Uzodinma Iweala, 35, is an author who lives in New York and Lagos. He gave this opening lecture at the conference « Rethinking philanthropy » organized on October 12 in Geneva by « Le Monde », « Le Temps » and the Graduate Institute.

You may have heard about the time the rock star Bono, a symbol of modern philanthropy, gave a concert. The crowd was totally into it, jamming, dancing, singing their hearts out amidst insane lights shows, lasers, special pyrotechnics, thumping music. Then Bono stopped and asked for quiet. As through from the heavens, a spotlight shone down on where he stood center stage. He began to snap slowly. The audience was confused. After a few snaps into the silence, he finally spoke: « Every time I snap my fingers, an African child dies ». Suddenly, from somewhere in the darkness, a man with a hardcore British accent shouted, « Well bloody stop snapping then! »

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Don’t get me wrong, I respect Bono. The work that he and other celebrities like him have done to bring attention to causes like debt relief and HIV/AIDS treatment has saved real lives. But I recount this joke because I think it illustrates so succinctly one of the most interesting – and problematic – things about modern philanthropy: As currently practiced, philanthropy preserves existing power structures and dynamics that have caused much of the suffering it seeks to alleviate and, in so doing, operates at cross purposes to its original intention. This is especially true of Western philanthropy in Africa.

Absolute power over black lives

Breaking the joke down as it relates to structures and dynamics reveals this: A white man speaking from his god-like perch to a primarily white audience about Africans so...

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