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The challenges of running an NGO are legion. How do you raise enough money to cover the staff’s hefty salaries? What acronym for the next funding application is the most meme-worthy? Which buzzwords will trigger the appropriate mix of earnestness, compassion and flattered ego? But such dilemmas fortunately have a solution: a wine-besotted lunch over a game of Scrabble to brainstorm.
A new Kenyan mockumentary called “The Samaritans" is providing satirical insights into the lint-filled belly button of NGO work. The comedy, a Kenyan version of “The Office,” is about Aid for Aid, a (somewhat) fictitious org that “does nothing.”
The parody depicts an international charity that is divorced from its mission of “saving Africa” and preoccupied with less noble pursuits. Producers of “The Samaritans” hope to show Kenya on a lighter note, without the “slums and guns.” But the series has helped reignite a humorous self-reflection on the conduct of Western NGOs’ work in African countries.
Some aid workers feel that assistance to the very poor is not a laughing matter. They worry that increased scrutiny will discourage people from donating, thereby feeding compassion fatigue. I couldn’t disagree more. We need a fundamental shift toward nuanced, yet frank, discussion on development aid and an evolution of the Western mindset on charity work. Humor can help accomplish this.
Sometimes the best comedy is often reality itself. The blog “I went to Africa and all I got were these pictures” is full of patronizing quotes and pictures from Westerners who visited Africa for the first time. This is the kind of scapegoat one would end up with by taking pictures with orphans and publishing them on social media under such hashtags as #loveorphans.
But why are so many people making fun of aid and Western do-gooders? The notion of helping a distant other, particularly Africans, is deeply embedded in many Western cultures. The ethnic conflicts that followed decolonization, such as the Biafran war in the 1960s and the Ethiopian famine in the ’80s, combined with the media’s lopsided approach to covering Africa, left an irreversible impression on the psyche of Western audiences. Paternalistic narratives of Africa as a starving, hopeless and most recently rising continent continue to reinforce its stereotypical perception as an economic backwater replete with tribal conflicts and always in need of Western intervention. For charities, the images of starving and lonely African children established the norm for NGO fundraising.
As a result, many in the West connect Africa to suffering and negative images. These impressions persist even when the situation on the ground improves. Fighting poverty is a good thing, but to act on stereotypes is not, and leads to superficial understanding of the needs of those we try to help. An act of goodness is precious, but it is important to have the skills and critical understanding of what one can accomplish.
Dumping unwanted Western goods such as used designer suits, old political campaign orsports team T-shirts and broken computers on African countries does little more than create garbage piles and environmental problems and tamper with the local market. In addition, it makes the self-congratulatory act of giving more important than the need of those on the receiving end.
Laughter has the power to puncture our savior mentality and create new approaches to conversation about development.
Comedy is already turning the tables on how we see development in Africa, shifting the focus from the less privileged to the privileged, shedding light on the role of the “white-savior industrial complex.” Used effectively, satire can shift some attention from “doing good” to “doing less harm” and help highlight other pertinent development issues such as illegitimate foreign debt, workers’ rights, weapons exports, trade imbalance and patent issues. Critical satire is a great repellent for harmful attitudes and ideas.
There is also compassion fatigue: People have become more and more desensitized to negative imagery, and as a result many feel apathy or think that the world is in worse shape than it actually is. Humor can act as an excellent palate cleanser, opening minds to new ways of thinking about problems.
Finally, comedy is a great mechanism for spreading good ideas. A study by Karen Nelson-Field, a senior researcher at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, shows that people are 30 percent more likely to share things that make them feel a strong positive emotion. This is why humor is winning over pity online.
The aid world is a complicated “circus,” some of it good, some of it bad, but critique and satire are necessary to make it better. What is important is not writing off all aid as bad because of the mistakes of some NGOs. Laughter has the power to puncture our savior mentality and create new approaches to conversation about development. The rise of satire about aid may soon force those who lack proper context and nuance to start listening.