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Adopting Africa
  • November 01, 2012 : 00:11
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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, 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.

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read more: News, politics, issue december 2012


  • Anonymous
    Talk about speaking truth to power! Kudos to Mr. Theroux. The Power here, includes the moneyed Hollywood elite. The truth that putting on a good show of helping people only aids the powerful and assuages celebrity guilt. If you really want to make a difference, direct your resources to making areas self sufficient. Oh and do it outside the reach of Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, integrity is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.