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Maya Angelou and Chinua Achebe: Warfare Through Writing

“We live in a world which often feels like it is dictated by stereotypes; we open the papers and find the media, particularly Western Media continues to define people and places. One has to ask ‘Who creates us?’ If we look at the African continent we see a rhetoric continuously reinforced of war, famine and corruption, while for example in the UK our school history textbooks suggest that many of us did not exist before colonialism. From standards of beauty to global development, it is as if our aspirations, self worth and history run the risk of being dictated by outsiders.

Countering this was part of Achebe’s unspoken war on a global society which till this day is dominated by the words, experiences and voices of a select few. He was determined to challenge the status quo which was formed of foreigners writing “Africa” from the walls of their subjectivity; to play his part in a movement which would challenge the stereotypes and racism found in the representation of the ‘colonised.’ Perhaps one of his most famous quotes on this matter is “I would be quite satisfied if my novels did no more than teach my readers that their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.”

I read an amazing article by Samira Sawlani on the writing of Maya Angelou and Chinua Achebe the other day. Link here.

The article: Maya Angelou and Chinua Achebe: Warfare Through Writing was brilliantly written and these two paragraphs in particular struck me as being poignant (and one of the main reasons for my blog) so I thought I’d share them with you. I’d really recommend reading the full article if you get the chance.

Family Planning: The Rights of Women and Girls

As I mentioned in my last post, last week (21st May) I was invited by the Guardian Development Professional Network to a panel discussion Family Planning: The Rights of Women and Girls in London with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, DFID, International Planned Parenthood Foundation (IPPF) and Save the Children.

Speaking on the panel were Melinda Gates Co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Tewodros Melesse, Director General of IPPF, Catherine Ojo, Midwife and Chief Nursing Officer at a Teaching Hospital in Nigeria and Justine Greening, Secretary of State for International Development in the UK.

I wanted to write a longer post about the event with some of my thoughts about the discussion, but unfortunately I have run out of time! Instead of not saying anything at all, I wanted to link to the highlights article published by the Guardian (read it here) which also includes a video of the event:

You can also check out my Twitter feed @devtruths and the hashtag #WomenandGirls for live tweeting throughout the event and for some of my thoughts at the time.

Overall it was a very interesting and informative event, it was good to see issues such as family planning, female genital mutilation (FGM) and early enforced marriages being give such high profile and, for me, it was particularly good to hear the perspective of a man (Tewodros) and a midwife who deals regularly with these topics (Catherine).

The one thing I did notice throughout the discussion was often language inferring ownership of these issues by Justine and Melinda which struck me as quite paternalistic. I appreciate that the rights of women and girls is an international issue (I am also personally strongly against FGM and enforced marriages) and that healthcare knowledge should be shared, but the talk focussed on developing countries but centred on what ‘we’ (UK/US) are going to do about it:

Justine Greening: “We need to keep fighting this battle and certainly the UK will play our role in making sure that we are part of one of those countries that adds to the momentum and supports the countries around the world who are working so hard on this.”

Natasha Kaplinsky to Justine Greening: “What commitment can you make to making sure that the women that I met in India and all those like her have birth attendance?…Will there at least be a commitment from the (UK) government?”

NK to JG: “What we’re talking about now is overcoming practices and traditions that are entrenched in different societies. How possible is to overturn those?”

Melinda Gates: “When I see the progress that has been made because of the commitment by the UK government, the governments of Europe and the African governments of their own budgets these days, we’re making huge progress with development…”

MG: “We can start to start to look at that future now for Africa”

MG: “We have to look at how societies moved forward and how we got change in our own and take some of that to these places so they can learn as quickly…”

ETC ETC

As usual, thoughts very welcome. Am I being over sensitive to the language used or am I right in thinking the conversation was too focussed on what the ‘West’ is doing about these issues?

Aside

A question for Justine Greening, Melinda Gates, Tewodros Melesse and Justin Forsyth

I received an email last week from the Guardian Development Professionals Network inviting me to submit a question to a panel of speakers taking part in a discussion on the rights of women and girls. The event is hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and Save the Children.

This is what I submitted:

“I feel that a lot of development dialogue perpetuates unfair stereotypes of developing countries and does not give fair representation of their citizens (the discourse focuses disproportionately on poverty, suffering, corruption, war etc and treats the people involved as a collective, homogeneous group and thus dehumanizes). Do you agree with this and if so do you also agree this is damaging? What can be done to stop this?”

The speakers at the event include:

  • The UK’s Secretary of State for International Development, Justine Greening
  • Co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates
  • CEO of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Tewodros Melesse
  • CEO of Save the Children, Justin Forsyth

The event takes place on Wednesday in London and will focus on the steps towards improving the lives of women and girls around the world, through family planning, ending female genital mutilation, child marriage and infant mortality.

I doubt that this is a question that will get asked, but I will be interested to hear the responses if it does.

What do you think of my question? What would you have asked instead?

 

This post is long overdue – why #’we’shouldn’tbringbackyourgirls

I started writing this post weeks ago and got caught up in a million different things so am only just uploading it today, so I apologise. I wanted to write about the Boko Haram kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls last month and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign that has been trending worldwide on Twitter.

I’ll assume that you know that on 15 April this year, 200 girls were kidnapped from the school dormitories in Chibok, the northeastern part of Nigeria by Boko Haram, a militant Islamist organisation. On 4 May, it was reported a further eight girls were kidnapped.

Translating into English as “Western education is a sin”, Boko Haram wishes to halt the educational progress of schoolchildren.

Since these events, I have watched with interest as a social media campaign that began in Nigeria spread across the globe calling on Nigerian (initially) and then global leaders to #BringBackOurGirls. Although I desperately hope for these girls to be returned to safety, I have not felt as a ‘Westerner’ that I should be supporting this campaign by joining in the rallying cries on the internet.

Thanks to thousands of Nigerians, this social media campaign brought to light a serious incident in Nigeria that may not have got the attention it deserves in the West : although it was immediately reported in Nigerian and other international press, in the US, CNN admitted to minimising the story’s importance by claiming that “In Nigeria, the mass abduction of schoolgirls isn’t shocking” – there are no words.

I am fully supportive of Nigerians taking to social media to express their concern for the kidnapped schoolgirls and their calls to the Nigerian Government to resolve the situation. I am also supportive of the international community’s rallying behind Nigeria and demonstrating their solidarity with the families and friends of the kidnapped girls.

Unfortunately, however, I am concerned about the meaning that the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls conveys when it falls into Western hands.

I have seen many articles online that argue that the use of #BringBackOurGirls and “international outrage has increasingly mounted, which has forced Nigerian officials to do more in their handling of the crisis.” But, due to the international political power structures that exist and white supremacist system that we live in, I have to question whether the Western appropriation of this hashtag is doing more harm than good.

Janell Hobson, in her article Have you “Seen” the kidnapped girls of Nigeria? asks:

“As we raise more awareness about the situation in Nigeria, what are the demands that we’re making? Are we simply going to expect U.S. military intervention or aid in intelligence and counter-terrorism? How will we place gender and its intersections with race and class at the center of our analyses? Will we frame this as another “black pathology” story of U.S. “benevolence” intervening on African/Third World “incompetence” or “corruption”? This narrative is not helpful, especially when it comes from U.S./Westerners who couldn’t even begin to point out the northeastern region of Nigeria on a map. Will we also frame this as another “save the black and brown girls from the scary black and brown men” story? Such framing is also not helpful, since it flattens the complexities of how local and global forces mobilize capitalist struggles over oil, economic disparities, religious extremism and worldwide misogyny to reinforce the devalued labor and images of women and girls—especially in a globalizing world that has shifted so many cultural, political, economic and social structures. Against this gendered lens, racial hierarchies determine which women and girls matter. How our media and popular culture frame these stories determine whether they get taken seriously at all, or if they will even be “more seen.””

Jamoke Balogun raises a similar point when she says in her article Dear Americans, Your Hashtags Won’t #BringBackOurGirls. You Might Actually Be Making Things Worse.

“Simple question. Are you Nigerian? Do you have constitutional rights accorded to Nigerians to participate in their democratic process? If not, I have news you. You can’t do anything about the girls missing in Nigeria. You can’t. Your insistence on urging American power, specifically American military power, to address this issue will ultimately hurt the people of Nigeria.”

She goes on to explain that although she is glad that people care about the abducted girls and are spreading “awareness”, she argues that using the hashtag is championing military intervention and putting pressure on Western powers (the American government in particular), to get involved in African affairs. To Balogun, this means that “you become a complicit participant in a military expansionist agenda on the continent of Africa.”

Balogun suggests that the Western use of the hashtag gives the military legitimacy to encroach and grow their military presence in Africa and gives examples of how AFRICOM (Unites States Africa Command), the military body responsible for overseeing US military operations across Africa to advance U.S. national security interests, has expanded its role in Africa in recent years, boosted by the #KONY2012 campaign. The list of countries that American troops entered in 2013 is a long one.

I know that many Americans, and indeed Westerners, will be shouting at their screens at the moment that they are “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” when it comes to situations like this, and will also be quick to distance themselves from the decisions made by Western governments on their behalf. I also know that the primary concern is to bring back the girls from Boko Haram, and many would argue that this should be done by any means necessary, including Western intervention.

In another world; with another power structure where the playing field is level, where the US isn’t the global hegemonic power sent to ‘save’ Nigeria, where white supremacy isn’t the order of the day, where Nigeria and other African nations have an equal standing in world affairs, where it can be guaranteed that the US ‘assisting’ another country is wanted, consented to, temporary and can be reciprocated; calling on them to #bringbackourgirls might be less damaging, or, more likely, unnecessary. However, we in the West need to realise that, not only do Western military interventions have a destabilising effect in some countries (Balogun cites examples here and here), the involvement of the US government and military undermines democracy in Nigeria and, as Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole put it, will only lead to more militarism, less oversight, and less democracy.

The military personnel sent to #bringbackourgirls will never leave, not really. The opportunity to ‘rescue’ the girls will be seen as an open invitation to roam Africa under the pretence of ‘assistance’ for years to come, just as it did when they went looking for Kony.

Balogun concludes her article by saying:

“It was Nigerians who took their good for nothing President to task and challenged him to address the plight of the missing girls. It is in their hands to seek justice for these girls and to ensure that the Nigerian government is held accountable. Your emphasis on U.S. action does more harm to the people you are supposedly trying to help and it only expands and sustain U.S. military might.

If you must do something, learn more about the amazing activists and journalists like this one, this one, and this one just to name a few, who have risked arrests and their lives as they challenge the Nigerian government to do better for its people within the democratic process.  If you must tweet, tweet to support and embolden them, don’t direct your calls to action to the United States government who seeks to only embolden American militarism. Don’t join the American government and military in co-opting this movement started and sustained by Nigerians.”

As usual, I would like to hear your thoughts on this blog post and my arguments, and, as usual I don’t pretend to be an expert on everything – I’m only human. Please do call me up on things I’ve said that you disagree with or if you think I’ve got it wrong!

Why I’m not “Living Below the Line”

This week, if you have the slightest interest in international development and live in the Western Hemisphere, it’s likely that you’ll have been bombarded with people tweeting/blogging/facebooking/instagramming photos of lentils and noodles as they undertake the Live Below the LineChallenge’, where they live on £1/$1.50 of food per day for five days.

I’m going to put my hands up right now and admit that in 2012 I undertook this ‘challenge’ for a month and last year again for five days. This year, however, I am not taking part because I’ve woken up and realised just how bad this campaign really is… for a number of reasons:

My main issue with the campaign is the same issue I take with other Western international development campaigns – it’s (inadvertently) patronising. However well-intentioned, the campaign has, for many, turned into a funpersonalchallengetoseewhetherIcansurviveonapoundaday… LBTL is also, along with many other Western fundraising campaigns/NGOs/development organisations, designed to make the participant feel good about what they’re doing; believe that they are a little closer to understanding what extreme poverty looks/feels like and that they are playing an active role in eradicating poverty and going some way to ‘saving’ those who live in it (a) I know I am making sweeping statements here and b) these are the issues that I have with the majority of Western-led development orgs and campaigns). The harsh reality is that Live Below the Line is a shallow campaign built for social media – it’s the McDonald’s of international development campaigning and fundraising – fast, palatable, gimmicky and marketable, but damaging. This is yet another campaign that groups people living in extreme poverty as a homogeneous group with the same problems and issues and values, it labels them as poor, helpless and ineffective agents to be acted upon, saved and…not much else, thus dehumanizing. This campaign is not educating, it’s eliding the facts of poverty, reinforcing stereotypes and obscuring the real challenges being faced and the truth about the people facing them.

My second issue with the campaign is that, by focussing on extreme poverty purely in economic terms and drawing ‘poverty lines’, the campaign manages to trivialise the many complexities of poverty and what it will actually take to alleviate it. I appreciate that, for a campaign like this to be successful in getting people’s attention, it needs to focus on a single issue and that the Global Poverty Project and Live Below the Line do allude to some of these complexities if you dig a little deeper into the campaign. However, the general public face of the campaign, that has an awareness raising objective alongside fundraising targets, focuses on income (and the food that it can buy) alone, which is an inadequate measure of poverty –  and very shortsighted. As Ben Coleridge wrote in his blog post: “People’s capacity to translate income into wellbeing differs according to cultural, social and political contexts. While people’s incomes might set them above the determined ‘poverty line’, without access to a functioning justice system for example, their capacity to translate income into real opportunity is severely reduced.” The income focus of the campaign also ignores complexities such as the intra-household distribution of the wellbeing derived from income (gender is a huge factor here) and the fact that most people living on £1 a day spend only half of this daily income on food.

My third issue with the campaign is pretty much this:

Live Below the Line makes its first mistake in using the word “live.” To live, at least in my mind, means to really experience something, to understand an existence in such a way that you could describe its nooks and crannies with your eyes closed. Not spending a lot of money on food isn’t “living” below the line, because regardless of how you eat, chances are your home is still stocked with Ikea stuff, a comfortable bed, hot water, air conditioning, digital cable, etc. People forced to spend no more than $1.50 a day on food are also forced to live with violence, exposure to the elements, disease, and war. Saying you’re living like them because you’ve decided to give up fancy sandwiches for five days is like someone saying they can empathize with Nelson Mandela because they spent a night in the drunk tank.”

and this:

“Poverty is not a f**king game.

Poverty does not have rules except you have to do it again tomorrow. Poverty is not new or exciting. Poverty is not neatly quarantined to one area of your life. Poverty is not something you can control with neatly defined parameters. And it does not come with prizes.”

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on the Live Below the Line campaign, whether you’re in favour of it/have undertaken it or not. Am I being too harsh or too kind?