Friday, March 7, 2008

Oxfamming the Whole Black World

Oxfamming the Whole Black World

I wanted to introduce you to Binyavanga Wainaina, one of the best columnists on Mail and Guardian. I thought a bit about a recent article "Oxfamming the Whole Black World", and thought this the perfect opportunity to speak about the topic he introduces. I copy the article in its entirety at the end of my comments.

Wainaina captures the absurdity of the current "development" paradigm, and more broadly, the attitude of the "developed" world towards the "developing" world. There's a tension. The absurd imposition described is a valid way of life in the developed world--empowerment, becoming carbon neutral, eating organic food. Moreover, would it not be absurdly condescending to say that priorities should be different because people are "different" in the economic south? No, it would not be.

What is problematic about development is that we believe we have answers (that we are the mommy, the carer, you are my pet) and the agenda. We believe it passionately, to the point that we have to take a gulp and think of ourselves as extremely understanding before trying to think we don't. And there are things that are working much better in the west and the north than in the south and east. We cannot get our heads around this being historically rooted inequality and injustice, pure and simple. It's really hard to imagine a completely different way (communism hasn't worked). So we keep on with our crazy park ideas, our crazy orphanages, our crazy definitions.

It is not to say that having parks, eating organic food, etc, doesn't make a difference where we are in the economic north (and the economic north certainly includes many South Africans). I believe learning to decrease our impact also leads to a 200% more profound understanding of how gigantic our impact is, and how much it takes to keep us warm and well-fed. And it actually decreases our impact. It means we may engage with people (more and less powerful) in less confusing and absurd ways. That's how I reconcile my priorities living here in Boston.


“Among white Americans the average IQ, as of a decade or so ago, was 103. Among Asian-Americans it was 106. Among Jewish Americans it was 113. Among Latino Americans it was 89. Among African-Americans it was 85. Around the world studies find the same general pattern: whites 100, East Asians 106, sub-Saharan Africans 70.” -- “Created Equal” by William Saletan in Slate magazine

Hello kitty kitty kitty … Are you an orphan? Are you Sudanese? Chadian? Are you a sub-Saharan African suffering from mild mental retardation? Are you an African woman suffering from the African male? Would you like an Oxfam biscuit? Organic antiretrovirals? Have you been raped? You might not know it, but you are an orphan, a refugee. Can we fly 103 of you to France to be loved? We can breastfeed you. We can make you a Darfur orphan. Even if you are not. If you are black and under 10 years old, please come talk to us.
Come kitty kitty.

We can save you from yourself. We can save ourselves from our terrible selves. Help us to Oxfam the whole black world, to make it a better place.

We want to empower you. No, your mother cannot do this. Your government cannot do this. Time cannot do this. Evolution, it seems, cannot do this. Education cannot do this. Your IQ cannot do this.

No one can empower you except us. And if you don’t listen to us, our bad people, those RepublicanToryChineseOilConcessioningIanSmithing racists will come to get you: your choice is our compassionate breast or their market forces.

In our loving breast you will be a vegan. We will eliminate your carbon footprint, your testosterone, your addiction to religions. You will be kept away from bad bad people, like ALL MEN.

We don’t live in harmony with nature and we are farting greenhouse gases all over the place. We will teach you how to live without farting greenhouse gases.

We will shut all your industries and build our organic Jeffery Sachs-designed school inside your national parks, where you can commune with nature, grow ecologically friendly crops, trade fairly with eco-tourists and receive visitors from the United Nations every month who will clap when you dance.

Instead of sweatshops, we will have Ubuntu shops where you can arrive in biodegradable loincloths to make bone jewellery for caring people who earn $1million a year, live in San Francisco or Cape Town and feel bad about this. In our future world you will have three balanced meals a day.

In the afternoons Jeffery Sachs will come and show the boys how to build a gender-friendly communal anti-poverty village where all base human emotions -- lust, greed and competition -- will be sustainably developed out of your heads, along with truly dangerous ideas such as rebellion. After playing non-violent games (rope-skipping and hugging), you will write letters to your loving step-parents in Toronto. For an hour a day we will teach you how to make clothes, shelter and shoes out of recycled bottle tops in Ndebele colours.
We have learned from people and bonobos living in harmony in forests and deserts what your fate is and we will help you fulfil it. By the time we are done you will all be having non-sexist multiple orgasms, you will be pacifists (we make and market organic pacifiers), you will dance and make merry with stone-milled, recycled mango wines that contain herbs to make you experience sudden and overwhelming universal love.

Some of us believe that if you all abandon industries and grow gentle herbs, your IQs will increase by 30%, because you are not eating toxins. Others believe that if the high IQ of the West is unsustainable, it is important to lower the level of world IQs.
Whatever side we are on here, we think you are special. If we are chimps, you are bonobos. Chimps are violent because they are smarter than bonobos.

For those of you with crude oil, we will help you use this resource -- sustainably, mind you -- to light your eco-candles and to make locally produced hair oil. The rest of the oil is bad bad bad. Leave it alone (we’ll take it).

We will keep the Chinese out. Look how they are suffering because they abandoned Buddhism. We will allow only eco-tourists and poverty tourists in your countries.

Trust us. You can’t do it yourselves. We have dedicated our lives to you. Come kitties, come to mummy.