THE BLOG

The Big Seven African Aid Species

10/02/2013 04:31 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

It is a chaotic mixture of tribes large and small. Artificial man-made borders cannot contain historic conflicts and rivalries. Inter-marriage is rare, incest within the group common, as are predatory raids. It is a cash culture, but also one of barter. A variety of dialects -- too many to count -- are spoken. I'm describing, of course, the international aid community, and especially the development professionals who work in Africa.

The Big Five game animals in Africa are the elephant, lion, rhinoceros, Cape buffalo and the leopard. Much has been Instagrammed on these species. Less well known are the Big Seven African aid species. There are similarities, to be sure (herd-like behaviour, nightly-water-hole-gathering) but key differences are that, unlike the Big Five, aid professionals are not endangered -- in fact are flourishing -- and fewer parts of their anatomy are poached, prized as aphrodisiacs in China.

Type 1: The Circumcisors. Western aid workers are convinced the two areas of African life in most dire need of reform are governance and genitalia. Too long, both have been left in private hands. Cronyism, taboos, religion and a patriarchal tribal system share the blame for both calamities.

Aid groups insist on public information campaigns to bring these issues into the light, make them transparent. This is usually done through 'community conversations', under a tree. NGO project directors like the imagery of African people sitting under trees while a white person facilitates in a culturally-sensitive, capacity-building way. Perhaps project directors are sub-consciously aware this imagery will make a great cover shot for the Annual Report, while acknowledging that it is difficult to arrange in downtown Lagos.

Trees are important symbols, but sometimes the source of conflict. For example, climate change adaptation consultants often want to take photos of the same acacia umbrella thorn tree under which a 'community conversation' is taking place. Perhaps they want the photo for a screen-saver or Facebook profile page. But they want to capture the tree solitary, noble, like the consultant (and Mother Earth) him/herself, and so must wait for the genital cutting workshop to complete.

Meanwhile, in aid organizations in Stockholm or New York there are full departments working on female circumcision (preventing), while only a few cubicles away another unit toils on male circumcision (encouraging). Usually, the groups do not mix. For reasons hard to say (but worth someone exploring as their PhD thesis), it is tougher to recruit a spokesperson for a male circumcision campaign than a female.

Africans do not have faith in the political process, even less so in their banks. Donor countries are sick and tired of giving piles of money to African leaders, where it promptly disappears. So, for the public sector reform piece, Italian and Greek governance experts descend on places like Zimbabwe, bringing with them the European success story.

Type 2: The Teacher of Teachable Moments. Africa is rich in teachable moments. It is hard sometimes to avoid tripping over them. Virtually anything qualifies. The fact that rural Africans shop at local farmers markets without ever having gone through a brief Whole Foods infatuation phase, is an example from which chastened, flighty Westerners can learn.

Points are scored if you can show up a colleague who has missed an obvious teachable moment. ("Zach, Zach, Zach: it's so much deeper, so much more entrenched, than that."). Confusingly, teachers-of-teachable-moments differ as a species from certified train-the-trainers.

NGO chiefs of party say things like "Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." This is strictly a metaphor (all Africans know how to fish) but it is ubiquitous, delivered sometimes with a made-up mish-mash pan-African accent ("Tich a mon...") that often lapses into something Jamaican-sounding. It is typically greeted with closed eyes and appreciative knowing nods from subordinate program assistants freshly arrived from Tufts or SOAS. This saying is so widespread, a country director is rarely able to get out much beyond "Teach-" (or "Tich") before the pre-emptive sycophantic nodding begins.

Inspired by Binyavanga Wainaina. To be continued.