There’s a moment in Mallence Bart Williams’s TEDx talk that really struck me – it begins at minute 4:30:
So how does the West ensure that the free aid keeps coming? By systemically destabilizing the wealthiest African nations and their systems. And all that backed by huge PR campaigns leaving the entire world under the impression that Africa is poor and dying and merely surviving on the mercy of the west.
Well done Oxfam, UNICEF, Red Cross, Live Aid, and all the other organizations that continuously run multi-million dollar advertisement campaigns depicting charity porn to sustain that image of Africa globally. Ad campaigns paid for by innocent people under the impression to help with their donations.
While one hand gives under the flashing lights of cameras, the other takes in the shadows.
That’s a doozy. I don’t have direct experience with the aid work Mallence is describing, but the general point strikes a chord with my own work as an activist.
The idea I want to pull out is that even those with the best intentions can do harm. I like to think the Oxfams of the world are, by and large, filled with good-natured people. Which leads to the conundrum: is it possible that folks who think they’re doing good are actually perpetuating the very thing they’re fighting against?
The answer is certainly yes – I have no doubt I’m guilty of this at times as a climate activist. The environmental movement has a long history of marginalizing minorities and local concerns, a legacy many are actively trying to address. I try to do my part, but sometimes wonder what systems of oppression I’m holding up that will only become obvious in hindsight.
And therein lies the problem. Most non-sociopaths are relatively rational people making the best decisions available to them. Even the Wall Street titans, oil tycoons, and political elite are acting from their own internal sense of what’s ‘right.’
And that’s what makes these large global problems particularly difficult to address. People are really good at rationalizing their own behavior, which creates blind spots.
When countries in Africa are kept poor, it’s not because there was a meeting held to decide which countries need to be destabilized, it’s because hundreds of individual decisions have led to a destabilized Africa.
We need to refine our analysis, as Mallence has done, to recognize that change isn’t going to come about through a single political leader ‘waking up and doing the right thing,’ or the traditional ‘speaking truth to power.’
True change is going to take decades of sustained work shifting ourselves, our culture, so that all those individual decisions being made that end up destabilizing Africa or the climate or leading to war aren’t made in the first place.
We need to do the hard reflective work of recognizing we can be complicit in exacerbating the very things we fight against. And we need to empower communities so that they are in control of their own destinies.
This is a much harder type of activism, but it’s the only way we’ll create lasting change.