World View: By Providing Food That Averts a Famine, Charities Protect Dictators from the People's Wrath. So Is It Best to Cut out the Middleman and Help Individual Africans Directly?

By Wrong, Michela | New Statesman (1996), May 24, 2004 | Go to article overview

World View: By Providing Food That Averts a Famine, Charities Protect Dictators from the People's Wrath. So Is It Best to Cut out the Middleman and Help Individual Africans Directly?


Wrong, Michela, New Statesman (1996)


It arrives every couple of months, an airmail letter, fragile as tissue paper, with exotic stamp and hesitantly spelt address. The notepaper is decorated with roses and lace. The message, with its juxtaposition of politeness and passion, always slightly unsettles me, although by now I should know better. "Dear Mum," the letter usually starts, although sometimes it begins "My darling". "I hope you are well. I am studying hard. But oh, the longing ..."

I have met her only once, my pining correspondent. She is Semret, a 19-year-old Eritrean student with glowing eyes, so petite she made me feel a hulking giant. Our relationship is entirely platonic, and very pragmatic. I send the books she needs for her university course; she confirms receipt. But nuance is the hardest thing to grasp when using a foreign language. Hence, I assume, the "life feels empty without you" and "I miss you too much" that top and tail her replies. I have a sneaky suspicion Semret is copying these sign-offs from the dusty Valentine's Day cards sold by newsagents in Asmara. But I am not about to correct her. I can remember the exasperation I felt when my French schoolteacher insisted that "Bons baisers" ("Love and kisses")--the only salutation I could spell with confidence--was not the right way to close a job application. It seemed a very tedious detail.

Semret represents a new stage in my attempt to spread--at however paltry a level--my western privileges around the developing world. Any expatriate who has lived in Africa faces the same challenge. Every day, you are confronted by deprivation so extreme that you will be for ever able to stride past London's rough sleepers without feeling a twinge of guilt. You want to help, but how?

My generosity towards the Oxfams and Concerns of this world dried up early on. It wasn't because I suspected them of corruption. Nor because I feared most of my donations would be spent on white men's salaries, though that is still often the case. The longer I spent in Africa, the more convinced I became that these charities were destroying the thing they professed to want: accountable government. Provide the water that prevents a cholera outbreak, the food that averts a famine, and you protect a regime from the people's wrath, allowing a brutal dictator to live another day.

So what was left? Most of us expatriates reverted to direct aid. Cut out the middleman and help those you've come into contact with: former secretaries, cleaners, cooks and drivers. It's small stuff, but through the extended family, an entire community may benefit as a result. …

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