Development aid and racism



A note to American readers: "white elephants" is the term used in Danish media for failed development projects. DANIDA is the Danish Governments International Development Agency channeling our aid to the most impoverished Third World Countries.

by Jacob Holdt


In 1981 DANIDA gave me a travel stipend to go to Africa. I don't remember what the purpose was. I was probably among the many who each year come up with a good grant application story to cultivate their own travel interests.

My deeper purpose - I realize now - was exactly to look after my own interests: to find suitable projects that we in "American Pictures' Foundation for Humanitarian Aid to Africa" could support with the income from our slide shows and book publications in 14 countries. In other words, to justify our own existence and thus, hopefully to grow even bigger as an independent, government approved aid organization. Looking back now - from a 10 year critical distance - I see that we too, were subject to the same dynamics that are quickly perceived in any NGO (Non Government Organization).

During the trip, I hitchhiked 6,000 miles through Africa in order to learn from projects of more established NGOs. I had arrived with unbounded optimism and it was probably not DANIDA's intention that my idealism would be stifled by what I was to see for many years to come.


I took many thousands of pictures for educational purposes, but was so depressed after the trip that I put them all on a shelf, gave up all development aid and moved to the USA. American Pictures' Africa Foundation was an outcome of our educational work on racism and thus our ideals seemed impossible to integrate with the work methods and attitudes I saw demonstrated by the development aid workers in Africa. For my own part, I dutifully handed over our farm equipment and money to the earmarked projects, but I then never paid a visit to those projects again. I knew full well that I myself would be the first to be stung by my own criticism. That is to say, I saw no easy solutions to my criticism of foreign aid in an area so humanly shattered by colonialism as is the case in Africa.

What I saw - to state it simply - was a continuation of the attitudes from colonial times. I lived with many Danish assistance workers, whom I knew had held a progressive view of human nature at home in Denmark, but who, in Africa, had been transformed after just a short time into the most inhumane colonial master race. Their opinions of their submissive servants were so destructive that they could not even hide them in their own deeper thoughts.


In the USA, it is my feeling that the most destructive form of racism for blacks is what we hold in our thoughts since it inevitably is "internalized" by the victims. In Africa these assistance workers incessantly and without restraint (over numerous whiskeys) aired their "amusing" or depressing stories about the incompetence of the Africans. With such an outspoken need for paternalism they inevitably created relations with the Africans so stunting that I, even in the most "Gone with wind"-like plantations of the USA, rarely have seen the like.

Such oppressive conditions lead right to racism's other main ingredient: fear. The Danish assistance workers soon surrounded themselves with numerous guards and oftentimes concentration camp-like barbed-wire fences. One Dane even walked around with a pistol in his belt and gave his guards order to shoot to kill any burglar.

Worst were the highly educated experts and consultants who often surrounded themselves with poverty-taunting luxury and Volvos they would never have been able to afford in Denmark. In fact, it was all stolen every three month or so, but they could afford to be indulgent - covered as they were with government paid insurance policies. And that way, they were at least able to give a bit of concrete "foreign aid" in the form of stolen TV's to the natives whom they so evidently held in contempt with their attitudes.

The staggering number of mulatto children in one of the countries I visited was also a living proof of "foreign aid."


Compared to this "upper class" of experts, the "middle class" of aid workers from NGOs had a slightly more healthy relationship to the native populations and usually did not employ servants. But it was only the young "People to People" volunteers (students from Danish Folk High Schools who often hitchhike all the way to Africa to help) without any formal education, who I sensed had a genuinely humane relationship to the Africans.

Because these students lived and worked with the natives on an equal footing, both parties had a chance to develop something which is far more important than naked technical assistance; mutual human respect, interconnectedness and self-reliance. The upper-class Africans, with their western inspired lifestyles, felt a bit uncomfortable at the sight of these poor and dirty barefoot workers from Danish Folk High Schools. But the students had immediately and completely changed the way the poor majority of Africans looked at whites in a country newly liberated from white rule, such as in the case of Zimbabwe.


The main question is whether we indeed should send assistance workers into post-colonial situations in which the corrupting and demoralizing effect of their presence would, to such a degree, overshadow the few positive values given to the aid recipients. I do not know the answer, but I feel from my experience in America that racism is far more destructive than poverty. Poverty does not destroy the initiative and self-reliance of a people. But that is precisely what racism does.

The West Indian blacks in America are a good case in point. They are capable of competing successfully with whites - and have even more highly educated jobs than the population at large - while the native American blacks have a median income only half that of whites. The reason is undoubtedly that the whites quite simply left the Caribbean after the end of slavery. Thus the natives had a chance to reconstruct their lost self-confidence and crushed initiative.

After a hundred years of solitude, they are now fully capable of competing on equal footing and on the same market economic terms with white Americans without any remedial measures. On the other hand, after the abolishment of slavery, the native American blacks never attained any sense of freedom from the crushing paternalism, guilt and master-race mentality of whites. This is why American blacks are subjected to seemingly indefinite preferential treatment in the form of Affirmative Action programs. Thus their present situation in the inner cities more and more resembles the "collapse of Africa".


The inability to clearly visualize such an emancipated human being, which lies behind the West Indian success in the USA, causes our disillusioned aid workers in Africa almost inescapably to end up with a racist scapegoat fixation: they look for the cause of Africa's misery in the black race - and not in their own stunting relationship to that race. I can't help but see a straight line from the destruction of the initiative and sense of responsibility I saw in our aid programs on my trip ten years ago, - to the loss of independence the African governments today are suffering by being placed under the administration of international banks - and perhaps eventually to the final collapse in the form of our military return one day, as we have already seen happen in Somalia.

And so slavery's and colonialism's evil circle will be carried on indefinitely when we chose to give paternalistic aid without attempting therapeutic treatment of the racism in the donor.

Precisely as a result of the guilt, which characterizes Danes and Swedes in our obvious psychological need to see a victim from above, we end up being not only the world's biggest donors of foreign aid, but also easily the most paternalistic racists.


For racism should always be measured by the victim and not defined by the perpetrators with all their good intentions. The so-called "big racism" (a Danish expression for Nazi- and KKK-type behavior) will thus in a hundred years perhaps turn out to be the type of racism which was displayed by our aid workers in Africa, while "the small racism" may be seen as the type practiced by the extreme right which wanted "nothing to do with blacks and Muslims."

After my involvement in development aid - the brief and superficial nature of which the reader of my criticism here must take into account - I was totally disillusioned by the time I went to America. Here, I nonetheless spent the next ten years taking Americans to task for only giving one seventh of what the Danes give in foreign aid. Although I sensed that we were doing more harm than good in the way we delivered aid, paradoxically, I was proud that we at least tried to live up to our responsibilities as world citizens. Yet for my own part I did not want to dirty my hands with aid programs any longer.


But that all changed one day when the organization CARE called me and asked if I would like to be involved in making some educational programs for a new project they were starting in Bolivia. Almost automatically I said no at first because of my experiences in Africa - but also because, for years I had seen American advertising for CARE in USA, which had made me believe, inaccurately, that CARE provided only emergency aid.

So, again for selfish reasons, I got myself involved in development aid: frankly I just wanted new inspiration for my work with racism in the USA which I believed I could get by examining the situation between Indians and whites in Bolivia. I did however stipulate that I would refuse to produce anything if I could not personally stand behind the projects.

I had been given stacks of DANIDA and CARE reports to take with me. They were all written in that kind of congenial bureaucratic language which smells strongly of the authors own deeper interests in protecting themselves and their favorable positions; air travel to exotic countries, stays in luxury hotels etc. Since I had been invited to look at our foreign aid with fresh eyes - eyes which are soon tired from such rugged language - I decided to arrive totally without any preparation.

I wanted instead to measure the value of the projects by trying to penetrate deep down into the soul of the recipients with my camera - mindful of how my Africa pictures had precisely for that same reason, been shelved.

I became even more skeptical when, on my first day in Bolivia, I was recognized by a Dane from a rival NGO and he immediately turned up his nose upon learning who I was "working" for. With the built-in egoism that comes with working in foreign aid; the sudden feeling of being "a man of the world" which especially young insecure men love, I understood immediately one reason for the Dane's lack of enthusiasm! For, you see, I did not find a single Dane among CARE's almost 100 Bolivian employees and there were only two white Americans and one European. Two of the top leaders were African, but the rest were native Bolivians.


During thousands of kilometers of traveling in the country I saw enthusiasm and pride in the eyes of those peasants everywhere who were influenced by the CARE projects - eyes I had never seen in the destructive encounter between whites and Africans.

Furthermore, the projects of building irrigation systems and terraces, the reclamation of formerly eroded landscapes through the planting of trees and cactuses, (which European governments had financed through CARE), were so logically fundamental that they clearly had touched some deeper chords in the peasants.

Even the peasants outside the targeted projects began on their own to imitate the programs. The necessary "experts" were highly educated Bolivians from the cities, but the real teachers were hand-picked peasants. I was so thrilled about all this that I rushed home to express my rapture in a slideshow. This time I was determined to tell the Danes that it does serve a purpose to give money to "help people help themselves" - phrases which no longer sounded hollow in my ears.


However, after half a year I started having doubts. Had I perhaps been bamboozled in the Third World jungle? Was it all a Potemkin village? And considering my insistence on removing racism from development aid, had CARE really had any luck in getting through to the extremely anti-white Indians in the Bolivian highlands?

With these questions in mind I choose a route through the country myself on my next visit. I also chose my own Indian CARE-workers who for days drove me exclusively to projects among Indians on the Altiplano - the highlands. It was precisely the enthusiastic reception that I as a CARE-worker experienced from the Indians that took me and my principles about racism by surprise. The patronizing white views I had formed of them on my first trip when I had traveled as a tourist on the Altiplano (after my CARE-tour of the rest of the country), were now diametrically contradicted.

I could not communicate linguistically with my Indian co-workers or drivers. Still, they opened up a world for me which no white or urbanite could have shown me. Even in the most out-of-the-way places, CARE's Indian "barefoot" workers suddenly would loom out of the fog and proudly show me the projects they were working on, as well as letting me participate in the meetings and the education of the peasants.

My feeling of shame was great because I suddenly recognized the racism that I had developed towards the Indians on my first trip when I had been in the company of only two white tourists on the Altiplano. A racism which by and large was similar to the one I had developed in Africa as a result of only living with white European aid workers.

The Indians gave me back my trust in development assistance: I saw that it indeed is possible to support native populations in a way that really benefits them - and not just our own need to find a dehumanizing state of dependence; victims who we can "save".

CARE in Copenhagen needs only four employees on fixed salaries, who manage projects spread over enormous areas in Bolivia, Nepal, Bangla Desh, Nicaragua and Rwanda because the natives themselves are running the actual projects locally.


After the obvious failures we have seen in recent years in the result of our aid - especially in Africa - I feel that we, to a larger degree, ought to "privatize" future aid. Let organizations (NGOs) such as CARE that are more capable of showing confidence in the native populations, distribute our taxpayer's monies.

CARE has been attacked for its "American" fund-raising methods and of making use of royalty and famous people in its advertising. Personally I couldn't care less about what the four employees and their volunteers here in Denmark - in their nice little niche - come up with in regard to effective methods to get the Danes to raise the necessary money, as long as they don't misuse the funds by sending destructive Danish "experts" out on a larger scale.

Likewise many leftists, in particular, seem to resent the fact that CARE has allied itself with the business sector to such a degree. But it is actually the left that ought to approve of big businesses creating an image here at home by handing over their aid to the neediest here - rather than out in more vulnerable populations where the corporate need to turn a profit comes before displaying a deeper humane empathy.

One can clearly see the value of non-corrupting development work in the eyes of people. And that is something you can never invest enough in!

Whether these methods can be used in all countries, I don't know. But with our great built-in need to send our surplus of unemployed academics out into something resembling meaningful occupation - without any kind of racism therapy before hand - I don't even think we dare to try!


CARE's already practiced methods of "help to self-help" for developing countries are a provocation for the many with deeply vested interests in delivering foreign aid primarily as a way of "help to self-help" for ourselves in a rich country with high unemployment.

I am not unambiguously protesting this intelligent - yet deeply imperialistic - way of exporting ourselves out of our high unemployment. Rather, I am protesting the fact that we do not put twice as many people to work through intensive and ongoing racism seminars for our highly qualified - technically - yet trampling, "white elephants." For otherwise we inevitably, once again, have only our own interests at heart. By leaving the weakest in the developing countries behind (as well as ourselves) as such humanly destroyed characters, we artificially "create" further dependence and a need for continuing aid.

Jacob Holdt




Our largest paper, Politiken, cleared the whole front-page of the second section and brought some of my Third World photos in color on most of the page. Since a great number of Danes have served some years in our aid programs in the Third World, many felt personally attacked by what I wrote in the article. So for more than a year I could not go out into the night life of Copenhagen without being attacked by some of these former or present aid workers. However, in private conversations they usually admitted that what I had written was true and gave their own most more gruesome stories. They just didn't feel I should have aired my opinions - or their dirty laundry - in a public forum.

To be fair I must admit that many of the problems I had seen in Africa in the early 80's had been discussed internally in DANIDA. Our government employees are, after all, not all fools. Nevertheless, the result of my article was a speeding up of this process with many resulting changes. And most important: a much larger share of our foreign aid is today being channeled through non-government organizations, such as I recommended. CARE, the organization I am volunteering for, had before the publication of my article to "beg" for every dollar they needed for their programs. Since then the government has made CARE one of our largest recipients of government money with a huge yearly allowance.

Some of my pictures from Bolivia can be seen on my homepage about CARE:

A selection of my Danish articles can be seen here:

Jacob Holdt

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