Through The Looking Glass: Looks Good, Feels Good, But Is it Good?
This is a think piece. I don't presume to be right; however as always, I'm offering up my perspective for consideration. I'll get right to it.
We need to critically look at international development and interventions made by foreigners in African and other nations with large black and brown populations. But for the purpose of this blog, I'm a keeping the focus on Africa.
One of the things I noticed when founding Soul and Story and looking for potential partners is that many collectives (organizations that work with locals to produce goods) were founded and run by non people of color from the West.
You have mainly white Europeans who have organized collectives of workers who are black Africans who produce items such as baskets, jewelry and clothing. The Africans are the workers with some in management positions but the COO,CEO's and leaders are all white Europeans. This gave me pause. I'm not saying these people have bad intent, and I realize that it feels good to do good. But as always, I'm looking under the hood and challenging traditional concepts of philanthropy. I believe that social impact done right is empowering the people and communities to be self-sufficient. I don't believe that foreign intervention is a long-term strategy but perhaps a short-term boost. The more I looked, the more I found the exact same thing. Collectives with black workers, white owners.
Everything held constant and assuming all parties have noble intent, the question still remains: why aren't African's spread-heading these initiatives? why are these initiatives founded and run by white non-Africans? It appears to mirror colonization by another name, not saying that it is, but I can't deny the historical context.
Having the opportunity to spend 5 weeks in Nairobi, Kenya doing social impact work, I was able to understand a bit better about what is occurring and why. I'll warn you now, the answers I found does not make the problem better, just more complex. But of course, if we don't get to the root cause(s) we can never identify, understand and try to fix what is occurring.
Now of course, some may not see a problem with this. But I beg to differ. These collectives may and do help, but they don't provide access and opportuntiy at the highest levels. A basket weaver will only be able to weave so many baskets in her lifetime. What other skills is she taught, where is there room for her to become COO if these top positions are reserved for non-African White people? So what is happening here? Well, this is what I found:
1. Funding: Funding for programs and initiatives such as these are by and large funded by White Europeans and Americans. These funders tend to fund initiatives where the people who lead it looks like them. In other words, whites giving money to whites. It is even for businesses founded and run by blacks better for them to have a "white face", to help ensure that they will receive funds. This is not a hard concept to grasp as black people in the U.S. and other parts of the world are familiar with the idea of having a white proxy. In a world where white supremacy is real, sometimes it is just easier....even though it is wrong. 2. Talent/Resources: I believe that people know what is needed to help their communities, they know but they may need a bit of help to execute. Regions/communities that are poor simply don't have the talent or resources to organize themselves in a way that will give them the ability to compete on the global stage. Yes, perhaps they can achieve local success on their own, but without the tools and resources to scale there is only but so much that can be done. Sometimes what is needed is more than what is available, and expertise, funds and other resources need to be brought in externally.
What can not be missed is the fact that white Europeans (and Americans too) are using their time and money to help support local communities in Africa, whereas the Afrcans themselves are unable to do it (again, I'm not saying they can't, just making a point about these collectives where non-African whites organize and run them). When you understand that nearly every African country has been a colony, and that the colonies are faring much worse economically than their colonizer (and when you understand that riches of the West came at the expense of those they colonized). It feels to me as a large reason why intervention is needed in the first place is because of how severely these countries have been robbed. It feels like someone stealing from me and then feeding me out of their hand a bit of what they took...from me...
Listen, I know most of these people don't mean harm. But that is not the point. We really need to change the way things are done. We need to be about the business of providing a hand up and then getting out of the way and allow people to be self-sustaining.
I fear that the goal of some of these collectives is to keep people dependent, to give them just enough for them to remain participants but not enough for them to truly be free. This is the pain point for me. This is the issue that I have.
If we are doing development and social impact right our goal should always be to move out of the way and let people grow, prosper and succeed without us.
We need new ways of thinking and we need new ways of doing. As Audre Lorde said, "the masters tools will never dismantle the masters house".
I want us to no longer be deceived under the premise of doing good. When doing good is just a mask for keeping people under your thumb. When doing good is just a ego stroke a check of the box. When doing good has long-term negative affects on the communities that are targeted.
I keep saying it, those of us doing this work need to examine our own hearts and come face to face with our truth. We need to tame our egos and confront our biases and beliefs. Without it, we are simply doing the same damage under a different name. If these collectives have no long term plan to hand over the reigns to those they are seeking to help, them how much good are they really trying to do?
Soul and Story works directly with producers and select collectives. We're going to do social impact right, even if takes longer, even if it is harder, even if that means we forfeit some profits. That's okay, we are committed to doing better than good.