Does international development still have a problem with racism?

Nikki van der Gaag remembers the history of race and representation discussions in the development sector and asks, what has really changed?

A small-scale farm worker pictured in Tanzania. 
(Alun McDonald/Oxfam)

Sabrina Dhowre Elba, a Canadian model and UN goodwill ambassador for the International Fund for Agricultural Development Fund, said in an interview recently ‘I remember as a kid, seeing Unicef adverts, a picture of the face of a hungry African child, thinking how awful it must be there. That face needs to be changed. That face doesn’t represent the billions of strong Africans, of strong women and girls whose voices aren’t heard.’

Reading her words reminded me vividly of the findings from ‘Images of Africa’, an international research project in six African and six European countries that I was involved in during the late 1980s.

It aimed to examine the way that Africa was understood in the wake of the 1983-1985 famine in Ethiopia, which killed a million people and led to unprecedented fundraising efforts in the Global North, but which also helped to cement the idea of Africa as ‘one huge begging bowl’, as one of the researchers on the project put it.

They were scathing about the lack of historical, political and social context that was given, and the lack of acknowledgment that the roots of the famine lay in colonial and neocolonial practices

As we debate the nature of aid and development work in our increasingly interdependent world, it becomes ever-clearer that the racism in the Global North that has surfaced so brutally this year is linked to a long history of the way in which white people see Black, Indigenous and people of colour, in particular Africans and those of African descent.

The report of our first meeting of African consultants in Accra in 1987 noted that ‘It is a fact that external emergency aid has saved many thousands of lives. While recognizing this, we also have to refuse and fight against the images of Africans as not capable of dealing with their own problems. We have to show concretely what has been done by Africans and to provide a counter-image of Africa.’

The African researchers in the project did not recognize themselves or their countries in the way the Global North portrayed them. They were scathing about the lack of historical, political and social context that was given, and the lack of acknowledgment that the roots of the famine lay in colonial and neocolonial practices.

They noted that the crisis could have been prevented if the political will to do so had kicked in early enough. They pointed out that ‘Global problems of power, control over means of production, inequitable distribution of resources, are split artificially into a distorted image of Africa as an isolated hungry continent on the one hand, and an equally distorted mirror image of Europe as a generous benefactor on the other.’

The report from Ethiopia drove the point home: ‘After all, what can beat in terms of spectacle the scene of thousands of people holding on to their lives by a very precarious margin, obviously doomed to extinction, only to be saved miraculously by planeloads of food brought by generous donors only to be filmed among the starving multitudes, thereby driving home the point that, were it not for their benevolent intervention, those thousands would have perished?’

As I read these reports again (written on typewriters and photocopied for uploading to the internet many years later at a 2005 conference called ‘Imaging Famine’), I have to ask myself: how much has changed? Could the African summary report from the project have been written today?

Certainly much of their overall analysis of European attitudes to the African continent still rings true in 2020. They continue: ‘If Africa is newsworthy only insofar as it concerns Europe; if its public and political vitality is reduced to coups d’état, to external cooperation activities or to the holding of political summits; if only Westerners and expatriates are invited to talk about Africa, the image we shall have …will be further and further away from the real Africa, a continent brimming with life and culture.’

Sadly, the answer is probably yes. Sabrina Dhowre Elba says much the same thing: ‘People work harder in Africa than perhaps anywhere, yet there’s this misconception that is engrained because of the way the continent has been presented. All those appeals for cash with struggling Africans…’

Our attitudes to aid are still shaped not only by our colonial past, but by our racist present

There is and was another dimension too. In the report I wrote with Cathy Nash (now Midwinter) for the UK research, we analyzed the media, and INGO fundraising materials, but we also talked to children in schools. The images of Africa were overwhelmingly of ‘Africa starving’ or ‘Africa primitive’, reflecting the way that the media had largely covered the famine.

We noted that: ‘The nature of the response… took little account of an Africa beyond the famine, of Africa as Africans themselves see it.’

This image of Africa had repercussions in our own society, because it was also an image that had implications for all people of colour: ‘This failure to address of the complex relationship of historical, social, political and economic factors has had serious implications both towards Africa - and towards Britain’s own black populations.’

The link between aid, development and racism in our own countries was something that was called out often when I worked for Oxfam a few years later as part of its then large development education team, working in UK schools. It is, thankfully, resurfacing as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the debates following the murder of George Floyd by police in the US.

White people working in the development sector in Europe need to be clear that our attitudes to aid are still shaped not only by our colonial past, but by our racist present. That racism sits not only within ourselves and our organizations, but in the very structures and institutions that run our society. And that remains as true today as it was then, even if some of the language has changed.

To return to Sabrina Dhowre Elba’s comments, for this to shift, we need to change our perceptions of Africa, and indeed all of what we now call the ‘Global South’ and our relationship to it.

We have a responsibility to make the link to the racism that exists both in ourselves and in our institutions. We must have those often-difficult discussions on race and power, justice and gender that underpin international development. More than 30 years on, surely it is more than time for change?

Nikki van der Gaag is a former co-editor at New Internationalist and a gender and development consultant. Follow her @NikkivanderGaag