When Doing Good Goes Wrong: One Woman’s Story about White Saviorism in Africa

Dear Readers–

I’m writing to ask you all a huge favor. But first, bear with me. I have to first tell you a story.

Meet Lindiwe

During my 6-month Africans for Africa project last year, I met Lindiwe (not a real name), a retired, 60-something year old African woman. Lindiwe had been running an orphanage out of her own home for the past 10 years. The government had agreed to offer her some money every month to care for up to two children, but the amount was no where near what she needed to care for the twenty-seven she’d taken in.

You see, most of their parents had passed away from HIV/AIDS, or abandoned them when they moved away to find more work. Lindiwe could barely afford to replace their tattered clothes, let alone their school uniforms. If not for the charity of a wholesale grocery store that donated canned goods each month, Lindiwe wouldn’t have been able to feed the orphans in her care at all.

But, one day, a young white American couple (that had been backpacking through the region) arrived at her doorstep, and offered to help Lindiwe raise money from abroad. The plan was to set up a non-profit in the U.S. to serve as a fiscal sponsor (i.e. serve as an umbrella organization) to the orphanage, which would enable them to collect tax-deductible donations from their network back in the states. Lindiwe couldn’t believe her luck. And, perhaps she shouldn’t have.

There are Very Wrong Ways to Do Good

Elated, Lindiwe gave the young white Americans copies of her non-profit’s official documents, which, as planned, the couple used to validate their US-based non-profit as an umbrella org for the project. Their website went up, along with photos of the orphans they’d met on their backpacking trip, and then the tax-deductible donations began to come in.

Initially, the couple sent Lindiwe money to pay for school uniforms–a mere two hundred dollars–and promised more would follow as they continued to spread the word. Thus, as they announced fundraisers — a few even hosted by celebrities — on their website, Lindiwe expected the relief she’d been promised would arrive soon. But it’s been three years since then, and not much has changed.

This past year alone, the U.S. organization has raised over $30,000. But, since their launch there years ago, only $3000 has made it to Lindiwe’s orphanage, and this is after Lindiwe has had to keep calling, emailing, and begging to receive the funds owed to the local orphanage to cover basic necessities: food, medicine, school uniforms.

Unequal Power Unmasked

On top of the U.S. non-profit’s unethical hoarding of funds (while the founders continued to post pictures of children’s faces and receive donations, allegedly in support of an orphanage they have only ever visited once), the once sweet and eager American couple has become short, rude, and condescending to Lindiwe; they constantly tell her that she should be grateful, insist that they have a right to spend the money from fundraisers in a manner that they please, and repeatedly go over Lindiwe’s head to forge “partnerships” with other organizations using (Lindiwe’s organization’s name) without consulting her.

FYI Lindiwe has a masters degree in social work. Part of her love for caring for children stems from her experience as a certified social worker for over 30 years. But, because Lindiwe is retired, poor, and her orphanage is situated in a very remote, rural area, she is unable to do anything about the U.S. based organization exploiting her. In fact, she’s been ripped off in  similar ways at least twice. And sadly, Lindiwe’s case is not unique; I could tell you at least a dozen more stories like this.

As this story (and countless others) demonstrate, there exists very little to no accountability when it comes to the west’s relationship with African NGOs. Incidentally, even African LGBTI organizations–many of whom I support myself–have reported being taken advantage of by larger, more prestigious (I won’t name names) LGBT organizations in the U.S. claiming to be supporting their efforts.

So, while there are many fiscal sponsorships similar to the one Lindiwe entered into that do work — e.g. in which the umbrella non-profit takes direction from the local African organization on the ground, is transparent about finances, etc–the unequal power held by the west while doing philanthropy in Africa often leads to unjust, unethical, and exploitative situations. This needs to stop. So, luckily for people like us, there are a number of African-led initiatives seeking to address this.

Meet Africans in the Diaspora (AiD)

I recently joined the founding team of Africans in the Diaspora (AiD), a new organization that seeks to correct the imbalance of power in philanthropy as it impacts Africa’s development. In addition to being a fundraising platform for African-led ventures, through which donors all around the world can contribute to various causes, AiD will vet every listed African organization so that donors can feel secure about donating.

But more importantly, AiD is currently developing a rubric for rating western fiscal sponsors who want to support African projects. That way, before the next KONY video happens, people can double check to make sure that the campaign will truly be supporting work that’s needed and led by Africans themselves–critical, community-led projects like Lindiwe’s that are already making a difference, because there are hundreds just like them all over Africa.

Since AiD launched its fundraising campaign in December 2012, an anonymous donor has offered to give us a grant of $10,000 provided that we can prove that there are enough people who support “Africans for Africa” that would make donations via our platform. Towards our goal of $30,000, we have raised over $28,700 from over 150 contributors, with just 2 more days to go. This is where you come in. With less than $1300 to hitting our goal, all we need is a little push.

Support Africans for Africa

I am asking you to give any amount you can — $10, $20, $25, $50, or more to help us hit our goal because AiD will CHANGE the way westerners approach philanthropy in Africa. This is not some wistful aspiration. This is not some dream. This is a fact. By simply existing as an African-led organization whose sole purpose is to facilitate ethical giving on the continent, anyone who claims to be saving Africa doing good work in Africa will be considered alongside a certain set of standards — our set of standards. And, this will be good for everyone: individuals, organizations, and foundations alike.

So stand with me, and Africans in the Diaspora, as we prepare to level the playing field. Invest in Africa’s progress. Invest in community-driven solutions. Invest in the idea that doing good can be done right..