Charity In Africa Can Be Condescending But David Lammy Was Wrong To Drag Identity Politics Into It

As someone who grew up on this continent, I have always been a critic of the way aid and charity is conducted in Africa. My criticisms swing from moderate to vehement depending on the merits of the individual case (generally veering towards vehemence if Bono happens to be involved but I digress). But there are two issues at stake for me, separate but often related. One is that international aid, on the more macroscopic level, can be ineffective and even, arguably, harmful. On this question Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid provides an invaluable empirical analysis (her jarring support for China’s role in Africa notwithstanding). Another, at a more individual level, is that Western charitable efforts in the vein of comic relief and Live Aid can come across rather syrupy and condescending. However, this second point, is often a result of the Western (and particularly British) propensity for self-effacement and says nothing of their effectiveness, or whether the people they ostensibly benefit appreciate them or not. 

This second criticism has in recent years been co-opted by identitarian left as the “white saviour” narrative, as exemplified in the recent furore between Stacey Dooley and David Lammy, who objected to Dooley having the temerity to allow herself to be photographed holding a black child in Uganda during a charitable visit (there was a time when the same outrage would have been coming from the opposite end of the identity spectrum).

While I still cringe occasionally at the efforts of Comic Relief and the like, I can at least separate my reaction to their rather cheesy videos, from the merits of the work they are actually performing, the intentions of those participating, and (perhaps most crucially) the opinions of those benefitting from the work. In that regard, this latest fracas provides a useful three-fold case study in the factors increasingly sending the progressive left tumbling downhill of their self-appointed moral high ground. 

A moral act is not rendered immoral on the basis of a person’s race or background.

The current obsession with identity over actual real-life consequences and results seems to lie at the core of all of this. Though Lammy himself snidely dismissed an offer by Comic Relief to get involved in a similar project himself, had the photo been of a black celebrity holding the same child, one can guarantee the backlash would have been almost non-existent, if not praised as some kind of reconnection with their ancestral identity. The core merits of an act are dismissed in favour of focusing solely on the immutable characteristics of the agent performing it. Traditionally, this was not the ideological territory of the liberal left, but of the reactionary right. It is this reactionary identitarian tendency that causes so-called progressives to proclaim that colour-blindness, which should be the goal of any enlightened society, is itself racist as it fails to consider a person’s relative historical privilege or victimhood over their individuality. This is not only itself racist, but extremely condescending.

One of the accusations often laid at the feet of so-called “white saviours” is that they are denying the “agency” of the people they are proclaiming to help. But by assuming the hapless victimhood of people who engaged in the perfectly human act of accepting help (which can be a sign of strength and self-actualisation in many cases) left-wing identitarians not only deny their agency but their individuality. Did Lammy bother to reach out to and consult the beneficiaries of this work and ask them if they felt it was effective and whether or not they wanted it to continue? It seems he prefers to simply cast them as victims in order to mine the opportunity to virtue-signal on their behalf.

A similar erasure of individuality is performed on the persons in the charitable activity. You are no longer a person who made a considered decision to participate in a project that might assist other individuals, you are a locus of white supremacy forwarding the current incarnation of the historical dynamic of colonialism (which apparently now involves helping people). One extremely vague piece of casuistry that has been repeated ad nauseum throughout this fiasco has been that Dooley hasn’t “engaged with the real issues” whatever that means. This implies that she has simply hopped on a plane for a photo opportunity. I am happy to give Dooley the benefit of the doubt that she has learned something about Ugandan society and, insofar as she has bothered to travel there and see for itself that is a pretty good start. But the implication here seems to be that she hasn’t adopted a sufficiently masochistic position of white guilt as a pre-requisite to engaging with such issues.

A crucial point here is that the role of intention is entirely ignored, as any recognition of intention requires a recognition of individuality not just some perceived historical power dynamic in which we are all mere victims and perpetrators regardless of our personhood. This point goes well beyond this issue and lies at the core of the moral suicide being engaged in by large sections of the left. This denial is the basis of apologism for some of the worst movements and regimes in the world. This is where we get the equivocation around the moral equivalence of Islamic terrorism and Western capitalism, admiration for dictators for sticking it to the west, and trendy peacocking of the iconography of Soviet communism. No sooner does a terrorist attack take place in a European city, than we asked by The Guardian to take a good hard look at ourselves, rather than simply recognising that there is no moral equivalence. Intentions matter. While Western capitalism is far from perfect, it does not actively seek the construction of a global murderous hellscape.

A moral act is not rendered immoral on the basis of a person’s race or background, no matter what race-baiters and identitarians on the left or right try and claim. A human being is more than binary atomic cluster of privilege and victimhood, and people like Lammy who claim otherwise deserve to be at the very least ignored. By adopting these positions, the left seems increasingly determined to recapitulate the very historical evils they once claimed to stand against. We should all know better than this by now.

Robin has a background in the UK, South Africa, and the Middle-East. A keen follower of international current affairs, he holds a Masters degree in Global and Comparative Politics. He is a contributing editor to On Netflix Now. Follow him on Twitter @Robin_GJ