By Dan Pearson, Director of International Programs
What’s the best gift for a continent? May 25 is Africa Day, the annual commemoration of the founding of the Organization of African Unity. But don’t worry if you haven’t gotten Africa a gift yet. The day hasn’t really caught on in the U.S. like other celebrations of international origin such as St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo, but that may change.
The mental maps of many Americans are pretty blank when it comes to Africa, and the topics we associate with the continent are mostly negative: slavery, poverty, starvation, dictators and war. It’s true that Africa’s history is deeply marked by suffering, mostly at the hands of outsiders but also self-inflicted. Modern Africa is changing rapidly, and it is time we all took note.
Africa is steadily becoming more stable and prosperous. While acts of terrorism may grab headlines around the world, the deeper story is that peaceful transitions of leadership have become the norm in many African countries. Real income is up 30 percent across the continent in the past 10 years. And the economic growth many African nations are experiencing is increasingly structural and internal, which means that it is more likely to be sustainable. Primary school enrollment rates have increased more than 30 percent, and secondary school enrollment rates have increased by more than 50 percent since 2000. Despite outdated images of a continent in disarray, Africa today is a continent on the move.
Sounds like maybe Africa is doing so well we don’t need to consider a gift? Not quite. While many parts of the continent are headed in a positive direction, there is still much work to be done. Millions of Africans remain trapped in cycles of poverty, corruption and violence. So let’s still go shopping, but let’s select our gift carefully.
The world doesn’t have a great track record of giving good gifts to Africa. For many years, the aid we gave through our governments was tied to public policies that proved disastrous, and much of the money we gave through nongovernmental organizations had a limited impact because it was based on donor priorities rather than local ideas. We sent food when there was a famine, and we sent our used clothes. But flooding local markets with foreign goods sometimes destroyed local farmers and clothing industries, leaving communities even more vulnerable after we moved on to the next catastrophe.
Bad gifts and ineffective aid both result from our tendency to talk when we should be listening. Our eagerness to help and our overconfidence in the power of our goodness blind us to our ignorance about what will really help. We forget, or perhaps never believed, that the poor are the real experts on poverty. Throughout history and across cultures, we have underestimated the skills and character of people who are economically poor. This is our most glaring failure when it comes to eradicating poverty.
Several years ago, Unbound started asking how our sponsorship program would be different if we consciously rejected the myth that the poor can’t be trusted with their own development. What if we put the resources of the organization at the disposal of the marginalized families we seek to serve? Answering that question has caused us to fundamentally reorient our work and redefine what it means to sponsor a child.
Each family’s needs and interests are unique, so we decided to abandon mass programs in favor of a radically personalized approach, a micro-program. A sponsor is a caring investor who funds a single micro-program designed by an individual family to meet the goals they define. The outcomes of these micro-programs demonstrate that poor families are capable innovators who are educating their children and creating small businesses despite great odds.
The best way to demonstrate respect for a family whose voice has been silenced is investing in the goals they articulate. Families in Africa and around the world are demonstrating their ability to seize opportunities. Their success should cause us to replace outdated notions of assistance based on pity with a new vision of partnerships based on hope.
This Africa Day let’s get behind progress on the African continent with our financial support. But let’s first take a moment to listen carefully to what Africans say they want. Then let’s follow their lead. Because the gift Africa deserves most is the gift of respect.