Thursday, November 15, 2007

Baring the Burden

Whatever might be said of his fiction, Rudyard Kipling is not the best of poets. His poem "The White Man's Burden" for example, is a hackneyed hymn to the colonialist and his civilising mission.

The motivation was to encourage America’s takeover of the Philippines, which many see as the beginning of a long list of colonial interventions by the former colony, ostensibly founded on opposition to the injustice of the old world.

Kipling’s aim leads him to depict the colonial enterprise as a philanthropic challenge; this notion is of course the usual justification, but that’s precisely the point. The poem is an articulation of the imperial imagination, and the title encapsulates this most basic of its tenets in a phrase that has been appropriated by postcolonial critics of empire (and neo-colonial ones for that matter), for uses other than the ones the poet intended.

On the face of it, the contemporary discourse depicting Africa as a “scar on the conscience of the West” might seem the opposite of Kipling’s “White man's burden”; but while it implies an acknowledgement of guilt (which is a key component driving Western aid to the continent) it is significant that the phrase is in figurative terms a variation of the white man’s burden. The colonised other is a burden which the West must lift, while Africa is a scar the West bears – both passive objects of the West’s desired self-image.

The recent attempted abduction of 103 children in Chad is an example of the manipulation required to maintain this self-image. The European ‘aid workers’ in the case lied to the locals, claiming that they would be setting up a home in the capital N’djamena, offering their children a better life and (crucially) education. According to the group anything was justified in their effort to save the children from death and abuse, but even this Machiavellian rationalization does not hold water, as they had to manufacture their Darfur orphans using bandages and iodine to fake the 'war-wounded' look, as footage shot by a journalist accompanying the ‘rescue mission’ shows.

This journalist did not go to the authorities, and only released his video after the group was arrested; his justification being that he didn’t see the children being abused! Such reasoning is revealing: he would not have considered filming a kidnapping in his hometown without interfering. His excuse is in fact a testament to the power of the simplified and distorted image of Africa projected by global and particularly Western media: there’s a definite sense that, all things considered, the children would be much better off with European foster parents, away from the Africa and its endless troubles. Their anguished relatives’, interviewed on Aljazeera, see things differently.

‘The King Kong’ syndrome is Rey Chow’s name for a form of first world consumption in which the 3rd world is mined for thrilling scenes and stories of human misery. Tragic events supply melodramatic entertainment which is more attention-grabbing and invested with more ‘significance’, because they are ‘real’. Africa, the heart of darkness, is particularly vulnerable and is almost always portrayed as the site of misery.

The news media uses this ‘raw material’ in much the same way as the entertainment industry, to provide viewers with shocking spectacle. A BBC World advert promoting the channels website uses part of a news report; it is filmed from a low-flying plane which is dropping boxes (of aid presumably) over a crowd of people in what looks like a flooded area; the people dodge the falling packages and run after the plane while a reporter perched inside informs us that they are “desperate”. This segment of a report, playing on a laptop screen, is followed by the slogan “news on demand”.

It’s a marketing ploy which, had it been intentional, would have been a witty satire on news channels and their viewers, who together transform suffering into a sought-after commodity.

Virtually all the stories coming out of Africa are of conflict, disease and disaster, with Africans infantilised by being represented as perpetually pleading for nurture and nutrition. Reductive and sensationalist news coverage, coupled by the missionary language of those bent on ‘saving Africa’, combine to figure Western dominance as maternal solicitude.

This message is often taken quite literally, as exemplified by the celebrities adopting the continent as a ‘cause’, or going a step further and adopting a representative child.

‘Eye of the Child’, the organisation that (unsuccessfully) challenged the legality of Madonna’s speeded-up adoption of a Malawian boy, urged the star to consider supporting “community based approaches to care for orphans” as an alternative to efforts that “create and develop a dependency syndrome”. This phrase also perfectly describes the wider charity case approach to Africa.

In the case of the Chad orphans-that-weren’t, Dubai Cares seems to be offering to fund the sort of response ‘Eye of the Child’ advocates, by funding efforts to "trace the children's families, reunite them with their families and get them back to school" as a spokesman said. Highly commendable, but then the spokesman goes on to claim that they “don’t want to get involved in politics”, which seems disingenuous.

China is also going on something of a humanitarian spending spree to raise its profile, and to counteract negative coverage. As a global player it is deploying aid as part of its strategic jostling for superpower status, and Africa is the perfect place to do so.

So it’s no longer just a Western phenomenon, in many countries Africa and Africans are conceived as a burden to enable policies that duplicate the underlying assumptions, and some of the ambitions of the colonial project.

After all even the scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century was regarded by many Europeans as a laudable charitable endeavour – which should make the current scramble more suspect. In the late 19th and early 20th century, colonial states produced propaganda material to celebrate the occupation and exploitation of their respective colonies, in which a matronly figure represents the European nation bringing the comfort and culture of civilisation to the natives. The feminine ‘soft power’ of development aid is not a modern alternative to the masculine colonial officer lifting the white mans burden, but an attendant concept.

There are certainly differences in the ways Africa is approached, and it is undeniably true that the continent needs and deserves assistance in order to overcome the barriers to its progress; but the Chad case is a particularly extreme example that highlights the problematic aspect of calls to save the continent that history forgot.

The present enthusiasm, being based on a generalised vision of a chaotic mass of humanity in the grip of apocalyptic horrors, has obscured the many positive developments on the African continent: the growing economies, rising living standards, expanding educational opportunities and most importantly the moves toward closer coordination between its states.

This is not to suggest that Africa’s troubles are over, or are on their way to being resolved; but the unrelenting negative portrayals are both inaccurate and unconstructive. Such portrayals are a product of the one-dimensional way in which the continent and its people are perceived, and they reinforce the same stereotypes.

The consequences are clear. The charity concert Live 8 overlooked African artists in its line-up of global celebrities; and while African countries receive aid and debt relief from more developed nations, they find it impossible to get a fair trade deal.
Africans are confined to the role of recipient, rather than active participants who are changing their current reality and deciding their future.

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