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The sinister side of African Aid

  • 23 November 2012

A few years ago, my brother and I took a trip through western Sumatra. It was my first time in a developing country, and the island we spent most of our time had been devastated by an earthquake a few years before.

Like many places that have been traumatised by disaster, corruption and poverty, it was ripe with contradictions: happy, clever kids, wild chooks, a joyful church scene, but also the desperate hustle for paid work in a cash economy, and for the basics like sanitation and protection against disease.

On one ride through the rice paddies, we drove past a farmhouse where barefoot children spilled out of the doorway and onto the yard. As they called out 'Mister! Mister!' and I waved at them, I had a flashback of an image I had seen as a very young child.

When I was in primary school, a person from an aid agency came to our assembly to let us know that children like us overseas were dying, but that we could help them if we wanted to.

I took home some literature, presumably designed to collect donations from people who actually had the money, the parents. But the picture on the pamphlet disturbed me: a small child, about my own age, sitting on the stoop of a simple wooden house with a dirt floor, beside an infant.

The kids weren't injured or obviously starving, but they looked upset, and their sad story was printed next to them. I felt devastated: I cried at how hopeless their lives were, and how useless I was at saving them.

This was the point: to make Australian kids aware of their economic privilege and of the existence of aid programs. But I wonder if the influence of such material was more sinister, if it made us believe in the weakness of others and in our relative strength and moral purpose.

In Sumatra, it could have been these same kids: the simple house, the parents out working, the material indications of poverty. Yet they were jubilant children, playing and posturing like kids do. Although some people in Sumatra benefit from various kinds of aid, they do not spend their lives staring gloomily down the lens of western sympathy. They have lives, too.

A new online campaign, which is ruthless against the moral vanity of aid culture, directly addresses these issues of representation. Radi-Aid is an African aid drive to save Norway from its bitter