Commentary  African NGOs aren’t so bad

Volunteer groups do legitimate, necessary work

T he Facebook surveys Sana Saeed referenced in her article on images of Africa (“The popular, pornographic view of Africa,” Commentary, October 15) bring up a good point: unfortunately, most of us do think of poverty, disease, famine, and corruption before culture when asked about Africa. Previous to my trip to the continent in the summer of 2008 as a Youth Ambassador for World Vision Canada, I was relentlessly asked why I was even interested in going to a place where everyone is violent and sick. This overly simplistic and degrading impression of a whole continent is clearly an inadequate way of thinking about 53 countries and so many more different cultures.

However, is it reasonable to discuss the idea that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are partly responsible for the projection and exacerbation of this erroneous, simplistic idea of Africa? In a single accusatory paragraph, Saeed holds NGOs partly responsible for the way most of us think. She writes: “Every time you donate to World Vision, you are undermining the ability of Africans to be the agents of change of their own condition.”

First of all, I feel that I should point out that there would be no need for NGOs if there were no poverty, disease, and corruption in the world. Their main goal, in fact, is to combat these issues. We must keep in mind that raising funds and gathering resources for healthy, prosperous people is more difficult and insignificant than doing so for the sick and poor. It would be fruitless for NGOs to show only the thriving arts of Africa on our television screens. They choose to depict the continent as a place “ravaged by war, lawlessness, illiteracy, disease, and drought” because it is in so many ways.

As for the depiction of Africa as a single “country,” I think that is a misinterpretation on our part. Many of the problems in Africa have no respect for borders. We cannot accuse NGOs of giving Africa a bad rap if those NGOs are focused on achieving their goals. If anything, they can only be blamed for raising awareness in our society of the realities that many people face.

It is also completely unfounded to claim that NGOs are undermining the ability of African communities to help themselves. One must understand how a development project in Africa is structured before deciding that it does not include African thinkers, workers, managers, etc. For example, UNICEF staff have the vital task of building alliances with local communities, helping them to ensure the education and well-being of their own children. Education and assistance are ways to encourage Africans to be agents of change, not to undermine them. The fact alone that so many NGOs focus on education contradicts Saeed’s assertion. All the NGOs she mentions allocate a large amount of their resources to education.

I can only speak from personal experience regarding World Vision, however. Throughout the month that I spent in Tanzania, I participated as a Youth Ambassador in a number of meetings and made visits to projects in different communities. Nothing I learned led me to believe that Africans are being denied the chance to be agents of change. Canada is a support country. This means that it partners with countries like Tanzania and supports their World Vision chapter. World Vision Tanzania is made up of a dedicated Tanzanian staff that is responsible for tasks ranging from establishing communication links to project management and oversight. These staff members are being the agents of change in their communities and they are African.

Perhaps more demonstrative of the incorrectness of Saeed’s accusation is a central feature of the Youth Ambassador program: the Youth Forum, a three-day event at which student representatives from high schools throughout the region of Singida meet with six young Canadians. One of the main goals of this forum is to give these inspirational Tanzanian teenagers an audience with key leaders in their communities, to give them a voice so they too can exercise their ability to be agents of change. In many ways, they are the most successful.

It is with these two examples and the many more like them in mind that we are able to sleep at night when we donate to World Vision or to any of the other organizations mentioned. It is unfair to NGOs to use our increasing knowledge of the suffering and injustices in the world to be angry with them, instead of using it to further raise awareness. And we should raise awareness, especially in those who have such a distorted view of an amazing continent.

Nicholas Lefrançois is a U2 Civil Engineering student. Write him at