Just shoot me.Allow me this moment of white liberal angst. I’ll try not to let it happen again.

This post is inspired by the whole KONY2012 debacle and in particular by Teju Cole‘s piece “The White Industrial Saviour Complex”, which is a fairly searing indictment of those who seek to do good in far away places. A piece all the more cutting for being close to my white bones. This paragraph from his article cuts to the heart of the issue:

…there is much more to doing good work than “making a difference.” There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.

It reminds me, as I am reminded often, of Henry Thoreau’s famous quotation from Walden:

“If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life…”

and he was clearly thinking of Africa at the time as the text continues:

…as from that dry and parching wind of the African deserts called the Simoom, which fills the mouth and nose and ears and eyes till you are suffocated.

But I am getting ahead of myself. First I need to say something about my identity because this post is about identity and what my identity affords me.


I am the freckly-white son of a South African father and Welsh mother. I was born in Canada and grew up in Northern Ontario. I got “involved” in South Africa and the continent in general when I came to work among NGOs involved in the mass democratic movement in South Africa in 1991. I claimed a South African passport in 1994. Since then I have been involved in one way or another in world of technology and development or what came to be known as Information & Communication Technologies for Development or ICT4D or ICTD, an acronym that carries a lot of baggage.

To make a long story short, I’ve been involved in the “doing good” business in Africa for a while. I spent a number of years working for one of the better development organisations mostly funding African researchers investigating both the challenges and the impact of access to information and communication infrastructure.

This post is about me and people like me who grew up in the industrialised world in comfortable middle-class homes yet have found themselves involved in one way or another in “doing good” on the African continent. I should also make it clear that it is not about white South Africans for though we have much in common and I am proud to have a South African passport, I do not come from the same place as them.

The Problem

Recently I attended a conference in Cape Town called Open Forum, put on by the Open Society Foundation. One of the best talks at the event was given by Mona Eltahawy, a brilliantly articulate feminist and Egyptian. She spoke with passion and clarity about the challenges facing Egypt as it struggles to re-define itself as a nation. The poignant part for me though came when she was asked “What can the West do to help?” and she recalled what Malcolm X said to a young, white, liberal woman in the early sixties, who believed in his cause, and who asked him what she could do to help. To which Malcom X replies “nothing”, or at least that’s what he says in the Spike Lee movie.

I had a similar feeling then as I had reading Cole’s piece. I understand (I think) the place from where Mona Eltahawy spoke, the need for Egyptians to claim their own future, to solve their own problems and also the deeply problematic manner in which assistance from foreign nations is often given. Whether through arrogance or ignorance or embedded political agendas, even good intentions often end up doing more harm than good.

Oddly it reminded me of breaking up with someone you like but don’t love. You still like the person you’ve broken up with and want to be there for them but you are the cause of their pain. You’re the one person who can’t help them through that particular situation.

It made me wonder, not for the first time, whether I should pack up for Northern Ontario and try and be useful there. But Northern Ontario never felt like home and my wife isn’t from there either so where do I fit in? Do I need to be Egyptian to do something good in Egypt. Must I be African to be useful in Africa?

Increasingly there are fewer and fewer people who are just from one place. More and more people have a foot in two or sometimes more countries. I love this. Having another culture and/or language to draw on makes you a richer person. You feel more, taste more, can say more, and in general have more empathy for people who may not share your outlook. I learnt a lot from Ethan Zuckermans thoughts on xenophiles and culture bridges.

But how I envy Mona and so many others the purity of their sense of identity. Their ability to assert their identity through their tribe. This is fundamental to us humans, our need to belong to something. Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind is a fascinating exploration of this.

So poor me, Western child of privilege doesn’t know who his tribe is. In a very real sense it is laughable to talk about this sort of angst in the context of say the average mother from Khayalitsha who shoulders daily burdens and responsibilities that dwarf my imagination. That was a bit of a digression but it brings me to my fundamental question. Is it legitimate for white middle-class North Americans and Europeans to come to Africa with the intention of “helping” of “doing good”? I think the answer to the question phrased in that particular way is a resounding “NO”. It isn’t legitimate because nobody really wants to be “done unto” and it reeks of paternalism and power imbalance.

Let me try another question then. Is it legitimate for white middle-class North Americans and Europeans to fall in love with a part of Africa and want to be useful? The answer to this question is a resounding “YES” but with qualifications. It ain’t easy and there are some important rules which are true most of the time except when they aren’t. And knowing when they’re true may take a lifetime.

And indeed this perspective is validated by Malcolm X who later regretted his reaction to that young white co-ed and who went on to say:

Brother, remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant—the one who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together—and I told her there wasn’t a ghost of a chance and she went away crying? Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument.

So, coming back to Cole’s piece, I remember my first reaction was a certain savage glee at the brutally eloquent manner in which Cole questions the motives and assumptions of those who set out to do good. This was followed by the sort of feeling you get when you laugh at a joke until you realise it’s about you. Being a contribution in the world matters to me and there was a time when being involved in international development or the “doing-good business” made me feel pretty good about my life. Here was work where I could do good in the world, get paid for it and get to travel to exotic places and meet interesting people. How good is that?

It turns out that giving money away to people and having real good come out of it is quite hard. In fact, giving money away and not having things turn out worse on balance than if you had done nothing can be a challenge. My doubts about “do-gooding” have led me a little way out of international development world and into the somewhat confused world of social entrepreneurship which attempts to mix doing-good with market forces.

But rather than just leave you with that little burst of white liberal angst, let me try to dredge something useful out of it.  So herewith my rules for children of privilege white, black or otherwise who want to make a difference in Africa. The irony is that while I think these rules are generally true, the opposite is sometimes also true and only experience will tell you when. The parable of the Chinese farmer comes to mind.

The Rules

Rule #1 Be Rosencrantz not Hamlet

The first rule of White Liberal Do-Gooder club is you don’t talk about White Liberal Do-Gooder club. You may play a small yet important role in moving the plot but more than anything, this not your script and not your play. You are not Hamlet. Attempts to cast yourself in that role will only result in comedy, farce, or worse, tragedy. Embrace the notion of service in the best sense of the word. Be useful, enable, and try not to get in the way. I don’t mean this in a self-denigrating manner but I do mean humility.

Contradiction: Sometimes you may be able to leverage your position, your network to make something good happen. Sometimes shouting helps. Also, no one is completely altruistic. We all want to be recognised for our contribution, our expertise. Just be self aware.

Rule #2 – Tell A Different Story

If you really want to make a difference in Africa, then help change the stories that get told about Africa. Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri puts it best in his collection of essays, “A Way of Being Free”. He says:

“stories are the secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals or nations live by and tell themselves, and you change the individuals and nations.”


“to poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralised nation tells demoralised stories to itself.”

The story of Africa has been poisoned but it is changing now. Help to point at and celebrate those amazing stories of transformation that are going on all over the continent. And if the empiricist in you resists the idea that this is important, read this interesting piece on Esther Duflo‘s conclusion about what happens when people begin to tell a different story about themselves.

Contradiction: Clearly it is important at times to point out the worst as well. Exposing wrongdoing, corruption, exploitation of the weak is critically important. But for long term change, I think it is easier to inspire people with great stories than to scare them with bad ones.

Rule #3 – It’s a Marathon not a Sprint

Real change takes time. No matter how much you are tempted, and this is particularly true for us geeks, to believe that your intervention is going to transform things overnight or in a year or two years, iI won’t. Real change does not happen overnight. One need only look at Egypt to understand that. The real work in Egypt is only beginning. So, if you care and you want to really make a difference, you had better gird your loins for a long engagement. You need to be the antidote to two-year funding cycles, to the changing fashions of development and you can be by staying engaged geographically or thematically or both.

Development is complex which means that cause and effect are only obvious with hindsight and outcomes are unpredictable, emergent. More than a little due diligence is required, a deep grokking of the situation is needed to make even vaguely smart decisions. It takes deep knowledge to gain a sense of how to intervene effectively. This is your Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour kind of expertise.

Contradiction: I think really effective development also requires a startup sensibility that recognises failures fast and pivots to evolve based on feedback. As your knowledge deepens, you will get luckier with your first tries, you will smell failures more quickly and adapt more effectively. But expertise can also be a trap. I named this blog Many Possibilities to remind myself of the buddhist saying, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” Balancing experience with fresh outlooks is key.

Rule #4 – Pull Trumps Push

If you have worked in international development or philanthropy for any length of time you realise how much harder it is to do it well than in the private sector. This is not immediately intuitive. What could be easier than giving away money? I like to use the analogy of a piece of string. Giving away money is like feeding out a piece of string. Without someone pulling on the other end, all you get is a pile of string. As you get involved in international development or philanthropy, you will begin to have ideas about what might bring about positive change. You might even start encouraging your partners to run with your ideas. Stop that. It will only end badly. Look for leaders on the ground and work to enable them.

Contradiction: If you absolutely must implement your own idea, start a company. Let the market decide whether you have value to offer.

Rule #5 – Stop “doing good”  Settle for “being good”

The personal is the professional. The same rules that serve you in your personal life are valid for your professional life. Take care of your relationships. Treat people honestly and with respect. Listen. Be careful and thoughtful. If you take care of these things you are far more likely to end up doing good than if you actually set out to do it.

Contradiction: This should not stop you from “acting”,  from being an agent in the world. One of the great contradictions for me of the KONY2012 campaign is that much as I disliked it for breaking virtually all of all of the rules above, I cannot get away from the fact that they acted, they DID something about an injustice they saw in the world. If you cannot say the same, you have no place to criticise them from.

Rule #6 – Don’t Take Yourself So Damn Seriously

I borrow this rule directly from Ben and Ros Zander. In fact, according them, there are no other rules and perhaps they’re right.

It is easy to begin to see yourself as doing something weighty and important. After all saving the world is serious work. Relax. Get over it.

If you really want to make a difference, get out there and embarrass yourself and laugh at yourself on a regular basis. Not being afraid to look like a fool will help you learn faster, will make others more comfortable around you and empower them to make their own mistakes and learn too.

Failing to acknowledge and learn from your mistakes is the only real blunder you can make.

Contradiction: I don’t do this nearly as often as I should and it still requires a supreme effort of will to expose my white boy moves when dancing with Africans.


So nobody’s perfect.  I definitely broke Rule #1 and came perilously close to ignoring Rule #6 in this post and possibly a few others.  And of course, the above are not rules at all but rather reminders to think about these things as often as is practical.  I’m still looking for my tribe.  Perhaps the best thing is to do as Seth Godin suggests and make your own.

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data