By: Ann McLaughlin, MSW, ACSW, LICSW
Do you know what they mean by “the brain drain”? When speaking of Africa, the media talks about the brain drain, how the most talented and educated people leave the continent.
I beg to differ.
Africa is full of people who are deeply committed to improving the lives of ordinary Africans.
I returned in September from a whirlwind tour of the continent, meeting with the colleagues that I work with on an almost daily basis.
I was struck by the dedication and sacrifice that I witnessed in my colleagues.
One social worker who directs a women’s organization said, “Yeah, I was working in an AIDS orphanage. I would go without eating to raise the money for our first computer. I did the same thing to raise the money for a sewing machine, so that women would have a means to generate income.”
This is what I call “brain gain.”
Many news stories portray Africa’s challenges without crowing about its strengths. International NGOs are notorious for portraying the bloated belly, starving children with flies on their faces. If you read Graham Hancock’s The Lords of Poverty, he asserts that the emphasis on wars and famines is so that those international NGOs can raise money.
To paint Africa as helpless just amplifies the American savior complex; you know The Shining Knight on the white horse that comes charging in. This triangle of victim-rescuer-perpetrator was studied and discussed by Claude Steiner and Hogie Wycoff. Their Transactional Analysis was well-known in the 1970s and deserves to be resurrected to apply to international social work today.
Why is this perspective shift so critical? Many Americans have an inaccurate image of Africa. As Director of NGOabroad, I talk to many volunteers going to or coming back from other corners of the earth. One volunteer, upon returning, commented, “I had no idea that they had cars or regular cities in Africa.”
An African colleague said to me about some publicity work that she was doing with an American: “Megan wanted to use the photo of the kids in their most torn and ragged clothes. I wanted to show the kids in their clean and pressed uniforms.”
So what is our image of African orphanages? This is an important question, because it is so pertinent to social workers. I agree with everyone who is concerned by the number of AIDS orphans and abandoned street children in Africa.
How many? UNICEF projects that there will be 18-20 million AIDS orphans by 2010.
That is 20 million too many.
But as social workers, let us see what we have to build upon. Let us correctly assess Africa’s strengths. Let us not just see the problem, but the solution.
And let us acknowledge the amazing people in Africa who are leading the way.
Again, and again, and again I was delighted and blown away by the dedication of social workers throughout Africa. As I came out of the mountains back to Kampala, my colleague there said, “I have been getting text mails from your friend in Kenya. She figured out that you will not be able to meet at the Nairobi airport as planned. She has already gotten a bus. She will ride all night so that she can meet you here for an hour or two before you get on your plane.”
That is what I mean by dedication. She would ride the bus for hours so we could talk about the ways that, together, we would improve the lives of the children in her care—AIDS orphans and children abandoned by alcoholic parents.
One of the most important psychological tests that I know, that I would use as a psychotherapist is this:
Is the glass half full or half empty?
Do you see Africa’s problems or its hope?
Ann McLaughlin MSW is Director of NGOabroad: International Careers & Volunteering. NGOabroad (http://www.ngoabroad.com) is a unique service that helps people enter or advance in international humanitarian work and provides frugal, customized international volunteer opportunities.