Development always comes with a political agenda

An interview with the leaders of a viral online campaign originating in Norway aimed at exposing European ignorance about the foolhardiness of humanitarianism in Africa.

A still from the spoof music video of "Africa for Norway."

A little over a week ago we covered the release of Radi-Aid: Africa for Norway, the online faux development campaign calling on Africans to donate radiators to Norway. Since Radi-Aid’s music video debuted on 16 November 2012, its popularity has far exceeded the expectations of its creators, the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH). To date, the music video has been viewed on YouTube over one million times. The campaign has garnered media coverage in a variety of languages in the US, Europe and Africa, and the ‘Africa for Norway’ Facebook page already has some 12,000 followers.

Anja Bakken Riise and Erik Schreiner Evans of SAIH kindly answered our questions about the inspiration behind the campaign, how they pulled it off with a small budget, and the status of African affairs in Norway. Erik, 32, is the current President of SAIH, and Anja, 25, is the Vice-President. SAIH was founded in 1961, and originally focused on supporting the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Today the organization has expanded its mission to include development issues inside and outside Norway — in addition to funding education-related projects in Southern Africa (among other places), they also conduct advocacy around Norway’s foreign policies.

Note: Anja and Erik’s answers are their own opinions, and do not reflect the views of SAIH.

First, we thought the campaign was pure genius when we were alerted to it on Twitter. What was the inspiration for Radi-Aid?

Erik: SAIH has strived to promote a more nuanced image on countries in the global South than is usually portrayed in the media and by some charitable organizations and fund raising initiatives. While there are negative issues that need to be reported and a lot of organizations are doing very important work, we are frustrated at the constant repetition of the same negative images. Since the narrative tends to be the same as it was when development assistance first started some 50 years ago, it might give the impression that none of these efforts have produced any results and thus lead to apathy.

We also want to mess with the stereotypes people have. The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, it’s that they’re incomplete. Norway is, in fact, a relatively cold country. But I think most Norwegians would be rather frustrated if that was the only thing Norway was known for. I think a lot of people would agree that the same goes for most African countries.

Even though fund raisers tell a necessary story, their message is very incomplete. We try to counter weigh this. This time, we decided to go for a different, more humorous approach.

The music video looks professionally done, and it looks like it’s meant to spoof the 1980’s ‘Band Aid’ and ‘We are the world’ videos and campaigns. How did it come together and who composed the tune? Also, the location looks South African and the actors sound like they’re from there — was the video shot there?

Anja: Our initial idea was to do something like a parody of Band Aid, so that’s definitely the feel we want you to get when you’re watching the video. I was studying in Durban South Africa in 2010, and knew this great up-and coming production company in Durban, who I thought would be really suitable for the job. I knew that the guys at Ikind production in Durban really wanted to start something that can help develop the culture and production scene in Durban, so I was really happy when they told me they were keen to do it, even though we didn’t have a huge budget. They caught on to the idea immediately, and were really helpful and full of ideas from the beginning. We also wanted to cooperate with some of SAIH’s partners on this, so we got in contact with Edmund Mhlongo at K-Cap (or Ekhaya Multi Arts Centre) and asked if they would be interested to play a part by linking us up with actors. And they were! They have really done a great job, and I think part of the reason for why the video is doing so well is the positive energy that comes from all the actors in the video.

The lyrics were written by Bretton Woods, a “development country”-band from Norway, and the music was composed by Wathiq Hoosain, a South African who is currently living in Norway. When we asked Wathiq if he would like to contribute, he told his aunt about this, and she told him she remembered SAIH from the struggle, which got him really motivated to get on board.

This whole production has been a big cooperation that has brought about funny coincidences, and kind of united people across industries, people and countries. It has been a hectic but great experience.

We noticed the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) is one of your donors. How did you raise funding for the campaign?

Anja: Last year was when we first started discussing this idea as something that we could actually materialize, and not just some utopian idea. Then our general assembly decided to put aside some money for the video, but we realized that the initial figure was a lot less than what we actually needed. So we applied for funding from the Norwegian children and youth council (LNU), as well as from NORAD. NORAD has something called “information support,” where the goal is to raise awareness amongst the Norwegian public on development issues, and early this year they were handing out the rest of the money from 2011, where they had a special emphasis on “creative and new ways of raising critical awareness.” To us, that was like a calling. We applied, and could hardly believe it when we actually got the funding; I think the surprise was covered well in their funding approval letter, where they stated, “there is considerable insecurity with regards to the results of the video.” And that was pretty much our feeling all along too: this project could either fail massively, or go viral and really catch on, and thankfully it seems like this last path is actually taking place.

What drew you personally to this issue?

Anja: Honestly, I find Band Aid really offensive. “Where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow” — I mean, come on! I understand their motivation for writing this in 1984 — there was widespread hunger in Ethiopia that needed instant attention. But the song and its video is so patronizing, and so full of a top-down understanding of how people in the world relate to each other, that my motif behind making a Band Aid-parody was to reach all the people who have sort of succumbed to this skewed image of the world.

Erik: Although one might argue that Band-Aid was justified given the context at the time, the world has moved on since then. I guess Geldof and friends did what they believed to be best, but we have to be more critical nowadays. Not only is it patronizing, but I also believe that one can sometimes cause more harm than good by painting an image where the world is divided between “Us” and “Them,” where the “Us” are the rich, developed and merciful sharing the bounties of our wealth to the “Them” that are being reduced into passive recipients dependent on charity. People are the protagonists of their own lives and situation and should always be respected as such. Failing to do so, might even contribute to entrench the very structures that causes the global divisions in the first place.

The campaign has already garned coverage in the Guardian online, BBC, and the blog sphere. The number of YouTube views have spiked in the last few days. Did you anticipate this kind of reaction?

Anja: We had hoped for a lot of attention, but this has just gone beyond our wildest imagination. It’s incredible. And what’s really exciting, is that such a broad spectrum of people, from all over the world, seem to agree or to catch on to our main message about ending the stereotypical projection of Africa and “developing countries.”

Back to Norway: How do you think most Norwegians engage with African issues? Where do they get their information from? What kinds of information about Africa circulates on TV, TV news, in newspapers, the internet (in Norwegian) etc? And how interested are Norwegians in African issues?

Anja: LNU and the Norwegian Council for Africa have both conducted surveys on this in the previous year. LNU found out that youth mainly get information through the internet, first and foremost through online papers followed by social media, secondly from TV, then in school and from printed papers. LNU’s survey was a rather small one (with 607 respondents), but it still shows a trend that I think we must take seriously: young people get most of their information online, and the information they are able to access there is massive. Aid organizations and media have a very important role in spreading nuanced and fact-based information about development issues, and not just continuing in the same old “Africa is poor, donate money” track.

Oslo has a reputation for being fairly racially and ethnically diverse due to different immigrant communities who have settled there. How integrated into society do you feel Africans or people of African descent are in Oslo as well as in other parts of Norway? What are the challenges in this regard?

Erik: Compared to countries like France, the US or the UK, Norway has traditionally had much less immigration from Africa. (Keep in mind that Norway probably wasn’t considered an especially attractive destination until the oil boom in the 70’s). As in most European countries, immigrant communities tend to form in the larger cities rather than in rural areas. There are of course plenty of challenges with integration, xenophobia, (mutual) hostility and ‘ghettoization’. But, in general, I would say that people get along pretty well. The latest challenge that has received some media attention is that immigrant communities now are so concentrated in certain areas that more “traditional” Norwegians now claim to be ostracized from their own communities. This especially becomes evident when people move in order to avoid their kids going to schools dominated by children considered “less Norwegian”. Many seem to prefer sending their kids to school where Norwegian is the only, or at least the main, spoken language in the schoolyard.

We understand the ruling Labour Party currently has a very strict anti-immigration policy which is being contested even within their coalition, particularly around sending back children of refugees who were born in Norway to their parents’ country of origin. There’s also the right wing Progress Party, which has made remarks about immigrants many in Norway find xenophobic. How do these immigration debates impact or shape Norwegian views & policy towards Africa?

Anja: I personally am ashamed of the rhetoric we use when discussing people who seek asylum in Norway. As I see it, the rhetoric has changed from after the Second World War from being something like, “we need to show solidarity with the people who have had to flee because of war and circumstances they couldn’t control,” into something like “these people are fortune-seekers who simply wish to come here and take advantage of our wealth.” I think this plays a great part of shaping the general public’s view on Africa and developing countries. During the last ten years, a word like “causeless asylum seeker” (grunnløs asylsøker) has appeared as a “category” of asylum seekers, and has been portrayed both by politicians and media as a huge category of people who don’t have a real or worthy reason for coming to Norway. The judicial category is somewhat different, but the seemingly very negative denotation of the label itself has off course had a huge effect on shaping the public opinion. Also, the media seem to highlight every time someone from outside of Norway commits a crime in Norway. In the mainstream media it has become a sort of big and ugly mash-up, where asylum, immigration, aid and foreign policy get confused, and ultimately this must have a divisive effect on the Norwegian populations’ perceptions of people and happenings in other parts of the world.

Erik: Norwegian immigration policies have become increasingly strict the past decades. However, Norway is still fairly liberal compared some neighboring countries like Denmark or Iceland. The main problem with Norwegian policies on immigration is perhaps the nature of the public debate. A decade ago, it was common to accuse the Progress Party of being downright racist. While their attitudes still remain as hostile, perhaps even stricter, their views and statements are now considered to be legitimate even though most parties still don’t fully agree with them. They have also gained increased support for some of their ideas and introduced a new rhetoric that has become rather common. One term they have introduced, is the label “fremmedkulturell” (roughly translated into “foreign-cultured”) that is being put on anyone with an origin outside the cultural sphere of Europe and North America. There’s no official definition of “fremmedkulturell”, but descendants of the first immigrants to Norway from Pakistan and Vietnam are still being subject to the label. Even though some might be third generation, the birthplace of their grandparents disqualifies them from being truly “Norwegian.”

There’s also an issue with people that came to Norway seeking asylum or some other form of residence, had their application denied and then decided to go underground rather than leaving the country voluntarily or by force. There are no exact figures on how many people are here on these terms. These “informal immigrants” are often referred to as “paperless” in the debate, reflecting the fact that they have no official documents allowing them access to the public services most people take for granted. Norway traditionally being a welfare state, there are a number of public services provided by the state or local authorities that are more or less completely inaccessible for this rather large group of people. How the public service system should deal with this group is an issue many parties apparently find uncomfortable to address. They don’t want to be perceived as lenient towards people that have been denied residence based on the policies of the respective parties, but it’s still hard to accept that people are afraid to ask for medical assistance or protection against exploitation, that their children are being denied access to schools etc.

Immigration in Norway seems to have become a more contentious topic over the last few years. It appeared to be part of the rational for the shootings by rightwing murderer Anders Behring Breivik in July 2011. How are Norwegians now dealing with issues around diversity, tolerance and hate-speech in their society? Are these issues being discussed more openly post-Breivik, or have the issues fallen to the wayside as some (anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen refers) would argue?

Erik: A lot of people, myself included, find it difficult to address issues related to attacks last year. Norway is a small country and the youth activist community is even smaller.

The immediate reaction after the attacks were very heartwarming and showed a strong public sentiment towards inclusion and against the hate that motivated the atrocities. While the views in the article by Hylland Eriksen might be somewhat reductionist, he certainly has a point. There was a backlash in public sentiment during the trial. While watching public debates on issues related to immigration and diversity, one might sometimes get the impression that the attacks never happened. However, I think it is still too early to conclude exactly what the long-term effect was. It obviously takes some time to recover after an attack like that, and I don’t think the debate in the course of the trial made that any easier.

While Radi-Aid uses Norway as the beneficiary country, it could have easily been the US, UK, or any other ‘Western’ nation involved in aid and development. How do you feel Norway’s development policies compare with other Western countries?

Erik: Every development policy of any country comes with a political agenda. Although Norwegian development policies obviously have their faults, we generally agree with the main agendas of the state development agency, NORAD. We do, however, strive to engage in public debate and challenge the government whenever we feel they fall short of our expectations. We are less than satisfied with the lack of will to address certain issues we see as neglected — like LGBTI-rights and the focus on especially Higher Education in some of the NGO’s that Norad finances. However, I am far from convinced that we would be any more satisfied had we been part of the NGO sector of any other western country.

Do you have a long-term plan for the campaign? What do you want it to achieve? What’s next?

Erik: We hope that this campaign will have a lasting effect on the way people think and the way media, organizations and people in general talk about sub-Saharan Africa especially. This was perhaps a rather naïve and overly ambitious aim to set for ourselves. But with all the attention the video has received, maybe we weren’t too optimistic after all.

All this attention has surely opened a lot of opportunities for us. But to be honest, it took us a bit off guard. We really didn’t expect all this.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

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Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.