Binyavanga Wainaina —
The Ethics of Aid: One Kenyan's Perspective

We explore the complex ethics of global aid with a young writer from Kenya, Binyavanga Wainaina. He is among a rising generation of African voices who bring a cautionary perspective to the morality and efficacy behind many Western initiatives to abolish poverty and speed development in Africa.

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is the founding editor of Kwani? literary journal and the director of Bard College's Chinua Achebe Center for African Languages and Literature.

Pertinent Posts

A provocative post about the nature of development.

About the Image

A former Bute chief instructs aid workers about the many uses of local trees, including toothbrushes, ink, and pens. Here he demonstrates how children are taught the Qur'an by drawing it on a slate.

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Reflections

Energized by the topic of african aid. Have downloaded Mr. Wainaina's interview. Will also be reading Dark Star Safari. Our family worked doing development work in Kyrgyzstan for 9 years, so it's a topic i've thought a lot about. Recently attended Willow Creek's Leadership Summit where we heard from Jessica Jackley of Kiva, and Andrew Rugasira, founder of Good African coffee. Both had empowering, life-giving views of how to 'help' Africa help itself. I believe both their interviews/talks are available on Willow Creek church's Leadership Summit website. Love your show, blog, et. al.!

I found this interview and topic to be provacative. As the director of a program that seeks to help young students consider others dignity as well as their own, I am contemplating how to reconcile Binyavanga Wainaina's comments with our Western desire to "do good." I have many more questions than anwers. How should young Western students, just beginnning to see a world beyond their own needs, view the many less fortunate people of the world? Is there a place for extending the hand of friendship to achieve a better life for all? How does one "do good" with dignity? Have we, as Western "do gooders" cultivated a culture of expectation of "doing for" rather than "doing with" our African neighbors? Our school went to Ghana to establish a partnership with a small school in Accra. We naively wanted to have a "partnership" where our students exchanged stories with their counterparts in Ghana of their respective cultures. The school needed help with computers to facilitate this exchange so we helped. Then there was a request for providing soccer uniforms. The director of the school said to us, " We know you want our culture and what we need is uniforms." This partnership has not been sustained. We obviously had very different expectations. If our young people are to become compassionate citizens of the world who may choose to work on solutions to the many challenges that developing countries face, what is a dignified course of action? Is there a place for compassionate, yet sustaining aid?

I was one of those who was critical of your interview with the religious leaders who "discovered" the problems of Africa and today was redemption day. I was delighted to listen to your interview with Binyavanga Wainaina- a noble, articulate, nuanced intellectual who is passionate about the future of his native Kenya and the rest of Africa. He represented the complexities of donor aid in a way that questioned the motives of those who go there to "save us" all. I hope they get a chance to listen to your interview.

I found the segment on Binyavanga Wainaina so refreshing. It was such a story of hope. Having heard his interview, I no longer look on war and tragedy as a complete loss. Maybe for something good to grow, one must first get rid of what doesn't work. Maybe that is what war, and turmoil do. I am a strong advocate of peace and abhor war and violence esp. when kids are involved but now, through his lens, I can see how it may end up producing some good.

Dear Krista and SOF staff, thank you so much for your show and your series on the ethics of aid. I have several different comments. I am highly interested in this subject for a number of reasons. My family is Nigerian American and we operate a clinic in our village in Nigeria and are exploring ways to open small businesses there that benefit the community. Secondly, I am studying for an MBA in international economic development at Eastern University. Thirdly, I work for World Vision International, a faith-based international NGO with which you’re probably familiar.

You said you would like listeners to provide suggestions for future shows. If you still are looking for people to interview, may I suggest professors from my MBA program and/or some of my colleagues from World Vision International. Eastern University has the best (and one of extremely few) faith-based graduate programs in development. In our classes we discuss exactly the types of things that you are discussing on your show. The professors are people who have been involved in grassroots faith-based development initiatives for years (such as liberation theology movements, etc). The students, including myself, are the types that you described in your show as the new generation of entrepreneurs. We see the problems that emerged from the saviour-mentality of previous generations of development workers, and we are looking at new ways to learn from and empower local communities. In the Christian development field, we call this “mutual transformation” – the indigenous person knows t he most about his/her reality, and we can all learn something from one another. The biblical model for this is the incarnation of Christ. Christ came to this earth to have relationship with humanity, honour people, put himself below and serve people. As development workers of faith, we believe in having the same “incarnational” life and work that always lives with, honours, learns from and involves others. Students in my MBA program are from all over the world (the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia).

In World Vision, I work for a department called “Christian Commitments.” My department is charged with responsibility for the faith-related work of World Vision, including local and international church partnerships and interfaith relations. We have a number of directors who have been in the development field for years. I can provide contact info if you are interesting in interviewing anyone. I also know you are doing stories on Islam. We have a director of Interfaith Relations who is a Syrian Christian and well-know author. He could comment on cross-religious collaboration in development work, if you are interested. I remember the comment in your show about how so much “development” or aid work is willy nilly. I appreciate World Vision’s development model, because we attempt to hire and train local staff, stay involved in communities over the long-haul, create sustainable projects, and train local people to ultimately hand projects off fully to the community. Furthermore, WV attempts to engage in comprehensive global but contextualized strategy so that the work is not willy nilly, but instead involves local communities and leads to sustainable and permanent social change.

I have one final comment about your guest’s idea that national intelligentsia should be invited in to be involved in development projects. I absolutely agree with this in theory. However many of my Nigerian, Kenyan and other friends find that so much of the national leadership is corrupt. As your guest put it, “the people who stayed had to become hustlers to survive.” My parents were honest people, and they left Nigeria because there was no way to live honestly in their country. I don’t completely blame the hustlers, but now many people want to go back and open businesses and make a change, but we feel like we can’t because corruption will destroy all our attempts. This is not just the sentiment of my family but of most of the Africans I discuss this with. One of my classmates said, “If a politician tries to be honest and benefit the people they will just be killed,” and she was not exaggerating in that comment. We know they are not interesting in benefiting the community and nation, but only in helping themselves and their family. So what is your response to this reality? How can we involve local leadership when the vast majority of them are untrustworthy?

Thank you so much for your attention.

This morning as we listening to the show I thought it would be appropriate to share a two part video on a water project going on in Kenya. My son Kyle interviewed Fr. Mark Stang who was recently with a delegation to Homa Bay Kenya from the St. Cloud Diocese. Kyle produced this video for a project he did for the Youth in Theology and Ministry program which is sponspored by the School of Theology at St. John's University.

The video describes a grass roots program here in the St. Cloud Diocese. Feel free to use it in any way you see fit

Mr. Wainaina's comments about the negative and neo-colonialish effects of aid, public and private, should not just be viewed as an African issue but as an across the board human issue. Parties, governments, individuals, etc., that, however well meaning, try to "help" others with social programs, healthcare programs, financial programs usually end up creating costly messes for all. The primary need of people is the ability to control their own lives and solve their problems themselves. That, by the way, is a primary base for most forms of faith in the world. In fact it is the very basis of faith, that is what faith is. It is great for other people to help if they are able, when they are asked by another individual for help. But as Mr. Wainaina eluded, help and good intentions often become dictatorial. Let's look around at our efforts around the world and at home and see if we aren't trying to help too much.

It was wonderful to hear such an articulate voice for a mindset that doesn't just affect Africa or aid organizations. I think it speaks to how we treat everyone that we consider to be less fortunate than ourselves. In Canada I've witnessed many nonsensical programs aimed at helping people with disabilities or facing some kind of crisis. I have been at the receiving end of some of them too! Most of these programs do not consider the input of people receiving services, and therefore do not really address their needs, or develop their potential. And because the needs are not addressed they get worse, and another program is invented, and so it goes. We waste so many resources and lives.

I trained to be a social worker. I didn't practice in the field for long because I realized it was going to be very difficult to actually offer real help. I could have made a nice living, but I started to feel like it would have been on the backs of the people I was supposed to help. I think most thoughtful social workers wrestle with this dilemma and I am not criticizing anyone who makes a different decision. But I couldn't do it.

What this story has done though is made me realize that I need to be more vocal in criticisms of the system. I am not a member of a political party, or a special interest group. I have nothing to lose.

The ethics of aid is a sensitive subject for many people. My view is that each person has the human right to equal access to basic health care. I was not aware of this hospital sitting unused in the "middle of nowhere" of Africa before reading your posting. I did not listen to this story on the speaking of faith website, but your posting caught my attention. Was there a reason why the German funding for the hospital stopped? Was this a short term plan or research project of some sort? It seems silly to me and a waste of resources to build such a building and then abandon it after so few years of use. Through your story it seems as though there are people within the communities willing to provide the labor to run the hospital and to learn how to educate others within the community. How frustrating when the labor in available and the facility is available but the funding is barren. It is through postings such as this story on speakingoffaith.com, that the information is spread throughout the world, and hopefully there will be a silver lining to this situation. The need for basic health care to the communities within Africa that need it so desperately. It is like you said in the beginning "teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

There is a Kenyan custom of abandoning houses after the owner dies. The head of the household in the rural parts of Keny is supposed to build his own house for his family. The male children when they become adults are supposed to continue the tradition. When the elder father and mother die it is acceptable for the grandchildren to live in the house. If they do not move in, the house is allow to decay. The source of this information is Kenyan ex-pats.

Is it me or does it feel like the is using the same words and themes in her introduction that Binyavanga mocks in "How Not to Write About Africa."

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