Oonya Kempadoo: “Thanks, But . . .”  Race and the Politics of Aid and Charity


We would like to share this deeply perceptive piece by Anglo-Guyanese writer based in Grenada, Oonya Kempadoo. In “’Thanks, But . . .’  Race and the Politics of Aid and Charity” (March 02, 2017) the writer explores the complex politics of aid, the way in which some aid programs seem to be designed more for the givers than for the recipients; the dehumanization of receivers in representations of aid; and the political, psychological, and social impact of the donor/recipient dynamic. [Image above: Screen still from Roshini Kempadoo’s Arrival (2010).] Oonya Kempadoo writes:

Poor but not destitute is a conflicting and challenging environment to live in.

In the Eastern Caribbean island of Grenada where I live, poverty rates are high at 37.7%. True indigence is rare, with a rate of only 2.4% [i] which means that very few people in Grenada go without food and malnutrition hardly occurs. After Hurricane Ivan created a state of emergency in 2004, various countries and NGOs chipped in to help us rebuild, and there have been many successes. So more than a decade after the crisis, I was surprised when my godson came home from school with a food aid pack called “Manna,” labelled Feed My Starving Children.

Leaving aside the Grenada Government’s role in receiving and distributing food aid from the USA in this way, I guessed with my godson’s mother that the food pack was well-intended, and has likely helped children who are actually starving, somewhere else in the world. Still, her reaction has stayed with me: “But why they have to go and call it that!? Even if people starving—you think they proud of it?”

It seemed to us both that the aid pack’s name was designed more for the givers than for the recipients—it made the givers feel like they were doing something necessary and good, yet it inevitably made recipients like my godson and his mother feel small.  While I reflected on the way in which this ‘gift’ was given and received and the long history of aid and charity, two images came to mind based on related sayings, (1) ‘Never bite the hand that feeds you.’ And (2) ‘Free things/help always comes with strings attached.’ The first connotes, in my mind, a biting dog and human master. The second, a puppet and human puppet master.  Both place the recipient as less than human—dependent on a human master for life—and both images, looked at in this context, are equally disturbing.

The long-term impact of charity and aid programs, and the psychological dynamics that surround these, are complex and delicate. From United Nation projects and diplomatic gifts to organized faith-based charity and individual donations and volunteering, global philanthropy is on the increase. Yet the inefficiencies and repercussions of international aid and other forms of foreign charity are well-documented. Without trying to diminish or deny the good of this humane response, there are serious ‘buts’ to discuss.

An analysis of the business of international aid was brought centre stage in 2009 by a woman of colour from Zambia, global economist Dr. Dambisa Moyo, in her New York Times bestseller Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. She argues that the aid flowing from rich to poor countries haven’t done much to reduce poverty, and indeed have contributed to ongoing levels of poverty in Africa. For Moyo, development aid perpetuates “the cycle that chokes off desperately needed investment, instils a culture of dependency, and facilitates rampant and systematic corruption . . .”

At the same time, changing aid failure requires better governance and poverty-reducing responsibility by the receiving countries. Moyo and other analysts emphasize equal responsibility for change. For the donor countries this includes foreign policy reform, which can be linked to politics and national security, as between Haiti and the USA. In Terry Buss’ 2008 book, Haiti in the Balance: Why Foreign Aid has Failed and What We Can Do About It, he writes: “The United States has played a determining role in Haiti, dispatching the Navy or Marines dozens of times to restore order, protect Americans and their business interests, or meddle in political affairs . . . Since the 1980’s the United States has manipulated Haitian governments with foreign aid and “coercive diplomacy” as leverage over Haitian affairs.”

Compounding the donor/recipient dynamic that takes place at the national level, more and younger retirees seem to be choosing Western-style overseas volunteerism, a kind of informal Elder Peace Corp. In so doing they have found a great way to travel, and to “give-back,” all done with a genuine sense of global citizenship and social responsibility. We see this in Grenada and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Along with this trend of meaningful travel, “aid tourism” is now being worked into the marketing of what used to be just sea-and-sun vacation destinations. Now people’s cultures—and their supposed disadvantages–are involved, possibly veering into a voyeurism that continues to exoticize the privileged-to-poor historical relationships.

“Aid has become a cultural commodity,” Dr. Moyo claims.  Using the examples of Live 8, Make Poverty History, and the Millennium Development Goals, Dead Aid explores how “in the past fifty years, over US$1 trillion in development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa”, with very little proof of effective results. Despite this, “aid remains a centrepiece of today’s development policy and one of the biggest ideas of our time.”

In June 2005, The New York Times ran an editorial advocating a Big Plan for Africa, entitled “Just Do Something.” As William Easterly wrote in White Man’s Burden (2006): “The Big Plans at the top keep rich people happy that “something is being done” about such a tragic problem as world poverty. Live 8 concert organizer Bob Geldof said, “Something must be done; anything must be done, whether it works or not.” [ii] Nevertheless, the Big Plan approach seems alive and healthy. This headline caught my attention in this week’s New York Times Magazine (February 2017), “AS GLOBAL INEQUALITY GROWS, SOME SILICON VALLEY EXECUTIVES THINK A UNIVERSAL INCOME WILL BE THE ANSWER – AND THE BETA TEST IS HAPPENING IN KENYA” (Lowrey). After getting over my immediate reaction to the top-down, ‘how the West will save the world’ approach that the headline suggests, I am forced to consider the rationale of making a universal basic income work, and how this will change or do away with the aid industry. GiveDirect, a US-based nonprofit has begun giving US$22 per month to 6,000 registered villagers via mobile phone for a 12 year period, “no strings attached.” “If [direct] cash transfers flourished,” the article claims, “the whole aid industry would have to fire itself.”

Each culture has ways of trying to deal with inherited social and economic inequity: remittance economies are common in the Caribbean and elsewhere, along with family businesses and informal adoption or scholarships. Remittances—that is, money sent to family members by people working overseas—do have a studied track record: “Household surveys in the Philippines indicate that a 10% increase in remittances reduced the poverty rate by 2.8% by increasing the income level of the receiving family but also via spillovers to the overall economy.” [iii]

The high costs of remittance transfer, which involves largely private-sector, middle-man profiteering, are being countered by some countries and their donors. M-Pesa in Kenya, a mobile phone-based money transfer system launched by Vodaphone in 2007, and more recent apps such as Venmo, are quickly changing the remittance options. But creating a culture of dependency, even with family members, remains a challenging repercussion. In the Caribbean we call it the “barrel syndrome”—which refers to the goods shipped home in barrels from family members working overseas. Traditionally the recipients know the givers. What might be the long term cost of GiveDirect’s type of remittance aid experiment that transfers cash instantly, disconnected from family or diasporic relationships?

When the focus of charity begins abroad, the adage ‘charity begins at home’ doesn’t seem to apply, as evidenced by the following US statistics:

“Poverty inequalities were observed by race and ethnicity in 2008: while the poverty rate for all races was 10.3%, for African-Americans the rate was 22.0%, for Hispanics it was 21.3%, and for Whites it was 8.4%. Poverty reached 15.1% of the population, or 15.1 million people, in 2010, for the fourth consecutive annual increase. The child poverty rate increased from 16.2% in 2000 to 20.7% by 2009.” [iv]

Digging deeper to refocus, beyond guilt, beyond ego, without diminishing compassion or the spirit of generosity, within our own countries, communities or with the other, is necessary but not easily done. Looking at poverty and injustices in your own backyard is not easy, particularly if you think of yourself or your country and culture as better off.

In another headline recently: “School event sparks race, rights debate: Seminar aims to provide a different perspective.” The accompanying article speaks of parents’ protests in a wealthy, majority white, top-ranked high school in Chicago against their children being exposed or educated about “such topics as voter suppression, affordable housing and police brutality.” [v]

Critical thinking and inquiry changes our self-perception and sense of being privileged or poor. In turn, this changes our actions towards addressing inequality for a better world. How we do this individually or collectively, is a choice we can make. And that may be all we have to give or gain—critical choice.

In the words of James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” [Dick Cavett Show, 1968]



[i] (PAHO, CPA Report 2008).

[ii] See The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good. Easterly, 2006) Source for State Failure: Richard Rotberg, 2002 lists the countries that have spent over 55% of a decade under an IMF program and the correlation to subsequent state collapse

[iii] This also affected “a 1.7% increase in school attendance, a 0.35-hour decline in child labour per household per week, and a 2% increase in new entrepreneurial activities.” (Do International Migration and Remittances Reduce Poverty in Developing Countries? Adams and Page, World Bank, 2005) Data for Haiti shows ‘more than $4 billion in foreign assistance’ (1990 – 2003) but additionally, ‘remittances from Haitian expatriates amount to $1 billion annually.’ (Buss, 2008).

[iv]  (PAHO, 2012)

[v] (Sophia Tarren, Montreal Gazette, February 27, 2017)


5 thoughts on “Oonya Kempadoo: “Thanks, But . . .”  Race and the Politics of Aid and Charity

  1. Thanks for reading, sharing and feedback. Please submit any links to relevant documents etc here to help continue this conversation and make research easier!

    Not because it’s sisters but in solidarity with the anti-facist protests of now – a quote from Kamala Kempadoo’s article ‘Modern Day White (Wo)Man’s Burden: ‘It (white supremacy) operates to maintain and defend a system of white wealth, power, and privilege — an ideology and not a skin color — that also takes for granted the role of those who adhere to the ideology as national and global leaders, thinkers, creators, authorities, and decision makers.’ (April 2015) A link for the blog version ‘A White Man’s Burden Revisited (Jan 2015) https://www.opendemocracy.net/beyondslavery/kamala-kempadoo/white-man%E2%80%99s-burden-revisited

  2. With sincere apologies for the oversight in credits and acknowledgement!! Big THANKS to DEBORAH ROOT, for her great mind, openness to discuss so much and editorial assistance of this article. Deborah, as an artist, art-critic, ex-academic, part-time resident in Grenada, North American and distant volunteer to the Grenada Community Library, helped to make sense of the very complex and disturbing sides of race relations on this topic and so much more. Apologies and thanks again – for being, in this way, part of the solution – willingness to share honestly and critically and generously DO.

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