04 January 2007

Oprah's School for Girls

I have to say something about this. Lisa and Twisty and I'm sure others out there in the computer have said a lot already. Here's my take on it, which must be taken with a grain of salt since my understanding of the project is that Oprah is building some ultra-expensive, luxurious school for 150 hand-picked, underprivileged South African girls. The school includes a beauty salon (?!). I hope I have my facts correct.

I have many, many strong opinions about development work and outside intervention in Third World countries. Most of these opinions were formed by my experience in the Peace Corps. My bottom line is that the "help" Oprah is providing is no better and no worse than the aid I provided as a Peace Corps volunteer or the aid that basically any benevolent giver provides.

I taught English in Central Africa. Over the course of my service, I taught about 700 kids. I like to think I was pretty good at it. On that level, the kids I taught benefited from my service. English is a part of their school curriculum, and if I hadn't been there, they would not have had an English teacher at all. On that basic level, I helped 700 or so kids. I also did tutoring for exams, helped paint murals in graffiti-laden classrooms, and developed culturally-relevant teaching materials.

When I want to feel good about my service, I focus on that: I helped 700 kids. The truth is, though, that I did all of those kids some harm, too. I fostered deeply ingrained stereotypes about Americans being wealthy benefactors who exist to save the disadvantaged from their plight. No matter how many times I told my students that I was a volunteer--a person who worked for no pay--they steadfastedly refused to believe me. They, along with all the other people in the town in which I lived, saw me and the other American volunteers and immediately asked, "What are you going to give me? Do you have money for me?" This is not due to inherent greed but rather to the fact that their perception is that all Americans are fabulously wealthy (a perception they get from TV, which all of them have seen, and frankly, compared to many of them, we are fabulously wealthy, but that's a different story) and that in their experience with aid work, people (Americans or others) come and give them something and leave. Which, when you add it all up, is basically what I did. I came, I taught, I left. And I taught them ENGLISH. Other than needing to know it for exams (which most of them were destined to fail anyway, not because they were not smart but because they exams were designed for French students living in France, not African students living in Africa, oh horrors of post-Colonialism), English is not a skill that students living in Makokou, Gabon really need to live productive, fulfilling lives.

I'm trying to remember that saying about giving someone a fish and he'll have a meal but teach him how to fish and he'll be able to feed his family . . . something like that . . . anyone know that one? Anyways, Peace Corps, along with many other development agencies, purport to be built on the principle that they only provide aid that people want, need, ask for, and can sustain on their own. They don't come in and build wells and head home, leaving behind untrained villagers and no spare parts. No, no, Peace Corps volunteers (and other aid workers) come in and hold village meetings and teach people how to respond their needs in locally sustainable ways.

Well, not really. All aid workers, peace corps and otherwise, have an agenda. For example, the Peace Corps pisiculture volunteers are there to help people see the genius of building and maintaining fish ponds. The agroforestry volunteers are there to encourage people to plant crops! In orderly rows! To sell at the market! Us teachers are there to teach, but to teach using a methodology that we are made to believe during our training is superior to the methodology that the African teachers use. Other aid workers are influenced by the organizations they work for, by the donors/sponsors who give them money, and by their own personal values.

I don't think that this makes all aid bad. I just think it's important to recognize that all aid comes at a cost and that it all comes with expectations. And it's often condescending. Even if the aid that is given is locally sustainable and driven by the needs and desires of those receiving it, it's still provided (in most cases) by the benevolent hand of the Western world. And inevitably it only touches the very few that need it. You help who you can, in the way that you can. After years of thinking about this issue, that's the best I can do. You need to recognize your own limits, realize you can't save the world, help those you can, and not purport to do more than that or to be a saviour. Peace Corps shattered my idealism, and I don't consider that a bad thing.

As for Oprah, her school for girls is no different. She's going to help a tiny percentage of girls in South Africa who need help. There is a part of me who thinks that is wonderful for those girls, even if I have reservations about how they were chosen and the Western values that it appears they will be taught at this school. There is certainly a condescending aftertaste there that comes from the idea that these girls are being "saved" by going to this school. Saved from what, exactly? Saved how? The reality is that even Oprah cannot save Africa. Frankly, even if Oprah gave up everything she had, she couldn't save every single girl in South Africa. She has made a choice to "save" 150 of them. Would it be better if instead she'd given 150,000 of them their school fees? Or if she'd given a million of them shoes? To be honest, I don't think so. None of that would change what South Africa will be in ten years. None of it. It would still be a nice thing to do. But any of it is just a Band-Aid.

I may have a lot of opinions, but I have no answers. I don't know how to provide better, more lasting, more affirming aid to Africa or any other part of the world. I think about it all the time. If I had any ideas, I'd work in international aid. The reason I don't is because I got sickened by the do-good, holier-than-thou attitude I often experienced among aid workers. Not all, of course, but a lot. There are no easy answers, and I've got a lot more to say about this. More to come.


Rachel said...

That was a great post. Thank you for sharing that with us.

I think "condescending" is pretty accurate. I've worked in do-gooder jobs off-and-on since I graduated from college. The problem is that often it becomes more about the giver feeling good than about actually helping the recipients. And I know I'm not immune, either. On the flip side, I learned *a lot* from my students, probably more than they learned from me. And many of the students from my last job went on to jobs helping other people in their communities, so maybe it wasn't all for nothing.

The thing that bothered me the most about the Oprah project is that it seemed to be all about Oprah, down to her having a big "O" embroidered on each pillow. Ugh.

Snickollet said...

Rachel, like you, I learned a ton from my students and from my Peace Corps experience as a whole. In fact, what I often tell prospective volunteers is that if the enter their service expecting to learn more about themselves than they ever thought possible, they will not leave disappointed. If they enter thinking that they are going to change/save the world, they are going to be sorely disappointed.

In that last paragraph about Oprah and her money, what I'm ultimately trying to say and didn't get out is that throwing money at the problems of Africa is not going to fix them no matter how much money you throw, how you throw it, and who you throw it to. I'm not sure that came across.

BethGo said...

I don't have any answers when it comes to Africa. The entire situation leaves me speechless and feeling helpless.
Thank you for providing your perspective on this.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your perspective. It was very interesting.

Personally, I was very put off by what Oprah said about how she was tired of trying to help inner city kids in America because they all want things like Ipods, not uniforms for school (which is what she says African children ask for.)

Oprah is as much a part of the problem of materialism as anyone else. Her "Favorite Things" are often shockingly expensive and almost always not nessicities. The woman has multiple houses, etc.

It's very frustrating, to me, to watch a very wealthy woman criticize children for the very things she promotes.

Sorry to go off topic. Again, thank you for your pov.


Cathy said...

Your post and the comments have been very informative and interesting to me. I, too, am concerned about imposing Western/American values (and not the good ones) on these kids. That is not to say that what she is doing is not good, I just wonder if it was a good solution. I, too, think of it as a band aid.
Thank you for this post.

Rev Dr Mom said...

Thanks for a very thought provoking post.

Yankee, Transferred said...

Great post. You, Lisa, and Twisty all gave great points of view.
Hope you're feeling better.

Lisa said...

Hi, thanks for this interesting perspective. I still haven't fully formed in my head what I was trying to say in my post (I apparently went and spouted off anyway...) I don't know the answers, but was just trying to articulate the icky feeling I had about it.

I had applied for the peace corps many years ago (denied because of medical), and I was all idealistic about it then. I think maybe part of the answer may lie in giving Americans the experience to be in other cultures and see how they live and that they are real people. Experiences like the peace corps may be more for us than for them--at least sometimes it seems that way. But anyway, your perspective is really interesting and I'd like to read more about it sometime.

An "O" on their pillows? Heh. I hadn't heard that one!