Thursday, 20 November 2008

White Charity = white trash?

Commit Berlin, a young German NGO, has organised a series of lectures on eurocentrism in development co-operation (EZ = Eurozentrismus, full programme on com-mit.org/berlin). Last night's session focused on racism in German NGO fundraising; it was animated by Timo Kiesel, whose main theses can be found on whitecharity.de. Timo presented posters and billboards, chiefly by major Christian NGOs, and collected students' comments. None of the examples shown challenged common stereotypes about Africa; the anonymous children and women depicted suggested a reality in which they were helpless victims or, at most, quaint schoolgirls and farmers in folkloristic outfits and florid tropical settings. It was pointed out that, unlike fashion models, the individuals shown probably had no clue of the existence of these photographs and were not paid for posing. You hardly ever see an African man on such a poster - most likely that would perturb the viewer's "masculine", i.e. active, dominant regard on "feminine" Africans waiting for help or pursuing innocuous activities in a lush décor.

A passionate discussion broke out when someone suggested it was legitimate for NGOs to satisfy clichés that prompt the viewer to donate money. At some point it sounded like development NGOs were the source of all evil, side by side with transnational corporations, sub-prime mortgage lenders, arms producers, military dictatorships and conservative governments...

I have reserves about Timo's thesis that development co-operation is fundamentally based on racism - the UN Declaration of the Right to Development (1982) or the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), among other international instruments which posit development as a basic human right, were adopted by the UN General Assembly, which can hardly be seen as the voice of white suprematism. I'd rather say that development co-operation is just as racist, sexist, neo-liberal as the societies that produce it, on all sides of the development game. If those playing the game are not aware of their responsibility and potential to influence the societies we live in, then we're in trouble indeed. But since development co-operation is not about to disappear - remember, people throughout the world have struggled to establish development as a human right - let's try to do it as intelligently as we can, aware and critical of our own attitudes and behaviour.

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