Enjoy Poverty

Last week, I was compiling a list of ‘international development’ related documentaries and films. Going over the numerous films, I remembered one of my favourite films titled Enjoy Poverty. The film by Renzo Martens, has rightfully received much attention. In the documentary, Martens travels to the Democratic Republic of Congo.  In the Congo, Martens ‘educates’ Congolese citizens about their most valuable resource- their poverty. Proof of the value of Congolese poverty, Martens claims, is the billions of dollars in aid money nations give annually, in the name of eradicating poverty. Martens also argues that western journalists make a steady income by taking photographs of, and writing articles about poverty. It is this evidence that allows Martens to play a role in helping some Congolese friends recognize poverty as their most useful ‘natural’ resource. Martens trains local photographers to take pictures of disaster and poverty. There is a striking scene, in which the Congolese photographers go into a house with malnourished children and women. If my memory is correct (as I watched the film a year ago), Martens tells the photographers to make sure the children are unclothed and look as sick as possible.

Ultimately the photographers are unable to enjoy this poverty, when their photographs cannot compete with those of western journalists. While Martens has received criticism for the arrogant, white saviour role, he takes on in the film, it is exactly this character that is so effective in making the connection between colonial administers and current development workers. I think this film is able to challenge current development methods, especially the idea of international aid. It also effectively confronts the way westerners think about the continent of Africa, depict it, and make a living off of its poverty. If you are interested in satirical documentaries, you should definitely watch this film.

Below is a trailer in French as I was unable to find one in English.

Enjoy.

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The Danger of A Single Story

I recently finished the novel Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was introduced to Adichie when I came across one of her lectures titled ‘The Danger of a Single Story”. Purple Hibiscus follows the life of Kambili, a fifteen-year-old living in Nigeria.  The novel describes Kambili’s relationship with her family, friends and how the overall political/social state of Nigeria influences their existence. I found the novel beautifully descriptive, interesting and complex. Adichie was able to describe historically rooted layers of power, while intertwining them in the everyday experience of a fifteen-year-old female.  This novel was Adichie’s first, and received excellent reviews. One of the reasons this novel received such positive attention was because it created a complex narrative of Nigerian people. Rather than focusing solely on the disparity in the country, it illustrated, that similar to families from other regions, Kambilis’ family had a loving, tumultuous, contradictory relationship.

A review from the Boston Globe proclaims: ‘Adichie’s understanding of a young girl’s heart is so acute that her story ultimately rises above its setting and makes her little part of Nigeria seem as close and vivid as Eudora Welty’s Mississippi’

This review helps to outline how welcomed Adichie’s ability to convey such an identifiable narrative is from an audience that so often only receives a single narrative about African nations.

In her lecture ‘The Danger of a Single Story’, Adichie eloquently addresses the single narrative that Africans and North Americans have been receiving of ‘Africa’. Adichie recalls how reading British and American novels in her childhood subsequently shaped her own writing and made her believe people like her (Africans) could not exist in literature. She also discusses the single story of ‘poverty’, which resulted in her American roommates surprise in Adichie’s ability to speak English and the non- tribal music she listened to.

This single story that Adichie discusses is extremely relevant when reviewing North American ideas of ‘development’. As addressed in previous posts, the single form of ‘development’ recognized in North America is often the idea that  ‘the first world helps the third world’.  Adichie’s lecture speaks to this point, as she outlines how power relations and complex narratives are intertwined. While Adichie read complex stories about American and British individuals, western individuals rarely read complex stories about Africans.

She illustrates this point with the story of a student that came to her and said:

‘It was is a shame that Nigerian men are all physical abusers like the father in your novel’.

Adichie responded that she has just read a novel called American Psycho and that:  ‘It was such a shame that young Americans were all serial murderers’.

Adichie goes on to explain that she would never think one character from an American novel would define an entire population, because she had read a variety of American novels, with a variety of complex characters.  The student however had rarely come in contact with complex narratives about Africans. Adichie claims her familiarity with American stories is related to America’s position of power in the world, and ability to spread their stories/cultural products. She outlines in contrast to these complex American stories, narratives about Africans that North Americans receive, only focus on poverty and catastrophe.

This single narrative is difficult to dispute when reviewing Africa in North American news coverage, documentaries, best sellers etc. Adichie contends: ‘show a people as one thing over and over again and they become it’. North Americans understanding of individuals in the ‘third world’ has been shaped by this single story of poverty/chaos and consequently so too have our understandings of methods of development. If all we see are images and stories of poor, helpless and dying people in the ‘third world’ then of course we are going to understand in our position as a monetarily wealthy nation we should help them. Like Adichie, I do not believe denying stories of poverty and death in the ‘third world’ is the answer, but creating a more complex understanding and thus hopefully influencing ideas of development. With more complex narratives about the ‘third world’ hopefully more complex methods of development will follow.

If you have not already watched her lecture ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ I would highly recommend watching the entire video.

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Mugabe and the White African- A Film Review

I recently came across a trailer online for the documentary Mugabe and the White African. I am very interested in how African societies, peoples and the idea of African ‘development’ are presented to a ‘western’ audience. Therefore, a film that focused on ‘white Africans’ intrigued me. The film has recently garnered attention from various documentary communities and has won a variety of awards including the winner of the best documentary by the British independent film awards.

It is impossible to generalize how an audience who comes from diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives will receive films and images. I think it is often equally as difficult to understand why the director, writer, cinematographer etc. chose specific images or used certain language. However, I think there is some value in analyzing films for their educational significance when they claim to be documentaries.  While the medium of film can be argued to be incapable of presenting any sort of ‘truth’ due to necessary manipulations of reality (ie- editing shots, adding sound), I would argue many individuals, including myself, still view documentaries as a valid source of information (and documentary makers present them as such). Watching Mugabe and the White African, I was astounded at the lack of contextual information and the one-sided story that was being presented in the guise of information on the current situation in Zimbabwe.

Briefly, the film follows a family of white Zimbabwean farmers as they attempt to legally challenge Mugabe’s land reform program.  Viewers witness Mike Campbell, his son in law, their entire family and fellow white Africans, as they endure threats and violence, while legally attempting to stop Mugabe’s government from ceasing their farmland.  During the film I scribbled down my thoughts regarding the film’s portrayal of Africa(ns), and the narrative relation to common stereotypes. Rather than writing a blog entry on the immense lack of information in this film, I will share what I perceived as the positive and negative aspects of it.

Positives:

  • As the Campbell’s went back and forth from Zimbabwe to Namibia, it was refreshing to witness the different countries in Africa portrayed as their own nations, with different cultures/rules.
  • Rather than the regular rural ‘Africa’ scenes of large/bustling cities were shown.
  • The inclusion of educated black Africans (although in some scenes the narrative seemed to imply they were working in conjunction with Mugabe’s government) was welcomed.
  • The white Africans’ devote religious beliefs broke the mould of ‘uber religious black people’.
  • The question of must you be black to be ‘African’? I think this is an important question to think about, in breaking down preconceived notions of ‘Africans’. I enjoyed watching white individuals in Africa that did not consider themselves Europeans (although this point was kind of ruined when combined with scenes of their parents in England). I feel there is a common understanding that South Africa has white Africans, but when it comes to other Southern African countries white Africans do not exist. Raising the question of African identity in reference to race was valuable, although could have been taken further if the binaries of white/black were challenged.
  • It was interesting to see the camera itself used in the form of a shield/weapon.

Negatives:

  • The most striking negative was the lack of contextual information. I was hoping to be presented with information about Mugabe’s rise to power and fall into his current political policies/state. I do not recall one reference to the impact of colonialism on Zimbabwe and how that directly influences Mugabe’s policies. The lack of information made this film extremely biased, and more of a personal narrative than having a connection to the greater political circumstances.
  • While it was innovative in the sense it looked at ‘white Africans’, it was the same old story of African corruption/ ‘these people cannot rule themselves’. While I am not claiming to be a fan of Mugabe, it is unprofessional to present this type of narrative with no real historical/social context.
  • Throughout the entire film the white farmers talk on behalf of their workers and in their dialogue come off as ‘saviours’ of the poor black farmers. While the black farmers are probably appreciative of having employment and a place to live, I would have liked to hear them verbalize how the land reform would have affected them, or how they felt about Mugabe’s government etc.
  • The black Africans that were able to speak on camera were the ‘educated’ ones, so perhaps while the films somewhat challenged ideas of race, it relied on barriers of class to sculpt the narrative.
  • I always find it irritating when subtitles are given to a certain group of people (in this case black Africans) that the western audience is presumed as not capable of understanding. Also if you are making a documentary about a specific location, you should want people from that region or country to be able to access it and they might have difficulty understanding accents that westerners are ‘supposed’ to understand. I believe in subtitles for all or none.

I’d love to hear other opinions on this film.  I think it would be an interesting (or potentially frustrating) film for viewers who have a great deal of background knowledge regarding the state of Zimbabwe and past/current conditions. I fear that this film may only reinstate stereotypical ideas of Africa, and corrupt African governments, to those whose understanding of Africa’s current condition comes from news and popular broadcasting shows. Watching the film you do feel for the Campbell family and the circumstances they are in and I believe the film is interesting as a narrative about a family struggle.

I will leave you with what I think is the most insightful line in the entire film. It comes from a government official, as he arguing with the white farmer: ‘We want to deal with friendlier people – the Chinamen, the Indians. We don’t want anything to do with you [white] people, we don’t need you’.

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Stop Trying To ‘Save’ Africa

An interesting article regarding the images and language that are continually employed in the ‘West’ to talk about African ‘development’, enjoy.

Stop Trying To ‘Save’ Africa

By Uzodinma Iweala

Washington Post Sunday, July 15, 2007

Last fall, shortly after I returned from Nigeria, I was accosted by a perky blond college student whose blue eyes seemed to match the “African” beads around her wrists.

“Save Darfur!” she shouted from behind a table covered with pamphlets urging students to TAKE ACTION NOW! STOP GENOCIDE IN DARFUR!

My aversion to college kids jumping onto fashionable social causes nearly caused me to walk on, but her next shout stopped me.

“Don’t you want to help us save Africa?” she yelled.

It seems that these days, wracked by guilt at the humanitarian crisis it has created in the Middle East, the West has turned to Africa for redemption. Idealistic college students, celebrities such as Bob Geldof and politicians such as Tony Blair have all made bringing light to the dark continent their mission. They fly in for internships and fact-finding missions or to pick out children to adopt in much the same way my friends and I in New York take the subway to the pound to adopt stray dogs.

This is the West’s new image of itself: a sexy, politically active generation whose preferred means of spreading the word are magazine spreads with celebrities pictured in the foreground, forlorn Africans in the back. Never mind that the stars sent to bring succor to the natives often are, willingly, as emaciated as those they want to help.

Perhaps most interesting is the language used to describe the Africa being saved. For example, the Keep a Child Alive/” I am African” ad campaign features portraits of primarily white, Western celebrities with painted “tribal markings” on their faces above “I AM AFRICAN” in bold letters. Below, smaller print says, “help us stop the dying.”

Such campaigns, however well intentioned, promote the stereotype of Africa as a black hole of disease and death. News reports constantly focus on the continent’s corrupt leaders, warlords, “tribal” conflicts, child laborers, and women disfigured by abuse and genital mutilation. These descriptions run under headlines like “Can Bono Save Africa?” or “Will Brangelina Save Africa?” The relationship between the West and Africa is no longer based on openly racist beliefs, but such articles are reminiscent of reports from the heyday of European colonialism, when missionaries were sent to Africa to introduce us to education, Jesus Christ and “civilization.”

There is no African, myself included, who does not appreciate the help of the wider world, but we do question whether aid is genuine or given in the spirit of affirming one’s cultural superiority. My mood is dampened every time I attend a benefit whose host runs through a litany of African disasters before presenting a (usually) wealthy, white person, who often proceeds to list the things he or she has done for the poor, starving Africans. Every time a well-meaning college student speaks of villagers dancing because they were so grateful for her help, I cringe. Every time a Hollywood director shoots a film about Africa that features a Western protagonist, I shake my head — because Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West’s fantasy of itself. And not only do such depictions tend to ignore the West’s prominent role in creating many of the unfortunate situations on the continent, they also ignore the incredible work Africans have done and continue to do to fix those problems.

Why do the media frequently refer to African countries as having been “granted independence from their colonial masters,” as opposed to having fought and shed blood for their freedom? Why do Angelina Jolie and Bono receive overwhelming attention for their work in Africa while Nwankwo Kanu or Dikembe Mutombo, Africans both, are hardly ever mentioned? How is it that a former mid-level U.S. diplomat receives more attention for his cowboy antics in Sudan than do the numerous African Union countries that have sent food and troops and spent countless hours trying to negotiate a settlement among all parties in that crisis?

Two years ago I worked in a camp for internally displaced people in Nigeria, survivors of an uprising that killed about 1,000 people and displaced 200,000. True to form, the Western media reported on the violence but not on the humanitarian work the state and local governments — without much international help — did for the survivors. Social workers spent their time and in many cases their own salaries to care for their compatriots. These are the people saving Africa, and others like them across the continent get no credit for their work.

Last month the Group of Eight industrialized nations and a host of celebrities met in Germany to discuss, among other things, how to save Africa. Before the next such summit, I hope people will realize Africa doesn’t want to be saved. Africa wants the world to acknowledge that through fair partnerships with other members of the global community, we ourselves are capable of unprecedented growth.

-Uzodinma Iweala is the author of “Beasts of No Nation,” a novel about child soldiers.

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The Giving Pledge

Recently much media attention has been given to 40 American billionaires, pledging to give away 50% of their fortune to ‘charity’. The program was the brain child of Bill and Melinda Gates. When I initially encountered this story my criticism was directed at the Billionaires I perceived as using empty pledges ( The Giving Pledge does not accept money but asks billionaires to make a moral commitment to give their fortunes to charity) to gain positive publicity. After doing more research, which led me to the Giving Pledge Website (http://givingpledge.org/), I realized my criticism should be directed not at these billionaires searching for meaning in their lives through monetary donations, but rather at the news articles lack of specifics.

The Giving Pledge website presents a profile for each individual donating their fortunes. In these profiles you can find letters written by the billionaires outlining which charity their money may be given to and why. While it seems many of the billionaires plan to give half of their future fortune to their own charities, or organizations they have personal interests in, surprise surprise, I applaud the website for offering specific details regarding these pledges. In contrast, the majority of news articles I have read seem to glorify these billionaires for giving away their money to ‘charity’, with no real details regarding where the money will go and how it will ‘help people’. Its seems the idea of providing monetary donations to ‘charity’, has become accepted as a wholly positive act, that journalists believe no explanation is needed. While this blog entry could turn into a tirade about the state of journalism, i’d rather it be a verbalization of the personal offense I take to the news coverage of the Giving Pledge and more generally how charitable donations are written about.

If ever a journalist views this blog post,  here are some specific issues I take with the coverage of the Giving Pledge/charitable donations :

  • Donating money to some charitable cause, in particularly large sums of money is not necessarily an automatically positive act (as case study please see African continent/’development’/AID money or NGOs in Haiti)
  • Details regarding where the money is going and how it will be spent, would be appreciated
  • These details do not include generalizations such as- money given to poverty, aids, the environment etc. as these details do not actually mean anything.
  • Also broad details about which organization the money will be going to, does not suffice as an explanation ie- money is going to red cross, world vision etc.

An example of details that would suffice as an explanation: Name of person, (a little bit of history about them, emphasis on bit as this should not occupy the majority of the content) is giving 15.6 million dollars to War Child. 30% of this money will be designated to administrative costs at the organization’s office in London, 50% will be used for infrastructure costs at the current program in Sierra Leonne (this will include buying raw materials to build four more onsite offices), the remaining 20% will be used to purchase technical equipment. I understand specific details may not be available for all donations, however I cannot accept that ‘some amount of money donated to some cause’ is the only information you can find, so please try harder.

I realize that these articles are merely reflective of the current state of  journalism, our educational systems,  historical understandings about charity/development etc. However, I do not think this should excuse individuals who claim it is their job to present society with information, from writing news stories that do not really mean anything.

My initial encounter with this story was through the Ottawa Citizen and I decided to write them an opinion piece, unfortunately it has not yet been published. Please find it below.

RE: Billionaires pledge fortunes to charity- At least 42 pledge to give at least half of fortune to charity

My name is Lisa and along with 42 of the richest people in the United States, I would also like to morally pledge half of my future fortune to ‘charity’. While I am may not be a billionaire yet per se, similarly to my friends Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, my pledge is being made in the future when my financial situation is bound to change. While some might say that making this pledge to ‘charity’ with no real specifics is a clever method of garnering positive publicity, they are wrong. Symbolically pledging these future funds is a means to show how much I care about the difficult issues we as a people face today. I have witnessed firsthand those less fortunate than myself, and feel a burning sensation in my heart to give these funds to some organization, to go to some cause, during sometime in the future. I do not find it necessary to identify any of these issues, as they are obvious. Being fortunate enough to address these issues with my money, I’m sure my lack of knowledge can be overlooked. Please inform Bill and Melinda that I hope to receive my membership to The Giving Pledge society and look forward to our annual meetings and dinners. Please also print a picture of my face in your newspaper with the title “ Future Billionaire to Give Away Future Fortune to a Good Cause’ (I think Good Cause has a better ring to it than Charity).  You can also quote me beside my picture saying, “ Making money is my passion, but when I am shrivelled up and can no longer enjoy it, I’d like it to go to some unfortunate people, somewhere, suffering from something so that I can make a difference’.

Thank you.

Lisa.

First Canadian to Pledge Future Fortune

Read more: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/life/Billionaires+pledge+fortunes+charity/3360996/story.html#ixzz0wDk7IlLw

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Problematic Representations of the ‘Developing’ World

For the majority of my academic career, I have been interested in the images NGOs employ to represent the ‘developing’ world. Upon returning to Toronto a friend suggested I review an organization called Good Evidence, which challenges traditional ideas of development by producing alternative visual narratives. After our initial meetings in the beginning of 2010, I became a working board member. This week we had our first public event as an organization. We wanted to visually represent our ideas, and along with other materials, we created the collages posted above. These collages were meant to illustrate the many common images of ‘development’ and the ‘developing’ world. We felt grouping the images together were essential, as one image alone may not be inherently problematic but it is as a collective discourse that particular ideas are solidified.

Along with the collages we had a summary regarding why we find these images problematic and what Good Evidence is doing to try to address this issue.

Good Evidence materialized from a recognition that the developing world was being wrongly represented and oversimplified in the North American media. News broadcasting programs and charitable organizations employed images of helpless individuals in dire situations. The repetitive use of images and stories of wars, natural disasters, crying children, and adults dying of leprosy/malaria/HIV naturalized a single narrative for the developing world. In particular ‘Africa’ became associated with ‘’development’ and was represented as a place on the brink of collapse if not for North American aid. Good Evidence does not deny these situations exist. Rather, as an organization we strive to create a more complex narrative.

We question…

Why naked children from developing countries represent poverty while Canadian children (15% live in poverty) are left clothed?

Why African conflict is so often visualized and described as tribal, when the ongoing marginalization of Canada’s aboriginal population is not?

Why photo-ops with starving children by celebrities are legitimized as development?

Simplified representations, successfully affirm simplified solutions. Development from above in the form of water pumps, better housing and education become the main method of eradicating poverty. Celebrities become vehicles of perpetuating this myth of development. While clean water, better housing and education are surely needed, these solutions deny historical and structural aspects of poverty. We believe shifting representations, may help shift understandings of ‘development’. As stated by CCIC in their document ‘Ethical Representations’

‘Images of people as helpless victims perpetuate a myth that development problems can only be solved by Northern charity. They can undermine the efforts to create a broader understanding of the underlying structures causing poverty and injustice’.

It is through our videos and website content that we hope to challenge these negative and simplified images, offering images of complex individuals addressing their own situations.

It has been a great experience for me to be involved with attempting to create something practical based on the critical development/media theory I have become familiar with. I have begun to understand the complexities of putting critical theory to use, and how much easier it is to write about ideas in an academic setting in comparison to implementing them. If you are interested Good Evidence our homepage is  www.goodevidence.com.

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Some of the terms used to view my blog…

Naked African Kids? African Tribes Naked? :S

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