Dark Star Safari: Wet-feedings and hunger porn

Paul Theroux does not admire foreign aid workers or the work they do.  The first 200 pages of Dark Star Safari contain several accounts of rude, obnoxious, self-important aid workers, often depicted as roaring through blighted communities in expensive Land Rovers, refusing to give rides. Two aid workers tell him they are on their way to “supervise a wet-feeding,” an outreach effort that Theroux characterizes as “going to a village to dump [corn-soy blend]  in a trough for people to eat.”  He gets into it with those two after telling them that supervising a wet-feeding “sounds like something you’d do in a game park…to help the hippos make it through the season.” He portrays various aid organizations, World Vision, Save the Children, Oxfam, Project Hope, and many others as thriving and competing in a self-interested fashion fueled by the desperate situation in parts of Africa.  “Large-scale famines,” he says, ” are welcomed as a ‘growth opportunity’ and the advertising to stimulate donations to charities is little more than ‘hunger porn.'”

Paul Theroux was a Peace Corps volunteer, and he taught for four years at a school in Uganda.  He returned to these places while taking notes for Dark Star Safari.  Things are not better, he found.  The situation was worse, and yet the aid workers continued to harp on the same things:

The whites, teachers, diplomats, and agents of virtue [his euphamism for aid workers] I met at dinner parties had pretty much the same things on their minds as their counterparts had in the 1960s.  They dicussed relief projects and scholarships and africulteral schemes, refugee camps, emergency food programs, technical assistance.  They were newcomers.  They did not realize that for forty years people had been saying the same things, and the result after four decades was a lower standard of living, a higher rate of illiteracy, overpopulation, and much more disease.

Foreigners working for development agencies did not stay long, so they never discovered the full extent of their failure.  Africans saw them come and go, which is why Africans were so fatalistic.  Maybe no answer, as my friend said with a rueful smile.

I experienced the same frustration while in Tonga, especially when I considered how long the Peace Corps had been in the country.  But I do not measure my impact on Tonga or on Tongan society, but the difference I made on one island, in four villages, in the lives of a few dozen people.  One of the reasons we were effective is precisely because we did not have a Land Rover.  Or running water, or all the food and money we needed, or other foreigners to chum around with away from the locals.  These circumstances made us hugely dependent on the charity and good will of the locals even as we were trying to help them.  We were the ones – my wife and I – asking for boat rides and hoping for free food.  We also needed their community, because we were the only foreigners on the island.  We were there long enough to see some of our efforts fail, and long enough to begin to understand which of our projects were even worth the effort.

Speaking of Paul Theroux and of Tonga, he has been banished from that country.  Two chapters of his book The Happy Isles of Oceania are about Tonga.  His interview with the ridiculous and now deceased King Taufahau Tupou IV so embarrassed the king, Paul Theroux supposedly can never return to Tonga, though I doubt that grieves him greatly.

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