Aid and Africa: Why Demonising Privilege Is Not The Solution

Sophie Trigger is a Sydney-based writer who is passionate about aid, soccer and where she’ll get her next coffee hit


Approx 5 minute reading time

I had a lot of trouble writing this piece. I stared at a blank word document for weeks – furiously stewing over ideas in my head, ruthlessly self-critical of word choice and connotations. And the reason this was so hard was actually the entire premise of the article in the first place. People of privilege really struggle to talk about poverty.

You may have come across articles over the past few months about voluntourism – that is, the increasingly popular practice of young, fresh-faced school-leavers travelling overseas to volunteer in a developing country. Such articles have labelled voluntourism (and particularly the selfies with black children) as demeaning, self-serving and ultimately damaging for developing communities. Unskilled white 18-year-olds are seen as inappropriate and even downright offensive substitutes for trained teachers and builders. A recent ABC feature dubbed voluntourism as “the modern form of colonialism.”


Similar apprehension surrounds the practice of sponsoring children, or even purchasing items which gift goats and wells to undeveloped communities. It’s considered a “convenient” option for white westerners – simply have some money deducted from your account each month, and watch Chalu grow up through the yearly photographs tacked to your wall. The process is indeed designed to suit the needs, and the conscience, of the donor. Critics were also concerned that donating money to one child made minimal difference in their impoverished families and villages, and perhaps even generated some resentment within disadvantaged communities.

Predictably, initiatives such as the 40-hour famine and Live Below the Line have not escaped this virtuous disdain. An eloquent but highly bitter account of Live Below the Line several months ago painted the movement as not only inauthentic and trivial, but an outright mockery of true experiences of poverty. If we cannot recreate real hunger and deprivation in Australia, what’s the point in rich kids forgoing their takeaway coffees and drunken Maccas runs – right?

It seems that Chris Lilley’s Ja’mie has almost completely tarnished any perception of volunteering with selfless motives. The instagram account of Savior Barbie is the perfect embodiment of the scorn for privileged, self-serving aid. Recently I caught up with a friend who spoke with a similarly snarky skepticism about an acquaintance who had developed a charity. I felt utterly hopeless – is it really that hard these days to care about an issue without inadvertently trivialising disadvantage, and inviting high-minded criticism?

When I first walked through the gates of the orphanage, a flood of children ran to me – I stepped forward, my feet cascaded in the red dirt, my arms open wide. I have never felt more loved or needed as I did in that moment. This…this is where God wanted me. Each one of his children clamoring for attention, for just an ounce of love. I saw them with His eyes: pure and faultless. I held, loved on, kissed, and laughed with them. These few short hours felt like a lifetime. My cup is full and I am forever changed. These precious little ones, who laugh in the face of much trial, who choose joy despite their circumstances, inspire me – and should inspire us all. #stoporphantrips > blog link in profile #attachmentproblemsarentcute #butorphansareSOcute #notazoo #iwantone #wheredemorphansat #wheresMYorphanat #kingdomcome #strangerdanger #theycallmestacey #thatsnotmyname #waitwhatisyourname #iprobablycantpronounceit #staceyitis

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It’s time for full disclosure. I was once one of these 18-year-old girls of white privilege who spent several months in Africa – and like Barbie I too wanted to remember the experience through photographs. With my limited knowledge of poverty and inequality as a young adult, I made the best choice I could at the time to do something I was passionate about. I was never under any pretense that I had changed the world, or the lives of the locals I met. But my life and world was changed – I became someone engaged in issues of aid and development.

The power of awareness should not be undervalued. In a first world country where immigrants are villainised, the homeless overlooked and our only representation of poverty is a smiling brown child on our fridge, we really have no concept of the undeveloped world. An ignorant middle class Australian witnessing poverty with their own eyes, or even just experiencing true, caffeine-deprived hunger for the first time could be the switch that enables them to be kinder and more ethical in their daily choices.

I’ve found that I am embarrassed to tell people I’ve volunteered in Africa, in the same way people might be embarrassed to admit to sponsoring several children or being a vegan. Quite frankly, it is extremely hard to talk about poverty without sounding like a wanker. And that self-imposed struggle is a barrier we just don’t need. Demonising privileged people who care is a perilous path – they might just stop trying altogether.

So where does that leave us? Fortunately, what the practices of voluntourism and sponsoring children tap into – minus the occasional Ja’mie of course – is an intrinsic guilt of our privilege and a basic human desire to aid our fellow man. That’s a productive force. And as the skeptics point out, the middle class students who embark on a week of rice and frozen peas in the name of ending poverty are typically people of wealth. They have the money and the brains to make real change. What they lack is the information.

Instead of shutting down conversation about poverty when it comes from a privileged mouth, it should be encouraged – it’s just not discussed enough. How often do you hear an Australian politician delve into the murky waters of foreign aid? While Australia’s foreign aid budget is the lowest it has been in 40 years, a 2016 poll conducted by Campaign for Australian Aid found that the average Aussie believed we gave 13% of our GDP to the needy. In reality the dismal figure is actually at 0.22%.  

Thankfully, Charlie Pickering puts our measly aid expenditure into words much better than me:

When given the right information, perhaps a better use of our time, money and privilege would be to support foreign aid investment. Or if you’re feeling slightly more selfish, even policies that protect our lower classes here at home. It generally requires a lot less money and thought than a plane ticket to Africa. If you have something to spare, organisations such as GiveDirectly, as the name suggests, enable you to put your money quickly and efficiently into the hands of the needy. And while you may not find it on mainstream media, a wealth of information about aid is available to the wealthy.

Undoubtedly, we need to be self-critical when it comes to voluntourism, sponsor children and the 40-hour famine. The very nature of aid and development is inherently problematic, and will be for a long time. Of course we should always strive to help people in the most appropriate and sensitive way possible. But what is also damaging to the cause of ending poverty is to demonise or belittle people who care and have the means to contribute. Africa is currently undergoing its worst food crisis since 1985, at which time a mass global response was garnered. To put it bluntly, we can’t afford for rich or mildly well off people to lose interest.

So if you’re white and middle-class, and you genuinely care about issues of development, please don’t be deterred. The world needs your good intentions much more than your guilt.

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