Adopting Africa

By Paul Theroux

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Most people come to Africa to see animals in the wild, while others make the visit to tell Africans how to improve their lives. And many people do both—animal watching in the early morning, busybodying in the afternoon. Lots of African countries offer this opportunity: Kenya (game parks and slums), Uganda (gorillas and tyrants), Tanzania (colorful Maasai herders and urban shantytowns), Malawi (lakeshore luxury and half a million AIDS orphans). There are other tourism-and-busybody opportunities, notably in South Africa, where it is possible to travel without much trouble from wilderness safari to township tour and see—by the way—that both experiences (game viewing and slum visiting) have in common a certain pathos, even an aesthetic.

One feature of tourism from the grand tour onward is that, not far from the five-star hotels, there is starvation and squalor. In most destinations you can’t be a tourist without turning your back on human desperation or else holding your nose. India is the enduring example—glory in the background, misery in the foreground, no vision of gold without a whiff of excrement. But we are in Africa now, a continent plagued with foreign advisors. I have stayed in African hotels, usually the more expensive ones, where virtually every other guest was a highly paid advice giver. It is important to keep in mind that charity, and foreign aid, is a business, that the people who run charities are well-paid and that a great deal of what the average person contributes—80 cents of every dollar, in some cases—goes to run the bureaucratic organization.

And then there are the celebrities. Four examples, wearing theatrical makeup, come to mind.

The modestly gifted, semi-educated but hugely popular movie star whose provable skills are purely thespian decides to become an ambassadorial presence in the Sudanese territorial struggle.

The aging dissolute singer visits Malawi, adopts both a posture of piety and a child or two and leaves with the promise of a new school.

The TV talk-show billionaire hobnobs with a head of state and founds a luxurious academy for girls in Johannesburg.

The scandal-plagued pair of superstars find seclusion from their fans in Namibia, the woman giving birth in a private hospital and thereafter providing two local hospitals with large endowments.

In each case the donors—professional performers, novices in Africa—are from faraway America. They seem weirdly euphoric—wild-eyed and deafened by the power their money has given them—for money can’t buy belief or obedience in Hollywood the way it can in Africa. These stars act out their concern in public, their patronage rising to the level of performance, like giant infants fluttering money into a beggar’s outstretched hands and pretending to ignore the applause. It is as though they have set out to prove that a person in such a shallow and puppetlike profession is capable of a conscience.

Does this improvisational charity do any good? History suggests not—that the countries are worse off for it. Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo says aid to Africa has discouraged investment, instilled a culture of dependency, created corruption and, taken together, impeded growth and retarded economies. A great deal of aid is plainly political, and much is pure theater, something that comes naturally to the performers and public figures who involve themselves in these efforts at improvement, which (when you look closely) are often efforts at improving irregularities in their own public images.

Still, a lack of human charity is an appalling defect, and so I am not condemning the efforts of these people, only questioning them and finding them misguided. The thought occurs that the ambiguous, self-indulgent or egomaniacal fame-hogger, speaking with the tongues of men and of angels, is never more a clanging cymbal, obviously acting, than when playing a starring role as philanthropist. And no one is a bossier moralizer than a dissolute celebrity.

“We live in a culture of aid,” Moyo writes at the beginning of her book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and Why There Is a Better Way for Africa. She says that the more than $1 trillion in development assistance since 1959 has left Africa worse off. “Aid has helped make the poor poorer and growth slower.” One of the main reasons she gives is that much of the money has gone to corrupt regimes and kept dictators in power.

This is also the view of Sudanese telecom billionaire Muhammad Ibrahim, who in a Wall Street Journal interview was quoted as saying, “It’s my conviction that Africa doesn’t need aid.” Corrupt African governments are the problem. “Without good governance there’s no way forward.” He is a philanthropist in Africa but refuses to give money to any badly governed country.

“Such intentions have been damaging our continent for the past 40 years,” said Kenyan economist James Shikwati, speaking about donor countries in an interview in Der Spiegel. “If industrial nations really want to help Africans, they should terminate this awful aid. The countries that have collected the most development aid are also the ones in the worst shape. Despite the billions that have poured into Africa, the continent remains poor.”

Nigerian American novelist Teju Cole writes in The Atlantic that what is driving American aid in Africa is “the white savior industrial complex” and adds, “If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.”

Given this dismissal of aid, I was struck by a bright, full-page (and expensive) ad in an April issue of The New York Times Magazine. It showed smiling African children—the humanized Africa of happiness and gratitude—under the headline NYIT STUDENTS HELPED BRING LIFESAVING MEDICAL CARE TO THE PEOPLE OF OWOROBONG. WE’RE OUT THERE. JOIN US. At the bottom of the page were listed the achievements of the New York Institute of Technology in Oworobong: “established the village’s first health clinic,” “trained health care workers,” “developed an essential clean water system.” And “Now, babies are delivered safely.”

The reason I noticed this ad was that I had recently been in Africa, speaking to a director of the United States’ Millennium Challenge Corporation. He mentioned MCC’s successes in Ghana. He also said funding to Ghana, which amounted to $547 million over five years, ended in February 2012.

The NYIT ad is of course selling virtue, a big “We Do Good” pitch for attracting students to this private institute and giving it the perverse glamour that celebrities have brought to their appearances in Africa’s life. NYIT is relatively small (14,000 students), with campuses in Manhattan and Long Island, as well as Abu Dhabi, Jordan, Bahrain and China. But the ad made me curious to know less about NYIT and more about Oworobong, the object of this adopt-a-village philanthropy.

Oworobong does not exist on any but large-scale political maps of Ghana, which isn’t surprising since it is obviously tiny. Typically a Ghanaian village numbers in the hundreds of people. This village is in Kwahu East in eastern Ghana. The provincial capital of Kwahu East, Abetifi, is about 70 miles from Ghana’s second-largest city, Kumasi. Kumasi is a prosperous city of 2 million and the birthplace of Kofi Annan. In addition to a soccer stadium that seats 40,000 people, Kumasi boasts its own medical school and teaching hospital. If Kwahu East’s capital is so near, it is easy to conclude that Oworobong cannot be much farther. But it is depicted in the NYIT ad as existing at the ends of the earth, its fate hanging in the balance and its only hope the efforts of sympathetic Americans and their medicine and money.

It so happens that the small village of Oworobong also figures heavily in the advertising of the Rohde Foundation, whose founder, Jesse Rohde, is described on its website as a “social entrepreneur, health advocate for the global poor and physician.” Dr. Jesse Rohde, the site continues, “has dedicated his life to providing health care services to the world’s poor.” Perhaps daunted by “the world’s poor” (estimated at almost a billion hungry people, according to WorldHunger.org), the site indicates, “Currently our focus is in Ghana, where there is an urgent need for basic infrastructure.”

The foundation solicits money online in the “Make Cents” program and seems to be a slick fund-raising organization with a scattering of volunteers. But the testimonials posted on the internet have the tone of self-satisfied hype. “Through the NYIT Center for Global Health, several students went on a three-week Global Health fieldwork trip to Oworobong, Ghana,” an NYIT student writes. “Our primary affiliate for this trip was the Jesse M. Rohde Foundation at the Oworobong Clinic. At this point, it is a child and maternal care clinic, which has been in development for the past four years.”

The medical students who spent a mere three weeks in this village “realized that building a health care system goes beyond just practicing medicine. There are so many other factors involved. We all gained an appreciation for this after we came back from the trip.”

An intern for a California newspaper also went to Oworobong. She wrote of her trip in The Santa Ynez Valley Journal: “Each participant in Rohde’s two-week-long and work-oriented visit to the Ghanaian villages of Nteso and Oworobong—where Rohde’s fledgling clinic is finally beginning to stretch its caregiving wings—was required to raise $1,000 to contribute to Rohde’s herculean effort to save Ghanaian lives.”

Like celebrities—the role models for such efforts—none of these students stays very long in Africa. Nor is there any mention by the NYIT or the Rohde Foundation of the more than half a billion dollars from U.S. taxpayers that America has contributed in the past five years through Millennium Challenge Corporation to Ghana’s welfare.

The Rohde Foundation and NYIT adopted Oworobong in the same spirit that Mrs. Jellyby adopts Borrioboola-Gha “on the left bank of the River Niger” in Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House. So much of aid is a system of adoptions—literally, in the case of celebrities (and the people they influence) who see aid in terms of rescuing children, and figuratively, in adopting villages like Oworobong. There is no shortage of potential adoptees among the world’s poor. The United States is full of them; in Mexico there are even more. But Africa, the world’s greenest continent, holds a special allure for the adopter and the aid giver.

Namibia is a wonderful place to observe both sides of the aid process. Namibia—a vast, mostly desert country with a small population—receives the attentions of many charity-minded Americans, most notably Angelina Jolie, who has donated money to hospitals and to a nature conservancy. But, as I will describe, the American taxpayer, through Millennium Challenge Corporation, has committed more than $300 million to Namibia’s welfare.

There are only a few cities in Namibia, and the largest is hardly a city: Windhoek, the capital, has a quarter of a million people, roughly the same size as Newark, New Jersey. I can well believe that there are many visitors from Newark to Windhoek who make the journey with the idea of telling the locals how to live their lives.

But Newark and Windhoek face the same problems. Both of them struggle to alleviate illiteracy, poverty and unemployment. The main difference is that in Windhoek the high school graduation rate is higher than in Newark, where—as Governor Chris Christie attests—it is 29 percent. The Windhoekians are demonstrably more polite. Windhoek has a balmier climate than Newark and has access to diamond mines. It is not far from an unspoiled coast and near to prides of lions and herds of elephants. Windhoek’s streets are cleaner than Newark’s, which is perhaps why you don’t find celebrity do-gooders on the streets of Newark.

But I have had firsthand experience of the positive side of aid in Africa. While in Namibia I was invited to a high-minded, well-funded, foreign-sponsored event—the sort I had always either avoided or mocked. It was being held in Tsumkwe, a small town in the remote northeast of the country—an unpromising area, it seemed, for such an expensive and scholarly effort. Yet I knew such places to be the beating heart of Africa.

The event would be a full day’s program of talks and films, billed as “Celebrating World Day for Audiovisual Heritage in Namibia,” organized by UNESCO. I was asked if I would be willing to speak at this Tsumkwe event, on “Preserving a Cultural Heritage.” The subject, however vague, interested me. I said yes, fighting my skepticism, and was glad afterward, because I learned how quiet, humble, noncelebrity aid was working.

Tsumkwe’s community center was officially designated the Captain Kxao Kxami Community Learning and Development Centre. Far from being a Namibian government effort, the center had been built in 2005 with funds from the Namibian Association of Norway. This group of Norwegian well-wishers was also deeply involved in local village education projects. The Redbush Tea Company chipped in with money, a charity in South Africa donated books and the center was supplied with computers and an internet connection. In 2009 the Texas chapter of the Explorers Club collected money to construct the seminar room where I would give my talk.

On the face of it, Tsumkwe—solitary, remote, poor—was the classic example of a hard-up outpost in Africa, adopted by noncelebrity foreigners as a recipient of funds and the idealistic efforts of outsiders to improve education and health. Unlike in Oworobong this was all done quietly. No hype about “saving lives.” The Norwegians had been at it for 30 years, funneling money to the place and producing extensive and scholarly self-financed surveys of the hardships and goals of the local people.

In my talk I advocated that local people take down the oral histories of the elders in the region, making a database of folktales and proverbs, customs and traditions. The students and elders listened politely, but soon afterward I learned that such an effort was already in the works, thanks to a foreign-funded transcription project in Tsumkwe. Who knew?

The Ju’hoan Transcription Group had been active in Tsumkwe since 2002, but the tales had been collected since 1971. Much of this work was due to the Kalahari Peoples Fund (based in Austin, Texas), which dated from the 1970s and operated through the apartheid era to create homegrown reading materials for local schools, among other projects.

Over the years the project became more ambitious. From afar came webmasters, tech assistants, linguists from Germany, donations of laptops and solar panels by foreign companies. Soon the Norwegian-funded Captain Kxao Kxami Community Centre became available with electricity and an internet connection.

In the foreign-funded center, with foreign-funded equipment—computers, digital recorders, video cams—the goal was “technological empowerment” to protect the culture, produce educational material for schools and build an archive. The mission was for the Ju’hoan people to tell their own stories. If these foreigners hadn’t done it, no one would have. And if this history had not been preserved, it would have been lost forever, not just to the people in Namibia but to the world.

Most of the high-profile projects and efforts, such as those of the Rohde Foundation, Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney, Madonna, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and the evangelical churches, represent a pittance of the total foreign aid to Africa. The real money, in the hundreds of millions, is the quiet annual funding from governments in the First World, and they are giving it with greater scrutiny. When in 2002 Denmark got wind of corruption and misuse of aid money in the Malawian government, it suspended its program. This is happening more and more, because the great problem is oversight and monitoring. It was to counter corruption that Millennium Challenge Corporation was begun.

Millennium Challenge Corporation was started in 2004 by the Bush administration, a consequence of the frustration of people who saw the United States Agency for International Development and other agencies pouring money into countries with few tangible results. MCC keeps a close eye on how American taxpayer money is dispensed in efforts to improve other people’s lives. The projects are spread all over Africa—indeed, all over the globe.

Oliver Pierson is resident country director in Namibia for MCC. Pierson is young, in his 30s, and quietly hearty. I liked his energy and admired his disposition. He biked and ran, even on the hottest Namibian days. He was married and lived in Windhoek when he was not traveling. He had been associated with MCC for four years.

In 2008 Pierson, with Peace Corps zeal, had started working for MCC in “project appraisal.” He became Namibia’s resident country director in 2011. It was Pierson who told me that Namibia was getting more than $300 million, and Tanzania got more than twice that, $698 million.

“But let me explain,” Pierson said, because hearing the large numbers, I had started to snort. The grant is administered in stages over five years in what is called a compact. And before a country qualifies for a compact it has to pass the eligibility requirements.

Pierson said, “And we do audits. There’s no evidence that contractors are misappropriating the funds. You wouldn’t believe how much time we spend monitoring these grants and double-checking.”

For a country to get U.S. money from MCC it must go through an intensive process of measurement in three categories: just rule, economic freedom and investment in people. If these conditions don’t exist, no money is given. Each category is further broken down into 22 indicators, such as land rights, civil liberties, control of corruption, freedom of information and so forth. And they have to be low- or middle-income countries. Botswana doesn’t qualify because it has a brisk economy.

And, Pierson said, sometimes a compact is in place and something changes that queers a development deal. After the 2009 coup in Madagascar, its multimillion-dollar compact was terminated. The Malawian government had signed on to a $350 million compact for investment in the energy sector, but not long after the signing there were demonstrations in three cities, including the capital, against the government’s human rights abuses. Nineteen demonstrators were shot dead by the army.

“So we put an operational hold on the compact,” Pierson said. “And then the Malawians were going to host Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir”—who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. And that was the end of Malawi’s deal. No more money. (The compact was reinstated after President Joyce Banda’s inauguration in April.)

Why do celebrities engage in high-profile philanthropy, especially in Africa? Obviously it is an expression of good-heartedness. It sometimes seems to me an act of atonement for all the bad karma and compromise accumulated in clawing to the top of celebrityhood. And for actors, musicians, performers, TV people—always at the mercy of directors, agents or bosses—it must be refreshing when they promote themselves to the role of world-traveling philanthropist, meeting a head of state on their own terms because they are holding a chunk of money. Fame itself is also a kind of currency, spendable all over the world. And in Africa the contrast is stark, literally in black and white.

But none of these donations begins to compare with the $67 million in MCC money Namibia was getting to promote tourism. When I remarked on the size of the grant, Pierson elaborated by saying it was for the improvement and management of Etosha National Park and for the marketing of Namibian tourism. Tourism? Many tourist destinations in the United States, which get nothing from the U.S. government, would have been glad to get the millions Namibia had been awarded. Places I knew well got no money from the government to prop up their tourism industries—Hawaii got nothing, Cape Cod got nothing—but they struggled along. I thought particularly of the Maine tourist industry, which has been in serious trouble because of the economic slump, high unemployment, high gas prices and the lack of awareness outside of Maine of the delights of the Maine coast, one of the noblest and best preserved on earth.

And the hard-pressed and severely taxed residents of Maine, many of whom work in the Maine tourism industry at motels and restaurants, were contributing to the improvement of the Namibian tourism industry, to lure herds of (mainly) German safari-goers to Etosha National Park?

“Let’s say I happened to be a Maine lobsterman,” I said to Pierson. “I get up at 4:30 every morning and set off in my boat to haul hundreds of traps. Some days fuel is so expensive and there are so few lobsters that I lose money. But I keep hauling. I pay my taxes. I’m wet and cold most of the time.” Pierson was smiling; he knew what was coming. “What would you have said to my late friend Alvin Rackliff of Wheeler Bay, Spruce Head, Maine about the use of his tax money to get tourists to Namibia?”

“I’d say we’re trying to help create countries that are stable,” Pierson said. “And it’s less than one percent of the total U.S. budget.”

“It’s still a ton of money. Alvin was heavily taxed and worked very hard.”

“It builds good relationships,” Pierson said.

“Alvin would have wanted to know what Namibia is doing for itself.”

“Each country contributes—up to half of the total,” Pierson said. “Ghana is a good example of how loans and investment help. We had a successful compact there. Namibia has had regular elections since 1989. As well as tourist-based development, we’re doing education and agriculture. Hey, it’s five years, and we keep checking that no one steals.”

What does all this mean to the average U.S. taxpayer? Not much, I felt. What would it have meant to sorely taxed and hardworking Alvin Rackliff in Maine? Up until he died, at 91, he was still fishing, still hauling traps. I can imagine him in his yellow slicker, wet gloves and rubber boots in the wheelhouse of his lobster boat, Morning Mist, as I told him what I’d heard, his mocking laughter ringing in my ears: “If you believe that, Paul, you’re crazy as a shit-house rat!”

But of the foreign aid schemes I’d come across, Millennium Challenge Corporation seemed to be doing its work honestly and well. I liked the idea that it cut off funds to countries that did not live up to their word and that tyrannies did not qualify. Still, the economists who denounce aid as harmful have a point.

For any organization to raise money, it needs to present a life-or-death struggle, which is why charities love crises. And crises perfectly suit celebrities, who are larger than life and for whom this drama of “saving lives” is a real-life reflection of the movies or songs they promote.

Still, the big-money aid in Africa seems bland compared with the vivid small-scale efforts of the celebrities and the highly publicized push to help villages like Oworobong. Anyone reading this in the United States can easily think of a needy or depressed neighborhood, slum area or dog town that would serve just as well for such an initiative. Brad Pitt is to be applauded for his work in post-Katrina New Orleans, but there are at least a hundred small towns in the United States where the annual per capita income is $5,300 or less. New schools and hospitals could have been built in Allen, South Dakota or Lukachukai, Arizona, where the residents live way below the poverty line. You don’t find celebrities in those places. You find them on TV, claiming, “I’ve just saved some lives in Africa.”


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