12 Aug

This post is no longer available on this blog.

This post is now part of J.’s book, Letters Left Unsent, available on Amazon.


37 Responses to “Caricature”

  1. Jennifer Lentfer 12 August, 2010 at 4:34 pm #

    Amen. Thanks J for attempting to call out the dehumanizing aspects of bandaid approaches to what are chronic, structural problems.

    My personal analogy is someone telling me that in order to lose weight, I must just eat less and exercise more. Well, you don’t think I know that? You don’t think that I’ve internalized every media-fueled impression of how and why it’s important to my health? When I am told that, it dismisses and negates every experience I’ve had in my life up until this moment that influences what is actually a very personal and intimate aspect of my life, taking care of one’s self.

    Yes, let’s celebrate good intentions, but let’s never pretend it is easy to help another person overcome great obstacles that only they can understand.

  2. vivmcwaters 12 August, 2010 at 4:42 pm #

    J, you have done more to educate this aid non-insider about the complexities of aid work than just about anyone else. Yet I still often find myself unable to express my thoughts and understanding to my friends without sounding slightly arrogant (and they quite rightly point out that I am not an aid specialist or professional or anything, really). So I tend not to talk about these issues – refer people who are interested to some quality blogs (yours and a few others) and leave it at that. But that’s not really good enough. I’m finding, I *want* to engage and discuss these issues. Your post today really hit the nail on the head for me – it was a real ah-ha! moment, understanding the way good intentions simply perpetuate stereotypes about poverty. *This* is something I can, and will, talk about. Thanks.

  3. stayingfortea 12 August, 2010 at 5:28 pm #


    I enjoyed and agree with both this post and the related “Elitist” post. I write a blog on good principles and practices of community-based international development. It’s less than a month old, so not much going on there yet. Part of the reason I’m doing it is that I’m in the process of writing a book tentatively titled “Staying For Tea: A Path Toward Principled Community-Based International Development”. At any rate, I’m not trying to plug anything here, I just want to ask you for some help. One of my chapters is going to address the competency issue and several other chapters still need some better examples, both good and bad, that illustrate the principles I describe. So, one of my current blog projects is to identify a handful of the worst ideas in development. This will end up being a series of maybe 5 posts, each one dedicated to analyzing a particularly bad idea – not to mock it, but to understand it from a principles perspective so that non-aid people like vivmcwaters has a clear handle to discuss the issues when they know they’re looking at a bad idea, but don’t exactly know how to articulate why they know its a bad idea.

    I’m looking into two at the moment. I think I’ll try to pursue Jason for an interview about and am talking with some water experts about the playpump. My question for you is this: in your experience what are 1-2 of the worst ideas in development that you’ve seen (recently) that may be amenable to analysis from a development principles point of view?

    Thank you in advance for your help, and if you’re too busy to respond, that’s okay, thanks for the good blogging. Keep it up.

  4. Linda Raftree 12 August, 2010 at 5:51 pm #

    Just brilliant. That’s all. Gives us all a clear anecdote to share and to use when trying to explain these things to friends, relatives, and people who ‘just want to help.’

  5. Sonja 12 August, 2010 at 7:16 pm #

    Thank you for this post. You get at everything that frustrates (actually, infuriates) me about “good intentions” and “wanting to help.” I think we tend to focus a lot on the “how”—as in how we help (good intentions are nice but don’t necessarily a good policy or project make, see: 1 million shirts) but it’s the “why” that really bothers me—why we feel compelled to help in the first place. Good intentions that are based on and perpetuate these kinds of stereotypes aren’t, in my opinion, good at all. As you say, they are, in fact, harmful. And I wish we’d say that more. I also wish I could say it as well as you do🙂

  6. jina 13 August, 2010 at 12:41 am #

    One, I’m trying to think of alternatives. You concede that sure, in all probability, they want bikes. That’s a need. The Hughses aren’t trying to end poverty. They’re trying to give bikes to people who we, based on your post and for the sake of the conversation, are assuming need bikes. I don’t get the problem.

    Or rather, I think the problem is in assuming that the Hughses, or the Post, think that bikes *solve* the poverty problem in Tanzania. Why are we all reacting like these two people suddenly went on a Jeff Sachs speaking tour?

    Two, I don’t think the Post creates a caricature of the poor. I didn’t read anything about dust-covered hungry children with flies in their eyes, did you? A problem here is that we don’t see the poor — but I’ve already written (thanks for the link btw) about why that is. It’s a function of the way a newspaper is divided and how much money it has for reporting, not the Hughses’ or the reporter’s or the Washington Post’s racial stereotyping.

    And I’m not going to assume that the Hughses have a caricatured version of the poor in their heads either — they might, but without asking them, I don’t think that’s a fair thing to assume.

    I agree with you that poverty is a structural problem. Not everyone agrees with this. I agree that helping people requires acknowledging that it is a structural problem; not everyone agrees with this, either. We seem to disagree in that I think you can disaggregate from the structure a discrete need and meet it successfully, ie, “They need a bike, and I can bring one there.”

    I love your blog, but you’re confusing two things here: you’re confusing the type of help the Hughses try to give with the kind of story that ran in the Post. You start by writing about “these kinds of projects do[ing] actual harm,” although you say this project did not actually do harm to beneficiaries. You then shift to saying the harm comes from the stories — from frames and representations.

    So what we’re really talking about is a frame, one you assume underpins most individual aid entrepreneurship.

    You have a powerful critique here of those frames and representations. But I’m struggling to understand why you think you “see poverty for what it really is” (what is that btw?) but you assume that someone who gives a bike might not. If they wanted to signal to you that they, too, saw poverty for what it really is — and assuming we can allow that you might both see something different — what should they do instead?

    I appreciate these kinds of conversations, but I also have difficulty with them. In the name of being nuanced and sophisticated and “getting it,” I worry that too often we end up implying that other people are stupid or racist. It’s hugely important to be careful about our language, to deconstruct the Western image of Africa in the media — and, by the way, in the NGO literature, where I think you’ll find far more stereotyped pictures (both “positive” and negative), literally and figuratively — and to think critically about representation. But when we sit at our keyboards and assume that people we don’t know are racists, or perpetuating racial stereotypes, and that that is in fact and ironically why they want to help, I think we need to take a step back.

    And I’ll sound like a broken record here, but this is one article by a reporter who for all we know has probably never been to Tanzania. Doesn’t mean she’s not allowed to write about a couple who did, but if we want to judge whether or not “the media” are creating racist caricatures of Africans that underpin a system of structural poverty, we should probably put a few more heavy-hitting pieces in that data set.

    • Jamuna 12 September, 2011 at 10:05 pm #

      I wholly agree with your perspective on J’s post….and i will admit, the things you pointed out escaped my attention completely. And after reading your comment I do feel it sounds more informed and detached enough to allow more thought to the matter rather than just a reaction.

    • Anonymous 2 October, 2012 at 11:03 pm #

      Just stumbled on this…a little late but as someone who is about to travel a abroud I’ve been thinking a lot about poverty vs authenticity and the blog post echoes much of my thoughts. But I do have a heard time coming to terms with those thoughts. I think you’re response is spot on in that we can posture all we want about such issues but the reality is that both structural and on the ground efforts can make positive imacts. Articles like that in the post may perpetuate racism but the actions of the hughes’, though easy to bemon

  7. heike 13 August, 2010 at 1:14 am #

    great post as usual🙂
    and it’s something we grapple with on an ongoing basis in development education / global learning (there’re so many terms!) – trying to challenge stereotypes and ingrained attitudes regarding the Global South. Problem is that most of the images and messages from aid organisations etc tend to perpetuate the idea of the Global South (Africa in particular) being poor and that poverty can be solved through money … mainly in order to raise funds but not only. Wish all these good meaning people would use their money to support work that challenges these stereotypes rather than supporting the stereotype itself …

  8. butsurely 13 August, 2010 at 5:02 am #

    Thank you for yet another interesting blog post. And please excuse my inability (due to lack of experience, not actual ability, I hope) to understand all aspects of your argument. I completely agree with your point that the perpetuation of stereotypes is a crucial issue to get to terms with. But also, if this was all poverty-reducing aid projects were expected to deal with, many of these projects (implemented by professionals and non-professionals alike) would fall victim to your criticism.

    You say this bike-provision caused Actual Harm. I see it is indeed a symptom of poverty stereotyping, and that this is problematic in itself – but does that automatically mean it inflicts Actual Harm? I would take actual harm to mean a concrete negative side-effect to the individuals and/or communities that in one way or another are affected by the project. If the guiding principal of aid is to do no harm, and the project doesn’t – then it is the motivations or assumptions that lie behind it that wrong, not the project itself. Am I wrong to think so? In other words, the exact same project could get approving nods approved by you if the necessary research/needs assessment/potential consequences were considered by knowledgeable, professional implementers? I also think you’re pushing it too far when equating poverty to racism, and hence attributing blame to people’s inability to see it for what it is – poverty is, be it absolute or relative, more than a held sentiment by its observers.

    Any help in clarifying this is much appreciated!

    • J. 19 August, 2010 at 8:04 pm #

      Sorry – I unfairly lumped you in with several others in an earlier response. A couple of points in response to your specific questions:

      – First, you mention “do no harm” – just note that the Do No Harm term/approach has a pretty specific meaning in aidspeak. It basically means that we do not introduce aid initiatives which may cause conflict or increase the potential for conflict within communities. It’s most common to employ a Do No Harm approach in situations where there are underlying rifts – often along ethnic lines – in communities where we work, frequently in post-conflict settings.

      – Second, from your comment: “I would take actual harm to mean a concrete negative side-effect to the individuals and/or communities that in one way or another are affected by the project.” Fair enough. I am using “harm” rather broadly here.

  9. Blair 13 August, 2010 at 7:35 am #

    I guess you’d call me an aid “insider.” I agree that projects like these, and certainly their representations in the press, are more about the giver than the recipient, which is always frustrating. Ditto for the whole caricatures of poverty thing.

    But still, I disagree that there’s actual harm being done here. There’s a local organization distributing bikes… being funded by this couple’s business in America… and while the demand will always outstrip supply, it sounds like they’re still supplying a ton of bikes. You could make an interesting argument on the “displacing local entrepreneurs” side, but then again, I doubt there are a lot of local businesses catering to the transport needs of villagers in that area.

    So no, of course this doesn’t address the larger structural issues of poverty or development in Tanzania. But heck, what/who does? USAID? Oxfam? Nope. And as I said, while this does contribute to the grander “feeding the deer” problem of contributing to mindsets of dependency or views of the poor as de-personalized stereotypes, try to see beyond that: you’re a kid in some village, and now you have a bike because of a bunch of muzungus, where you didn’t before. That’s sort of cool. Good for them.

  10. John 13 August, 2010 at 9:03 am #

    I tend to agree that this particular example is not all that troubling at first blush. This is not an example of the notion that western sensibilities are universal and unassailable … or is it? Lets have a look.

    The Wash Post article says; “Students were often late because they were walking distances from two to 10 miles and would arrive exhausted.”

    Were not talking about bicycles simply as toys.

    And goes on to say: “The boy met the Hugheses and Laizer in a local bike shop…”

    This indicates that bicycles are not some alien triviality being injected into the local community.

    Additionally: “They mentioned to their guide that they would like to buy a bicycle for one of the children in the village, but their guide wasn’t sure how to facilitate their request.”

    They questioned those who had some local knowledge for advice. That’s more than most do in similar circumstances. They didn’t just rush home intending to collect second hand bikes and ship them over.

    Moving on:

    “The safari, led by Overseas Adventure Travel in association with the Grand Circle Foundation, a nonprofit organization, included a stop at a school in Karatu.” and “The safari participants learned that the villagers often had only their feet for transportation — whether fetching the day’s water in the morning or walking to school… ”

    This appears to indicate that the Hughes had participated in “Poverty Tourism”. Shameful. They then followed on to partner with the Global Circle Foundation. I’m not familiar with this particular locale but I would bet that better choices exist.

    “As the safari group entered Karatu, the village’s children — more than 700 — lined the roads and sang. All the residents of village attended the presentation of the bikes on the school grounds.” This kind of thing happens all the time but it is a problem especially when used as an embellishment to an article written for a western audience. Look at all the poor kids thanking the white folks…

    “They also posed for photographs with their new bike — mementos that Naomi Hughes later gave to her donors to show how their money was used.” and “Some donors have struck up pen-pal relationships with the children.”

    This is just stupid and I’ll say no more about it.

    OK, so the crux of the matter is this: Is a 10 mile walk to school a problem that demands an immediate solution FOR THIS PARTICULAR COMMUNITY? If so, does it beg for this solution? If you look at it through foreign eyes it appears the answer is yes and yes. Therein lies the problem and the reason long standing stereotypes are… well… long standing.

  11. Lina 15 August, 2010 at 7:19 pm #

    I get your point, but I still don’t see how actual harm was done. I don’t think you really were able to show that.

    As some who is new to the NGO world, I hear a lot of veteran NGO types deriding those who aren’t as seasoned as they are, who haven’t lived in developing countries as long as they have, don’t help the way they help, who are, in a word, elitist. And this does feel a bit like that.

    Maybe the Hughes did a crappy job, but I still don’t see the harm. As someone else said, this isn’t photos of flies on the eyes of toddlers.

    Maybe explain in more detail how actual people were harmed, I’d love to know. I think situations like this may harm career aid workers more than anyone else. It’s like how professional photographers are freaking out now that everyone has digital cameras. No one likes it when others dabble in their professions, but to say that is harming the recipients is a bit much.

  12. John 16 August, 2010 at 8:21 am #

    Lina – I think the answer to your question is in these words by J. from the original post:

    “I would argue that poverty, like institutional racism, is held in place at least in part by our inability to see it for what it is. And our inability to see poverty for what it is is at least partially due to the fact that we continue to caricature the poor, rather than seeing them as real, whole, people.”

    I think a significant element of what perpetuates the stereotypes (Maybe Myth would be a better term?) of poverty is that the circumstances that people live with is confused with the people themselves. Ask yourself if the people from the community in question were real, whole, vital, and necessary participants in the “Human Community” before the Hughes become involved. Does the way the Hughes go about their activities reinforce the stereotype that they are (or were, which would be even more damaging in the sense that Bicycles complete them, as people, in some way) less than real and whole? Does their “wholeness” include contributions more substantive than the singing of traditional songs? Would the answers to those questions be different if the images of flies and toddlers (or people seeking safety on a flooded bridge in New Orleans) were not a pre-existing part of the way each of us view peoples whose circumstances differ from our own?

    The harm is indirect and diffuse. In all fairness these are challenging questions, equally applicable to the Hughes and to Rajiv Shah.

    In an effort to avoid any misunderstanding of my words, it follows that any notion of what would be an arguably desirable set circumstances for an underserved community in San Francisco would be at all applicable to any other place in the world is false. The world is not a one size fits all place. But this is a completely different set of questions and challenges than the ones J. brings forward in this post.

    • Lina 17 August, 2010 at 8:56 pm #

      I don’t buy it. We don’t have a “whole” vision of anybody, do we? Maybe the people we are closest to, but even then our personal relationship skews our vision of them.

      People perpetuating a vision of poverty that believe that poor people need bicycles isn’t any more damaging than NGOers’ vision of people who go on volunteering vacations or the vision of the Hugheses being presented in this article.

      I still don’t see the case that this harmed anybody. I can see it in some of those orphanage scams, but not here. I don’t think bicycles complete anybody as a human being (what does?) but it certainly can improve the quality of life for a lot of people, myself included. Does that harm the universe’s vision of me? I doubt it.

      At the end of the day, the people that find this most offensive are NGO workers. The same way that DJs hate mp3 mixing software, photographers hate digital cameras and that you can sell work on Flickr and writers hate that everyone blogs nowadays. We hate it when rookies get in our business, it certainly doesn’t make it as impressive when we talk about our life’s work with poverty when everyone else at the cocktail party has a story about sending bicycles to Africa and building houses in Peru.

  13. MJ 16 August, 2010 at 10:26 am #

    I really liked your elitist post, but I’m with Jina, John and Lina here. I’m not sure I quite see that much harm has been done here. Sure, aid veterans could probably have done a better job (maybe with something other than bicycles) IF they had even been motivated in the first place. (I.e. not the usual, jaded veterans.) Maybe the Hughes will graduate on to something more? We all have to start out somewhere. ( I am also inclined to believe that the small amount of good done here probably outweighs the even smaller amount of bad (perpetuation of poverty myths). Helping someone less fortunate than ourselves, if honestly and sincerely done, is a good thing.

    • John 16 August, 2010 at 12:30 pm #

      Please reread my comments before you conclude that I am in anything but total agreement with the conclusions that J. draws in his post.

      You and I come into this “profession” by similar paths. I consider myself to be a semi-professional (but I would self identify as “…the usual, jaded veterans…”, the quote your words in this particular context) 15 years on from my career change. I remain a student and am often dependent on the experts that I am surrounded by to guide me in sound decision making.

  14. stayingfortea 17 August, 2010 at 7:31 pm #

    Each year hundreds, if not thousands of short-term volunteers go to all corners of the earth to dig trenches, paint churches, construct latrines, maybe play a game of soccer, and perhaps share their version of the gospel. Each year dozens, if not scores of bloggers aim derision, destain, and disgust at them. It’s an easy group to pick on because they are so green, go with such upside notions of what they doing, and are so clearly the unsuspecting beneficiaries of the whole endeavor.

    That said, I get it. I had a friend once tell me “passion is perfected in discipline” meaning that a passion for economic justice or any other motivating passion that turns people into activists needs to be harnessed. It’s about caring enough to consider that you might cause harm if you storm in unprepared. It’s about strengthening your voice so that you can be an effective advocate, deepening your knowledge so you can be a non-trivial player, and sharpening your skill so you can be a builder of capacity in others.

    I think that if you launch into community development, humanitarian aid, environmental activism, peacemaking, or any of the other important activities that people are passionate about without investing in your own preparation, you reinforce the subtle condescending view that these activities don’t constitute real work that require real skills, professionalism, intelligence, or competence. You tacitly underline the idea that the people you serve don’t deserve the best that you or the world has to offer. You reveal your own prejudice that service is more about good intentions than effectiveness. Good intentions aren’t worth much if they bring harm to the people you intend to serve.

  15. J. 18 August, 2010 at 1:27 pm #

    Some really great comments on this post – comments, as far as I can tell, from people representing a fairly wide range of background, experience and perspective. Thank you, all, for taking the time. My brief responses (btw, don’t confuse “brief” with “terse”):

    Jennifer, Vivcmwaters, Linda, Sonja, heike, John, stayingfortea – seems we’re in basic agreement.

    butsurely, Blair, Lina – Let me ask you: what harm comes from perpetuating even seemingly benign racial stereotypes? The fact that you’re asking “what harm has been done?” is part of the harm, in my opinion. The harm done is in keeping alive the idea that no harm is done.

    MJ – You would seem to be arguing that good intentions outweigh any harm done. Also that a little harm isn’t so bad in the grand scheme of things. Sorry. We’re just going to have to agree to disagree on these two points.

    Blair – The fact that existing actors (you mentioned USAID and Oxfam as examples) fail to adequately address the structural issues of poverty doesn’t make it okay for new projects, NGOs, whatever, to intentionally not address those same structural issues.

    Jina – I’m pleased you love my blog, but I don’t agree that I’m confusing the project with the story. In my opinion those two elements are equal parts of the problem. Projects like that one get covered in stories like that one, and as a result perpetuate the notion that more projects like that one are good things to do…

    Assumptions about my assumptions: I used racism as an example to help make a point. Not at all the same thing as assuming that the Hugheses (or anyone else) is racist.

    Lina – I straight up own the fact that I’m an aid elitist. I’ve been very open about this on my blog. I am also genuinely puzzled by those who seem bent on pointing out the failures of humanitarian aid and development as we currently know them (failures that I also openly acknowledge), and then in the same breath arguing that mucking around by non-professionals doesn’t really cause much harm.

    • MJ 19 August, 2010 at 12:12 am #

      J you’ve slightly misconstrued my post. I don’t think good intentions alone cancel out harm, e.g. the 1 million t-shirts idea deserved pretty much all the criticism it got. However, from my experience, bicycles are one of those pretty good investments for rural areas with potential multiplier effects. It also seems like the Hughes’ project was grounded in a real need that they identified. We don’t necessarily need the whole panoply of development planning to identify and act upon a basic need. So, even if the Hughes’ fund-raising efforts may have perpetuated myths of poverty, I believe the benefits to the people who got the bicycles almost certainly outweighs that fact. Something I suspect the beneficiaries might agree on! Elitism is all very well – you wouldn’t hire a development worker as a lawyer, so why the other way round? – but it can lead to misplaced arrogance.

      • J. 19 August, 2010 at 7:53 pm #

        “So, even if the Hughes’ fund-raising efforts may have perpetuated myths of poverty, I believe the benefits to the people who got the bicycles almost certainly outweighs that fact. Something I suspect the beneficiaries might agree on!”

        One community benefited from the Hugheses generosity. One community. But what about those communities elsewhere who are the recipients of another project by another well-meaning couple, perhaps encouraged by the story of the Hugheses to “just go and help”? What if that project is awful? What if that project really does cause objectively verifiable and specific harm? Would those beneficiaries agree that the benefit outweigh harm?

        I respect your right to believe what you choose. But in this case, I still disagree with you.

  16. Lina 19 August, 2010 at 2:11 am #

    So rather than back up your argument about how/whether harm as been done, you’ll just write me off as being unable to understand? And in fact harming people because I don’t?

    This seems like a good example of Jina’s point of (you) implying that other people are racist and stupid.

    And we weren’t talking about racial stereotypes, we were talking about poverty stereotypes, as I understood it. And perhaps it is a stereotype that the very poor can benefit from reliable transportation, but I still fail to see how that stereotype harms them.

    • J. 19 August, 2010 at 7:16 pm #

      When bad aid gets cheered on and made to seem like a “good thing”, it makes more people want to do it, more people want to support it, and overall it gets harder to push back on. A range of stereotypes get created, reinforced: who the poor are, what they need, what constitutes “help”, what constitutes “good aid”, the notion that helping the poor is simple and easy. Every person who reads the story about the Hugheses and thinks, “oh, what nice people… look at them making the world a better place…” is now one more person who at least has to be convinced that actually, no – that’s not the way you do it. Bad aid is fun. You get adventure, you gain social capital, sometimes you even get tax credit. As a result, not only does proportion of bad aid in the world go up and the proportion of good aid in the world go down, but it becomes harder to slow or reverse that momentum.

      More bad aid + less good aid = harm

      I don’t know how to make it clearer than that.

  17. maureen 19 August, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    I think the basic question that some commenters here are wondering about J.’s opinion on is this: Is giving bicycles to people in the developing world inherently bad?

    Sorry if I’m speaking for others, but I myself am wondering about your opinions here.

    • J. 19 August, 2010 at 7:44 pm #

      Maureen – yeah, I totally get that. I see several in this comments thread who seem to be stuck on the issue of whether or not, as you say, giving bicycles to people in the developing world is inherently bad. I’ll make it easy on you (all): no, it’s not.

      Admittedly, there is a very wide range of “bad aid” projects out there, and giving bikes to kids in Tanzania pretty middle-of-the-road. And while I cannot flowchart a straight line between “giving away bicycles” and some specific Tanzanian kid being indentured in a sweatshop, missing the opportunity for higher education, or being the victim of domestic violence as a result of being a bicycle recipient, neither can I agree that on balance this project + newspaper coverage of it did not cause harm.

      The harm in my mind is in the reality that bad aid begets more bad aid. Maybe the Hugheses, by some stroke of blind luck got it right. There’s not enough information in the story to make that call, in my opinion. But they’ve just now made it more difficult for those of us who don’t have the luxury of getting occasionally lucky with a one-off distribution project to do our jobs.

  18. Lina 19 August, 2010 at 8:11 pm #

    I think I get your argument here–the Hugheses may have not actually caused harm, per se, but their actions might potentially cause others to do something that would be detrimental to the community.

    I think you made a lot of broad and slightly offensive generalizations earlier and it’s only now that you are coming around to much softer, and more reasonable point.

  19. MJ 20 August, 2010 at 12:23 am #

    If I understand you right, your beef is not so much with the Hughes – bicycle giving is not that bad albeit limited in scope (what aid project isn’t?) – but with the marketing and/or the press coverage. Jina I think dealt very well with the press coverage angle, so I won’t say any more on that.

    I’ve had a quick traipse through the Hughes’ facebook page ( and it looks to be usual kind of stuff. I can see how you might object to this, it massively simplifies poverty, whilst all those smiling kids with their bicycles somewhat disguises the likely reality e.g. bikes being taken over by the kids fathers / sold / etc (sorry cannot now find the post that originally pointed this out). Part of your frustration, I guess, is that this is the standard way this kind of thing is done. People back in US/Europe/other rich places tend to respond to this kind of marketing.

    The ‘harm’, if I am interpreting you right, is that those kindly souls in Virginia who supported PpP now might think they’ve done their bit, when perhaps writing to their senator over inappropriate rules for USAID or unjust US trade rules would in the long term do more to address the big issues. Avaaz / Enough v. PpP and the like. (I’m guessing here, you may well have different priorities.)

    Whatever your priorities, in this I think you have a point, but the question is, given the world already operates like this, at the margin is the small amount of ‘harm’ done in the US outweighed by the small amount of good that you have admitted is being achieved in Tanzania. This is necessarily a subjective evaluation. Personally, I am a pragmatist, and accord more weight to the specific good than the unquantifiable harm, especially at the margin. I think we need to acknowledge that this kind of perception of poverty exists, will continue to exist and be perpetuated by projects like the Hughes’ (because it is shown to be effective in raising money), and work out what we can do from within this context. Criticising the Hughes and others doesn’t seem to me to be the most useful thing we can do.

    • J. 20 August, 2010 at 9:03 am #

      MJ – thanks for this comment. You’re right: we’re in fairly subjective territory here. That said, a few thoughts.

      First, I’ll direct you back to the first section of this post where I believe I make clear that my point is not to hammer away at the Hugheses. They’re but one example among a myriad. They/they’re bicycle project represent a larger problem, and that larger problem is the point of the post, despite this comments thread having been derailed over the question of whether bicycles specifically do or do not cause harm…

      Second, and I am not trying to sound harsh, it feels like there is a great deal of emotional energy around wanting to find a way to justify that this bicycle project “isn’t really all that bad.” And I confess, even as one who also considers himself a pragmatist, that I struggle to understand that perspective. In other areas of life we’re quick to say “do it right or don’t do it.” Why do we have such a hard time doing so when it comes to international relief and development?

      • Andy James 22 August, 2010 at 11:11 am #

        If it helps to know this, I was at first deeply thrown by the artwork of the plantation caricature. You really undercut your point with this.

        After a little reading, I think I understand your point. We do tend to believe that we well-off Westerners don’t have to do very much; just a flick of our wrists, a little bit out of the wallet, and the poor are much better off. Just a simple idea and a little work can make a big difference! Actually, we do have to do much, very much, and it would be better to emphasize what very hard work we have to undertake if we’re serious about redressing the world’s balances. Instead of simple ideas (which are often simple-minded) and a little work, let’s try sustained dedication and follow-through.

        If this is your point, it’s a good one. It may even connect to insulting views of “others” around the world.

        But that artwork is so nasty, and so off this point. You’re summoning powerful emotions that you haven’t earned. You really do suggest, visually, that this is how the Hughes, the Washington Post and all the eco-tourists view the people of Africa. I think you’re arguing (visually) in bad faith in this way.

  20. jcrcarter 23 August, 2010 at 5:47 am #

    Wait – who’s perpetuating stereotypes here? The Hugheses, who bought bikes for kids they see as “needy” or “ambitious”, or you, who see them as “black”? And who’s disseminating offensive racial caricatures?

  21. Blair 24 August, 2010 at 9:12 am #

    I’m just getting back to this discussion. Sounds like a great debate.

    J, it sounds like we’re in broad agreement. I, too, am unapologetically an “elitist” about aid. This is a specialized profession that requires the careful attention of experienced, well-trained people, and amateur projects like the Hughes’ are to be discouraged.

    I also agree that this indirectly feeds the notion that “helping” is easy, or quick, or feasible by well-intentioned tourists who parachute into a poor country.

    But let’s be realistic. Does anyone think that the public at large will ever become educated enough on the subject of aid to truly dispel these myths, or gain a more holistic understanding of what poverty means? I do not. While media coverage of this story may marginally reinforce those misconceptions, I think its impact will be largely moot. The entire effects of this debacle – the good and bad, in TZ and Virginia – will be at the margins.

    And regarding the structural causes of poverty, I am wholly unconvinced that *anyone* ever really addresses those issues in any semblance of an effective way. No one. Period. Anywhere (that I am aware of). Some might try, but I think that at that “structural” level, you’re talking about such gargantuan proportions of social change that no agency, aid program, grant or what have you would ever have the resources to do it credibly, nor have the legal or institutional permission to do so. And even if they did, would it work? Eh. I don’t know.

    So I’m reluctant to blame the Hugheses for not doing so either.

  22. Observer 31 October, 2010 at 11:59 pm #

    This is a crappy ‘debate’. J is absolutely 100% right.

    The problem is, aid “professionals” don’t take the logic one step further and imagine how much better things would be if their own industry had disbanded 50 years ago.


  1. How Matters / Our Most Important Job - 13 August, 2010

    […] TalesfromtheHood yesterday gave an eloquent explanation of the inherent harm embedded in any “perpetuation of stereotypes and assumptions about whom the poor are, what they need, and how they should be helped.” […]

  2. Africans are … « Bottom Up Thinking - 24 August, 2010

    […] just the ones that popped up first on my search just now. I recently also got involved with the debate about the impact of such generalisations with J over at Tales from the Hood. The complaints […]

  3. A Moderate Elitist | Staying for Tea - 25 August, 2010

    […] are some very active ongoing conversations around aid elitism at Tales From the Hood here and here, and at viewfromthecave here and here.  It’s had some spillover with the conversation about […]

  4. Informations intéressantes sur l’aide au développement | Blogueuse sur le Net - 24 October, 2010

    […] et de la misère pour lever des fonds ou encore «poverty porn», le rôle essentiel des femmes, le respect dû aux personnes vulnérables et les problèmes de l’implication des multinationales ou des célébrités. Ce surplus cognitif […]

Pearls of wisdom

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: