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

  • Steve
    I couldn’t agree more on most of what you say. I spent 2.5 years between Joburg, Eastern Cape and Cape Town, and I wish I could have known or shared this knowledge with someone t avoid some mistakes. But as you say, we learn mostly in our skin.

    Making your own tribe is definitely a good idea – for whatever one does that grows from within is one’s own. Anything else is trying to fit into some frame.

    This is the essence of allowing any group to shape its own narrative, for therein lies the meaning of who they are, who they are meant to be and so on. Learning and improving from that base is far easier than following someone else. The wisdom of Ubuntu one might say (not to mean that because it is an African idea it is better understood by any particular African people, but it does point to “shared meaning” as emerging from the group interaction)

    If this is true then creating your tribe is equivalent to understanding who you are, and then finding others who share this interest. It seems to me that you have an interest in finding out who you are, and this is the dimension in which you can be part of any community that shares this question at its core.

    This is a fairly uncommon issue at a conscious level for people and groups in general, but it is the core of my own activity – setting up environments for groups to find their own meaning. My prototypes keep evolving and improving, but it is a slow process. You are welcome to play around in siriti.net meant as a community co-working space for people who share this interest.

    Cheers, Aleks

  • Really, really, damn good article Steve. I’ll be sharing it all over my network. Although this may be like inviting you up for drink on our first date, I gotta ask, would you be interested in letting me publish it? A few years back I started a print (and partially online) journal called The Global Citizen: a Journal for Young Adults Engaging the World Through Service. http://www.kristafoundation.org/index.cfm/page/The-Global-Citizen-Journal. It’s not a very big circulation: it gets purchased in bulk by about a dozen universities and global development (mostly volunteer-sending) organizations and in small orders from volunteers from the Peace Corps, Jesuit Volunteer Corps, etc. but it’s a well targeted audience. Any way, I’m not making a big pitch here, just take a look (especially check out an article I wrote in Volume 2 called ‘Staying for Tea’ and you’ll get a sense of the journal’s angle. Let me know. I’m on the Board of the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship and I just think it would be great to put this article in the hands of our ‘Krista Colleagues’ and supporters. Best.

  • Interesting post. I’m a bit unclear on one point: if part of the goal is for Africans to have more agency over what happens to them than outsiders do, how can giving away money be bad? They decide what to do with it, by definition, and they will do whatever they think is best. Who adjudicates what makes an outcome bad in that case?

  • Thanks for this great post. I captures many of my own thoughts and doubts and that of some fellow “white do-gooders” I know. Many (white European and American) people working in development seem to have that kind of ambivalent relationship to their work. You like what you’re doing but you also feel uncomfortable because so many things go wrong or aren’t done carefully.

    You mention the impact that Mona Eltahawy and also Teju Cole’s words had on you. For me, I liked how the Kony 2012 debate did much to draw my attention to a number of African writers, bloggers and other voices that I had not been familiar before and which made me much more sensitive towards finding out about different perspectives on specific topics. I hope that this process will steadily increase, i.e. that “local” voices become part of the game and get heard by those who want to do good on “them”. Maybe this will allow joining forces and allow for achieving “participation” (which, to my experience, too often is just another buzz word but not a concept put into practice). Thanks very much!

  • Steve Song

    Hi Julian. I am sympathetic to your question. Certainly I can think of development projects where it would have been better to take the total amount spent, convert it into small bills, load it up in a Hercules cargo plane, fly over the project area and unload. BUT, the reality is that the simple, straightfoward giving away of money creates dependency and power-imbalance. Lack of money can stop a good thing happening but the converse is not true. Giving money away doesn’t make good things happen. Ultimately people make change and good philanthropy is about finding and enabling those people.

  • Steve Song

    Thanks Aaron! You are more than welcome to publish it. Everything here is under a Creative Commons license.

  • Steve Song

    @Claire I couldn’t agree more. That KONY2012 stirred up so many amazing African voices is one of its lasting ironies. Rosebell Kagumire (@rosebellk) comes to mind in particular. This is what made me think of parable of the Chinese Farmer.

  • Ben


    This article is brilliantly thought out and written. In an ideal world, every do-gooder would be required to read this article before arriving in their country of work.

    I have been volunteering in Kenya for one year and this is a much-needed reflection. Upon returning to the US, I look forward especially to enforcing Rule #2 – telling a different story. As we all know, the story being told is mostly negative – similar to CNN’s article from today about the World Bank’s recent report – (http://edition.cnn.com/2012/06/14/world/africa/african-child-life/index.html?hpt=hp_c1)

    What keeps me from damning all of humanity is that with each passing day, I think the world’s development/aid workers become more aware of the pitfalls (breaking your ‘rules’) they can fall into. It was refreshing to see so much valid criticism about the KONY2012 video and recent questionable development initiatives like One Laptop Per Child and Knickers 4 Africa. Did I really just call that last one a ‘development initiative’? – you see my point.

    What I see as most important in development work is maintaining balance. Don’t exaggerate or over-simplify a country’s problems. That way, more realistic, effective solutions can be developed.

    Keep up the blogging!


  • Rachael Barrett

    Great blog. Thanks for writing it. Reminds me of something I heard Gayatri Spivak say at a lecture (and instead of misquoting her), I read this in Naked Punch (NakedPunch.com) where she was interviewed in 2009. From what I remember of her lecture and from the quote below, the lesson seems to be one of mindfulness and respect when you, the privileged other choose to enter another space (wherever that may be…).

    “Not only that “Unlearning one’s own privilege” was a phrase I used before I knew any of this. Unlearning ones own privilege is a narcissistic undertaking. I would now say, “learning to learn from below”. Forget about the other one. I mean, you can’t unlearn privilege. Back then I had an inadequate concept of the mental theatre. You know this privilege has become millenary, how am I going to unlearn it?

  • phet

    proposed addition to rule 6: remain curious…thanks for sharing these insides (couldn’t think of an appropriate word), questions about identity resonant…I come from many places, call many places home; I am chinese-lao by blood, war separated me from my birthplace and family, I grew up strong on fries and gravy in Canada, given opportunity in the US, and returned to Asia as an adult to ‘do good’…I work in international development, having been in the field, chased money, gave away money (as steve says), been in boardrooms and sat with de facto rulers of countries; the stage keeps clearing and new actors step out (luckily some networks persist)…I feel nomadic at times, and I’m not sure if the Internet being (relatively) the same everywhere in the world makes it easier to be nomadic (certainly more convenient); international development works for me because I’m the constant outsider (the foreigner) who can’t help but be fine with that, and I’m not sure if that’s served me professionally, but it allows for a degree of empathy (even if it’s just in the mind)…no particular point, just there may be another twist to the complexity for diaspora do-gooders, if I may contribute to your manifesto. :)…you are my tribe, bro 🙂

  • Hi Steve – thanks for the reply. I should admit that I have some skin in the game, since I’m currently doing an unconditional cash transfer project in monrovia (see http://www.poverty-action.org/project/0166). I’m not aware of any rigorous evidence to support your statement that “Giving money away doesn’t make good things happen.” That being said, I’m not sure it will do any good, which is exactly why we’re testing it in a controlled way.

    As it happens I’m also not convinced that greater agency / participation on the side of Africans is always a good thing, which is part of the reason pure money may not always help. Esther Duflo’s recent Tanner lectures at harvard made this point quite well: given limited cognitive resources (true for all of us), poor people often have better things to be spending their time on than helping us figure out exactly how many teachers vs textbooks to have in each classroom (for instance). But that’s a longer discussion.

    Again nice post, and I agree with your rules (especially #3 and #6). Since I do this work mostly for my own enjoyment and intellectual satisfaction, I’m under no illusions about being a savior 🙂

  • Steve Song

    @julian Sorry for a perhaps glib response. You remind me that there is more than one truth out there. You may have seen the reference above to Dave Snowden’s work on complexity. For me the point about complex environments is that there are no “rules” but there is tacit knowledge and rubrics and possibly rules for small, well-defined bits of the system. And that too is a longer conversation 🙂 Thanks for the link to the Tanner lectures.

  • No not glib, and I was trying to stir things up a little myself! Can’t argue with more discussion…

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  • I am as @phet the eternal wanderer and foreigner, which I have come to love because it is great to share many people’s stories for a while and carry them on to other places. But mostly because it is a self discovering process for me. It is as-if I have a need to re-understand the world more holistically than the Cartesian sliced version I am dished from all particular corners, and at the same time avoid the inflationary saviour pattern that roams free ever since Nietzsche put it out there on paper.

    @julian – my experience with the “limited cognitive capacity” of others is that if one starts from this premise one will ALWAYS make huge mistakes. There is no such thing. What is true however is that depressed people have no energy, and that lack of imagination is a “condition”. This may be a chronic condition with deep roots (deportation, isolation, forced labour, political or economic repression, fear, human and material loss, etc) and indeed hard to heal, but I am in agreement with Steve, that healing begins with a dose of self-worth.

    The problem is not in the giving. Just as one cannot heal a chronic illness with medicine, and must first ensure a healthy matrix or disposition, an attitude of self-worth is a pre-condition for health. This is an inside-out process of connecting any group with drivers that work in this direction for them (@Steve “…tacit knowledge and rubrics and possibly rules for small, well-defined bits of the system”)

    This is what leads to such receptive matrix. When this is strong enough, then the benefits from Outsider help (money, ideas, etc) outweighs the inadvertent importing of their rules/paradigms. When the matrix is strong one CAN avoid many of the unintended consequences of these alien components (while more typically the unintended happens when as alien species these sap the energy flow from grass-roots movements.)

    The real challenge when there is no apparent “cognitive direction” is then, to look into the pre-cognitive sphere. If the real-world action is chaotic the order can only emerge in large groups from pre-cognitive imaginal and emotional spaces. Connecting people to their
    dreams, emotions, experiences, tacit knowledge has a tremendous empowering effect.

  • Hi Steve,

    Really interesting post. When you introduced your rules as things that people of privilege should follow I thought you would deal a bit more with the privilege aspect. Maybe it could be part of question #5 (and maybe a bit of question #2), but I think there needs to be a questioning of privilege. Questioning, or challenging, the privilege that allows or positions some people as being able to help ‘Others’. I think that this needs to happen in order for people to shift from ‘doing good’ to maybe ‘becoming good’. I’m glad that Rachel brought in Spivak because I found a lot of ‘postcolonial’ writing helpful in dealing with my own identity issues when I got involved in development, and I’m not talking about unlearning privilege because I agree with the quote Rachel provided, but more about the way that leaving privilege unquestioned can serve to perpetuate inequalities.

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  • telco champion

    Steve, I’m working in telecommunications industry in South Africa, and like you have the passports to disappear to Canada or Europe. I went overseas, got my skills and experience (and passports) and opted for Africa. I’m staying right here as I know the difference I make to the telecommunications options to South Africans. I have spoken to you before, but alas as an employee I cannot speak out loud as I am not an appointed spokesperson for my organization. I know first hand how long the road we have to travel is, and often get frustrated by the lack of speed I would prefer. Yet when I look at a lot of the so called statistics that get paraded around I am very saddened by the ignorance that is paraded as self evident. I have a research post graduate qualification, which sadly empowers me to recognize the lack of real evidence presented as known truths in so many of these arguments. Despite all our faults we have coverage over a huge portion of our country, with often very low population densities, and have made great strides in offering communications to most of the population. That we have a long way to go is very obvious, but I’ll keep quiet as to the noise that presents itself as the truth as to the solution of the enormity of the task ahead of us. I’ll miss my Canadian and European families (and wish one day they will come to Africa), however I’ll sleep at night knowing that I’m actually making a difference to South Africa and helping to make it more affordable to all its citizens. I know this is true as I have access to the real costs and expenses running a telecommunications company, and know the problems first hand. We have a long way to go, but I’ll keep working at solving real technical issues, such as distances and spectrum allocation and keeping a business running so we offer close to 100% availability and coverage. ICASA has many failings, as do all of us in the industry, but we will keep trying and keep going forward, we won’t solve all our problems in a day and don’t have the time to pontificate our navels as we have work to be done. Farewell and thanks for your contribution, hopefully one day you will join our tribe as a permanent member, I wasn’t a member either but decided to be a part of the tribe along time ago, I’ll be here when you return — a telecommunications worker.

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