In his TED talk, “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen” (one of my favourites), Dr Ernesto Sirolli gives one of the most powerful and engaging calls to inaction that I have ever seen. While packed full of humorous anecdotes, especially concerning his time as a young man working for international aid organisations in Africa, Sirolli’s talk also plainly outlines the devastating effects of paternalistic attitudes to aid distribution. In his words, “Every single project they set up failed… everything we touched we killed”.
The famous story he tells in his talk (I strongly encourage you to watch or listen to the whole thing here, in his wonderful voice) and the inspiration for his book, Ripples from the Zambezi, is his experience in Zambia with an Italian aid organization. As he tells it:
It was a project where we Italians decided to teach Zambian people how to grow food. So we arrived there with Italian seeds in southern Zambia in this absolutely magnificent valley going down to the Zambezi River. And we taught the local people how to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini. And of course, the local people had absolutely no interest in doing that, so we paid them to come and work… and sometimes they would show up. And we were amazed that the local people in such a fertile valley would not have any agriculture! But, instead of asking them how come they were not growing anything, we simply said, ‘thank God we’re here – just in the nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation!’
And of course, everything in Africa grew beautifully and we had these magnificent tomatoes. In Italy, a tomato would grow to this size. In Zambia, to this size (think: melon)! And we were telling the Zambians, ‘look how easy agriculture is’. (Then) when the tomatoes were nice and ripe and red, overnight, some 200 hippos came up from the river and they ate everything. And we said to the Zambians, ‘my God, the hippos!’ And the Zambians said, ‘yes, that’s why we have no agriculture here’. (We said) ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’, and they said ‘You never asked’.
Dr Sirolli became thoroughly disillusioned with the efforts of international aid programs after a number of years overseeing training and managing volunteers in various well-intentioned projects. He was in a position to see that projects were failing in their ultimate objectives to produce a sustainable and effective outcomes in the developing world, and noticed that the people involved in these failing projects weren’t telling anyone because they thought it must have been unique; one bad project in a program for the greater good… except that it was happening all over.