Humanitarian Assistance – The New Colonialism?
Is there a fine line between assisting marginalized groups on the one hand, and modern versions of Colonialism on the other? This issue came out (yet again) quite clearly last week, with regard to my own work – as well as that of a group that came from the States to Burundi to see the results of the assistance that they have been giving to a Batwa pygmy community in the country.
The Batwa of central Africa are considered the indigenous (oldest) inhabitants of the region and are the most socially and economically marginalized of groups, having very little education and equally little political or economic power.
Traditionally they have specialized in pottery and metal working that is sold in rural markets – this is still the case, but plastics and other cheap imports are undermining their meager economic niche.
Leading a semi-nomadic lifestyle, Batwa habitations continue to be of straw. However, over the last few years, the government has been working to ‘settle’ the groups on lands that the government provides (such as shown here):
Governments of the area are attempting to establish permanent settlements, often in some of the most barren regions of the country. Assistance in building mud brick homes may be given by various groups, including the NGO with which I collaborate.
Over the past several years I have been working with a local NGO (Non-governmental organization) to assist a Batwa community in their area with their pottery production by way of sales to Bujumbura to a major tourist hotel, and with the profits going back to the community to help with education and other needs. Marketing their pots is one of the biggest problems and so we have been trying to establish reliable marketing channels to Bujumbura and also help with upgrading in clay production.
Every few months I go to the settlement to organize another batch of pots and also to help sort out some of their production and other problems.
For some of the children, we have been able to help keep them in school – considered the most valuable investment on the part of the families and the community, to help secure their future both economically as well as socially and politically.
So far, so good.
But then, for me, the wrinkle begins: Another Batwa group – who live in equally impoverished conditions, were put up in the best tourist hotel in the country for 4 days where they were to ‘get to know’ the Americans who had been supporting their community development program. In order to accomplish this leap from straw huts to luxury accommodations, the group was first kept in a guest house for a few days, where they were taught about running water, electric lights, proper eating with cutlery, and the men – how to wear a necktie – and so forth.
Then, to the luxury hotel, where they were feted with more food and kindness than most will likely ever experience again.
And, in return, the Americans were feted with traditional dancing and drumming.
Why the rub? In comparing the two approaches – modest inputs of the kinds with which I have been involved, and a kind of shock immersion of cultural encounters – Batwa and American – I wonder. Should I have been working to put up Batwa in the hotel, to experience 21st. Century tourism-Americanism? Well, no – after all, this event was to embed Americans into local Batwa culture as much as vice-versa. I think.
I just can’t help but feel uncomfortable about the whole event, and in large part because it has thrown my own modest efforts into a bit of doubt.
Where does the humanitarian assistance ‘end’, and neocolonialism ‘begin’? Or should the question be reframed? More thoughts in later blogs…
- Batwa Pots in Burundi: Traditional Clay Pot Cuisine, Pt. 2 of 2 (dianabuja.wordpress.com)
- Batwa Pots in Burundi: Traditional Clay Pot Cuisine, Pt. 1 of 2 (dianabuja.wordpress.com)
- Diverse microbes in Pygmy saliva (dienekes.blogspot.com)