Friday, April 13, 2007

Open Letter to an NGO Worker

I have the unpleasant task of addressing foreigners who work for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Africa in this posting. I have had numerous pleasant experiences with this group as they are often a source of information, they have helped me out with rides to remote regions and in the process they have become some of my friends. Regretfully, however it will appear as if I am biting the hand that helps with the following words.

I beg of any and all people who come from Europe, Asia and the Americas and come to Africa to engage in development work to tone down the lifestyle that you bring to Africa. Aside from tourists, NGO workers are the only contact many Africans have with outsiders and overwhelmingly the image that they receive is that everyone in the “West” is rich, happy and content with the food products, the services and the latest technologies and gadgets. I am not going to ignore the fact that the material wealth of other regions of the world compared to Africa is unquestionably biased and unequal, but the way in which strangers live in Africa is often seen as superior, while anything that is local is perceived as inferior. That is a great error as there are food products, services and information that are just as good if not better then their equivalents in the West.

Africans, however, are neglecting or rejecting their local resources, services and information to pursue the lifestyle that foreigners bring with them, a lifestyle that they perceive all citizens have in France, the United States, Germany, Japan or other industrialized countries. As an example, I met a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea-Conakry working in the health sector back in 2001 who was frustrated that local people preferred buying expensive, imported powdered milk instead of using inexpensive local milk that came from goats and cows. I understood her frustration as I had tasted the dairy products in the countryside. It was without a doubt, the best milk and yoghurt I ever ate.

In terms of toning down one’s lifestyle, I do expect that foreigners maintain routines that keep them healthy and productive. If more foreigners however were walking or taking public transportation instead of driving on their motorbikes or cars into the communities where they are working; if Africans saw us drinking and eating local foods that are known to be safe instead of drinking bottled imported sodas and packaged processed foods and if we greeted in local languages instead of a reliance on French, English and Portuguese all the time, in my opinion this could increase the success stories in Africa contrary to the many misunderstandings that pass in development work.

There are obstacles and challenges to what I am proposing, that is clear. But there has to be a start and I suggest to anyone starting a career or long stint in Africa to reflect on how their actions and choices are perceived by local peoples. Trying to break the perception that the “West” is superior is a futile fight in my own experience but the decisions I make regarding transportation, alimentation, lodging and social interaction with Africans are a compromise between maintaining my health and well-being and using local products, services and information. Yes, the “West” has the latest technologies but there are lessons on both sides of the fence that need to be transmitted by both Africans and strangers in development work.