard for an organization for sun gazers and another one working with battered women, do you?

        In 1992, the US adopted a foreign aid policy of "working more closely with NGOs in situations where governments are widely seen as corrupt." Previous arguments in favor of NGOs included inefficiency and inability of governments as well. In light of this, one cannot help wondering why there should be more than 800,000 charity organizations in the US. Does the corruption and inability argument apply to the US government? Or is there another explanation why charity organizations should pick up the pieces in areas such as mental health outreach programs, battered women, youth drug and alcohol prevention and control, pollution, environmental protection, housing, education…? Doesn't this indicate the government's failure in providing basic services to its citizens? It seems that American's prefer to give as little as possible to the government through taxes and support charities to do the real work.

        Personally, the shocker came before I got involved in charity work in the US and when I got a fund raising call from the local police department asking for contributions to buy - please hold on to something that can support you - bullet proof vests. I couldn't help asking the nice gentleman on the phone, 'shouldn't that be the government's responsibility?" And the reply was an even more surprising, "the government is stretched thin…" So am I, buddy. So am I.

        I hope that was just a scam. Honestly.

        Africa’s dependence on aid is widely criticized, lamented and resented. However, now that I have some degree of insider’s scoop on charity work in the US, I don’t see that much of a difference between the US and Africa. There would have been more gaping social differences in the US had it not been for strong charity organizations working in a wide range of areas.

        So let's call a spade a spade and cut the crap, please!

        The politics of language
        Remember all the fuss about whether it is politically correct to say tribal vs ethnic (tribe has the connotation of backwardness…), beneficiaries vs participants (beneficiary depicts dependency whereas participant is more empowering ["sounding", I shall add])? In the same fashion, the same humanitarian work is development when it is in Africa and charity in the US.

        Youth programs in Africa, for example, are very similar to programs in the US. Both focus on providing alternative life styles to disadvantaged/at risk youth, develop the skills of the youth to help them function in society, teach them socially acceptable behaviors etc. Still, it gets a different name when it crosses the waters and land in a different continent.

        Another example, I know this has nothing to do with charity work directly but I just can’t resist mentioning it here, is the loaded word lobbying. What is known as lobbying in the US is called bribery and corruption in Africa.

        What comes after being "developed"?
        The main reason for the linguistics disparity is rooted in the notion of development as a goal rather than a process. Rich countries are commonly called "developed" countries. They are supposed to be already there (where ever that is) and they are done with it (what ever that is). So, you would assume that there is nothing else that they are supposed to do once they gained the "developed" status. The little annoying social problems that just won’t go away are supposed to be addressed by charities. What this does in the US is that it justifies poverty, inequality and discrimination under the pretext that "people have a choice" to improve their situation. It shifts responsibilities from the government directly to the disadvantaged. It also paints this picture of the disadvantaged as pathetic losers who just sit on their lazy arse waiting for a handout.

        Development in contrast to charity is for poor nations. It will be highly confusing and self-defeating if the US talks about development programs because they are already "developed". Do you see the self-trap that rich countries put for themselves? Now, I’m feeling very proud of being a citizen of a developing country. At least it sounds as if it is moving, growing, changing, adopting to new socio-economic and political changes. I wish, I wish…

        When you analyze "development" in this way, you can’t help asking what next after being "developed"? In best case scenario – regressing and in worse case, decaying. Regressing is better because at least it leaves room to go back and fix things and move forward (and perhaps refuse to be "developed" – yeah right!) Development is seen as if it’s a human body that goes through conception, birth, childhood, youth, maturity and old age. So next is death for the developed?

        In all seriousness though, when you hear facts such as it is only in 1994 that domestic violence is added in the US law and only a few weeks ago Florida has made it a felony - not just a misdemeanor - to batter a woman in a domestic violence, the question what does being "developed" mean becomes more than just annoying. It becomes disturbing.
        posted by Fikirte @ 12:12 PM   Digg!
        • name<="c114722952053744725" id="c114722952053744725">

          At 10:52 PM, Blogger Kaunda said…

          After reading this I wondered why I hadn't subscribed to "the concoction' already. Okay I'll do that now.

        • name<="c114755732573189205" id="c114755732573189205">

          At 5:55 PM, Blogger marc said…

          I love your point about lobbying and bribery! Thanks for the thoughtful blog.

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