Monday, 18 April 2011

Entitlement and expectation

Tanzania – Meserani, near Arusha

‘Give me pen, give me book, give me sweets, give me money’ the little boys chanted as we jumped off the truck to re-fuel. In yet another example of how you can’t leave your self behind my reaction was ‘give me a break’. I’m not immune to nor naïve of the reasons behind the steady flow of children begging, and within me there is an element of sympathy, albeit detached sympathy. What I don’t have is any desire to hand out freebies; to further embed the sense of entitlement and expectation that fuels these requests. The same sense of entitlement and expectation that results in the little boys pointing at us and drawing their forefinger across their throats as we drive away, our pens, books, sweets and money still safely inside the truck. 

At some point in the past other tourists must have acquiesced to these requests, figuring ‘what’s the worst handing out some sweets can do’? And maybe they’re right, and I’m a misanthropic scumbag. Or maybe they’re idiots – well-intentioned idiots, but idiots all the same, leaving a legacy of entitlement and expectation in their wake for the next mzungu to deal with. By throwing a passion fruit skin at the head of the death threat making child and then being severely rebuked by their more compassionate wife, as an entirely fictional example. Or to give a real example, and following our theme of entitlement and expectation to its logical conclusion, the gift of £15 million the Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, gave to the Malawian premier, Bingu wa Mutharaika. Which Bingu promptly spent on a private jet. Rather than on, say, hospitals or schools or infrastructure in a nation where 40% (!) of the national budget is from foreign aid. Think about that the next time you painfully glance across the tax entries on your pay slip, and then write a very simple letter to Alex Salmond which reads: You IDIOT!

The good news is that we found an absolutely splendid way to contribute to the local people who, joking aside, are extending their hospitality to us as guests in their country. And what is this method of contributing directly to a local school and clinic that is free for the Masai people of Meserani in northern Tanzania? Drink as much as you possibly can. Needless to say, we took our benevolent responsibilities very seriously, with the suitable lack of sobriety such a task such demands. The Meserani Snake Park camp ground is a regular and favourite haunt for the overland trucks that plough the well-trodden eastern Africa route, situated as it is near to the Serengeti National Park and the Ngogoro Crater. Owned by a quite delightful older couple, known affectionately as Ma and BJ, they decided long ago to say a firm ‘no’ to the requests for bribes running a business in Africa often demands, and invested a portion of their profits instead in a clinic and school that is free for the local people. And where do these profits come from? The bar, of course, populated as it is by thirsty and carefree overlanders who are more than happy to roll off a truck and straight into a friendly bar where they can literally drink for charity. On occasion a penny-pinching tourist complains that the beer is 500 shillings (20 pence) more expensive than other campgrounds and Ma, smiling serenely, replies ‘you’re quite right, but that beer you’re drinking might cure a child from malaria’ before continuing to playfully tell the overland tour leaders off for drinking and smoking too much. The overlanders love Ma and BJ because they serve up cold beer with big smiles, and the Masai people love Ma and BJ because they serve up free education and health care with big hearts. 

I love Ma and BJ because they made us feel so welcome, because they have cultivated a feeling of home in a place where so many are so far from home, and because they have found a way to be both well-intentioned and impactful. And because they gave me a t-shirt. The other campgrounds better do the same now or there’ll be trouble.


  1. Our experience in Tanzania during VSO's Kilimanjaro Challenge and later were quite the opposite (no begging people at all). We also went into areas where very poor people were supported by VSO and into an area with small scale coffee farmers. We felt very welcome and were treated as guests. For example we were invited to have a banana beer especially created as part of the engagement of a couple. Just because we had a little chat with the groom to be and the fact that we hadn't had any banana beer before...

  2. Of course drinking for charity is a very honorable thing to do!!!

  3. More charity bars, more! A charity bar on every street corner I say!

  4. Ha ha - totally agree Mark. Stick them on every street corner in Ireland and world hunger would be solved.

    Even better, we could incorporate the banana beer from Christof's comment. Maybe call it 'Benevolent Banana Beer'.

    Thanks for the comments guys, delighted to know you're still reading. x

  5. Entitlement and an economic addiction to aid analogous to the US addiction to oil are slippery things to tackle. Colliding interests often still obey the laws of physics, with mass and inertia ruling the roost.

    Renzo Maartens did an interesting documentary in the Congo around this. Maybe you've seen it? Enjoy Poverty? His story aims to link the market for images of poverty/illness in Western Media with the interests of MSF and the UN to the continuing corruption (one example: UN forces are deployed near sketchy diamond mines, controlled by corrupt gov't and sources of social friction. MSF only operates in UN-protected areas... you can connect the dots until the cows come home)

  6. Thanks Matt, I really do enjoy reading your comments. I'll take a look at that movie once I have a decent enough internet connection.

    Aid really is a slippery thing (to define let alone understand), and I can't pretend to have enough knowledge to draw any firm conclusions.

    From what I have read and experienced though I do harbour some doubts about the efficacy of international aid, supported by government and their offshoots. There are too many examples of undeveloped nations being in a worse state now than they were fifty years ago, in spite of (because of?) the billions of dollars of aid that has been pumped in.

    I'm also uncomfortable with the implication that aid is about benevolence. China are not pouring money into the infrastructure of many African nations out of benevolence any more than Stanley was when he claimed the Congo for Belgium's King Leopold in the nineteenth century. The UK's new stance on aid - only supporting contries that 'could' or 'do' cultivate Islamic extremism - is motivated by the realpolitik of national security, not benevolence. This is the way the world works, like it or not, but dressing it up as an act of benevolence is both disengenuous and cynical.

    More troubling is the seeming lack of an exit strategy for many aid organisations (or 'agents of virtue' as Paul Theroux sarcastically refers to them). Surely the end game of aid should be to get out - provide assistance, then leave; 'you're up on your feet, now walk for yourself'. There is a strong body of thought that argues that many African nations are not walking by themselves precisely because aid organisations won't leave. The relationship has evolved into one where the aid agencies form a significant chunk of a nation's governance, as a provider of services. Surely this is not the role of aid, to have that level of influence on a nation's sovereignty and governance.

    Exiting wholesale is probably not a sensible, and certainly not viable, option. But having an exit strategy is another matter - making a real difference is often about knowing when best to leave.

  7. Incredibly well-said ... enlightened self-interest is the driver behind so many actions, yet many choose to focus on the "enlightened" rather than the "self-interest".

    It is indeed a naive thought that in a world scrambling for resources that these particular cash flows and political gifts could somehow co-exist in a hermetic bubble, conveniently granted immunity from the market context through which they flow. Maybe a witch doctor gave DSK some kind of magical talisman. Your point about an exit strategy is more than spot-on, and is the "tell" about where the interests of the various organisations actually lie.

    One of the more awkward points about a lot of African aid is the continuing sense of White Man's Guilt, whether overt/conscious or not. As we encourage local clans and groups to make peace and let brutal bygones be bygones, we continue to repay for the sins of our fathers. We are either being disingenuous (again), or we are being hypocrites.

    On a sidenote regarding China ... an interesting line of argument that some Tea Partiers have brought out against foreign aid (of all kinds) is that the US is financing it with borrowed Chinese money. It is fun brain teaser to consider the various interests and positions that the angle touches on.