The "Helpless" Poor


In 1985, Bob Geldof, struck by the poverty in Africa, produced ‘Live Aid’, an artistic extravaganza designed to invoke compassion, charity and pity for African people living in dire conditions. It branded an entire continent with a single image of pervasive and inescapable poverty created by poor geographical factors, that could be addressed if only the rich Western world wrote a large enough cheque. It may have started with Live Aid but as we saw with Band Aid 30 last year, there is no tragedy that people on the African continent can suffer with dignity.

Some musicians dropped out of the Band Aid 30 Ebola single. Fuse ODG wrote that the Africa which Bono invoked in his lyrics “did not reflect what Africa is truly about”.

These philanthropic efforts have shaped how we perceive the Global South today. In 2001, 16 years after Live Aid, a survey by VSO demonstrated that 80% of British people “strongly associate[d] the developing world with doom-laden images of famine, disaster and Western aid”. 74% of people believed that the developing world depended on the Western world to progress. Live Aid was for Ethiopia, and Band Aid 30 for fighting Ebola, and yet the brand that these efforts used was ‘Africa’ and to consumers, this became ‘the developing countries’.

What impact has this had on the attitude people harbour towards the developing world? According to Shah, Hall and Carr (2014):

“A side effect of this effort, however, is the perpetuation of long-held views of “the developing” as helpless and trapped, awaiting rescue that justify more and better interventions on their behalf.”

This ‘helpless’ poor narrative is wrong, and it’s harmful.

In ‘The Beautiful Tree’, James Tooley writes of his experiences in researching private (fee-paying) schools used by the poor in India and some African countries. Tooley finds that the poor in many nations rebuff the government-run, free, public schools, where teachers often did not turn up to class. International organisations either ignore or dismiss these schools (they are not ‘pro-poor’ and ‘exploit’ the poor, say some). He writes:

“It appeared that these private schools, while operating as businesses, also provided philanthropy to their communities. The owners were explicit about this. They were business people, true, but they also wanted to be viewed as “social workers”, giving something back to their communities. They wanted to be respected as well as successful. A major motivation - many of the owners had a similar story - was their status in society. Khurrum told me: “I have an ambition of running a school, of giving good knowledge, and of building good character, good citizens, good people. We have status, as leaders of schools, people respect us, and we respect ourselves.”

This is aspiration and self-respect - both attributes sorely missing in the current narrative. He gives the example of these private schools offering scholarships as examples of the ‘poor subsidising the poorest’. These are not people waiting for rescue. These are people who work to ensure their children do better - living proof that the ‘helpless’ rhetoric is misguided, at best.

The problem isn’t just the misrepresentation of large swathes of the global population. It’s that this mischaracterisation of the countries is harmful to the countries affected. As Fuse OBG points out, many people who are willing to pay £2 to raise funds for a killer disease will, nevertheless, not visit Africa on holiday. Why? Because we have internalised this image of Africa as dirty, poor, dangerous. It means Africa, as a continent, doesn’t receive as much investment, which is one of the tools by which countries can improve their lot.

In the case of Live Aid, the consequences were more pernicious. By framing the Ethiopian famine as one of geography and lack of Western political will, the real perpetrators of the continued famine went unchecked. According to de Waal (2008):

“The fact that the famine was a crime perpetrated by the Ethiopian government under President Mengistu Haile Mariam, and that relief agencies could become accomplices to that crime, were swept aside in a simplistic rush. The Ethiopian rebels, who ultimately won the civil war in 1991, estimate that the indiscriminate supply of humanitarian aid to the Mengistu government prolonged the war by at least a year.”

Yesterday, the third Financing for Development summit started. I wrote about some of the recent literature that supports moving away from development aid. But the other problem plaguing our discussion of development is, simply, the language we use. Sensationalist chat might get the dollars rolling in, but it does nothing for the long-term growth and dignity of the countries we’re talking about.