Malawi children

Due Consideration for the Political Economy of African Countries can Lessen the Unintended Outcomes of Western Humanitarian Interventions

Cover image courtesy of

–by Caleb Jn Pierre–


Many of the better funded humanitarian interventions in Africa, such as orphanages in Malawi, are not run in a way that is compatible with local needs and have negative unintended outcomes. Ironically, some of the more community-embedded agencies (such as Mercy House) that cater better to community needs are the ones that struggle for funding. Engaging local partners will help humanitarian agencies become more tuned to the intricacies of their target countries and will produce optimal results.


Ever since their first humanitarian interventions in Africa, Westerners have mainly gone about the process of “helping” in a manner they deemed appropriate, without consultation with the local population. As a result, there have been many negative unintended outcomes. Although it will be impossible to eradicate unintended outcomes, they can be minimized. This article will make a comparison between the methods used by some orphanages in Malawi and those of the Franciscan Sisters in Uganda to examine how proper social engagements, such as respect for the political economy of a target country, can curtail the negative outcomes of humanitarian interventions.


It is important to establish context in an effort to understand the Western perception of their initiatives to help Africans. Westerners are enduringly inattentive to African culture. This precedes the days of the first humanitarian missionaries and the basis of this problem is the Western social construct that their own societies are more advanced than that of Africans. This dynamic is based on an age-old superiority complex which is deeply rooted in racism and colorism from the days when Muslims enslaved Africans. Muslim academics advocated that Muslims of any color or race should not be enslaved. Nonetheless, “blacks were always viewed as morally and culturally inferior. The Muslim world expected blacks to be slaves.”[1] Europeans had their differences with Muslims, but when they contacted Africans, they shared the Muslim ideology of blacks being morally and culturally inferior. Their negative view of Africans being uncivilized and behaving similar to animals led to centuries of disparagement at the hands of Europeans and Arabs.  Furthermore, they both used the excuse of the Hamitic curse to frame their actions as condemning black Africans to their deserved fate. Such thoughts don’t disappear quickly, and Western humanitarian intervention in Africa continues to exhibit those same traits.

This philosophy of denigration continued even when the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was abolished. Europeans framed African conquest as a way of civilizing Africans and saving them from the evils of the Arab slave trade. Enter the missionaries.

The First Humanitarians

The missionaries portrayed Africans as uncivilized individuals who needed to be saved. They believed exposure to commerce and Christianity was going to lead Africans into civilization. Edgar T. Hole, the Quaker who worked among the Maragoli in Western Kenya once proclaimed, “they were sunk in sin and shame”, were “ignorant in morals and religion” and were “poor, child-like and simple minded.”[2]

The concept of “helping” evolved from making provisions for spiritual needs to material ones during the postwar period, [3] but the secular discourse of humanitarian agencies still depicted the Westerner as the savior of Africans. The status quo of entities conducting activities as they saw fit continued, with little consideration for local input into their activities.

Franciscan Nuns in Uganda

In the Western world dependence is frowned upon, and as discussed by Scherz, “the productivity of both charity and patronage is resisted by scholars and members of the international development community because of their discomfort with dependence and the coexistence of care and power.”[4] According to Scherz, those attitudes cause persons to overlook “that being a dependent is valued in Uganda as a key path for social mobility, to ignore the agency involved in seeking out a patron, and to neglect the fact that clients are also frequently the patrons of others.[5] Consequently, ignoring this crucial attribute of the political economy is a sure way of guaranteeing unintended outcomes. Not wanting people to engage in dynamic relationships that they are used to and dictating that they adopt cultural attributes foreign to them is bound to be met with resistance and cause discord.

Scherz’s made a thought-provoking comparison of “sustainable development,” “charity,” and “Kiganda ethics.” [6] Perhaps a combination of those will yield the best possible results, but there is a particular paradigm shift described by Scherz when discussing the work of the  Franciscan Sisters in Uganda: From, “How can we bring about the end of poverty?” to “What ethical possibilities are open to me in any particular position?”[7] Such a thought process is likely to lead to local considerations that will yield more beneficial results. Or as Scherz puts it, it can lead to “socially and materially thick relationships…they might actually see real improvements in people’s lives”[8] If we consider the work of the Franciscan Sisters at Mercy House we will see that this is the case.

Mother Mary Patrick, a Franciscan nun from Ireland, came to Uganda in 1906, and she eventually established more than 30 convents in the East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Mother Patrick opened the Mercy House convent in Kampala in 1908. When it first opened, it served as a home for persons with debilitating disease, where they could receive care after being discharged from the hospital. With the passage of time, Mercy House became the home of very old and very young persons who had no one else to provide care for them. The Franciscan Sisters have developed a model  of “helping” that meshes very well with local traditions. Their brand of care has evolved “from the interaction between Catholic ideas of charity and two distinct Kiganda ethics of interdependence: omutima omuyambi (a heart for helping) and patronage.”[9] A combination Scherz termed an ethicomoral assemblage.[10] There is an overlap in meaning between omutima and charity. They are both characterized by “their lack of reciprocal exchange.”[11] You helped someone because you could and did not expect anything in return. The Franciscan Sisters had a history of charity and cultivating relationships in the community within which they serve.

One of the key things to note is that despite some main financiers being Western, there are many local nuns working in the ranks of the Franciscan Sisters. So, there is no shortage of local know-how. For example, consider Sister Jane Nabbagala. From her modest origins in a village in Buganda, she eventually ended up living with her uncle who was a pig farmer, whilst she was in primary school. Her uncle died soon after she left primary school and left her an inheritance of a pregnant pig.  She sold off the piglets when the sow gave birth and grew her holdings by keeping one or two piglets.[12] The money she earned from her enterprise enabled her to pay her school fees well into secondary school, and crucially, “she even paid the school fees for several other poor children in the village.”[13] The relationship between a young Sister Jane and the other poor children was displaying the “ethics of interdependence”, in which people with resources are morally obligated to take on clients, and those without resources “must actively try to attach themselves to others as dependents”[14].Those are the kinds of people in the ranks of Mercy House and other convents run by the Franciscan Sisters of Africa.

Hence, it is not surprising the sort of projects they take on. Their projects are the antithesis of the interventions regularly favored by other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Uganda and other parts of Africa. Rather than hosting “community training sessions and working to create sustainable community institutions, the sisters focused on the direct provision of goods, services and employment.”[15] The chief responsibility of the sisters at Mercy House is to mind the welfare of the children and elderly persons attached to Mercy House. This includes: raising money for school fees and other expenses, taking residents to medical appointments, visiting children in their care but living at boarding school, and managing their agricultural projects designed to help Mercy House achieve some level of self-sufficiency.[16] In addition, the sisters also manage and teach at the small vocational school on the Mercy House compound, manage an outside rehabilitation program staffed by members of the local community. The Bread for the World Foundation also has a bakery on the Mercy House compound which provides vocational training and job opportunities for persons with disabilities as well as providing a line of income.[17]

Mercy House is embedded in the community and serving them in ways that are most needed. Nonetheless, they have found it difficult to raise funds, “since people were generally reluctant to give money for things that would be consumed or used within a short time, leaving no visible evidence of their contribution.”[18] This means that their brand of helping is struggling for support despite the proven advantages of their method.

Orphanages in Malawi

In the wake of the AIDS pandemic in Africa, Malawi was one of the most affected countries. There were an estimated one million orphans living in the country,[19] and the political and economic restructuring led the Malawian government, with the guidance of United Nations agencies, produced the National Plan for Orphans and Other Vulnerable Children in 1992.[20] The  plan invited NGOs and Faith Based Organizations (FBOs) to take over the social services they can no longer provide.[21]

The United Nations defines an orphan as “a child who has lost one or both parents through death”[22] The  Government of Malawi and most FBOs have adopted this meaning. This meaning has captivated the imagination of Westerners and has been a key in generating many donations. Most donors to FBOs, however, have a Western frame of mind when thinking of an orphan that is more “in line with an Oliver Twist–like child who has lost both parents, is isolated, abandoned, vulnerable, and stigmatized.”[23] Such illustrations can result in the creation and implementation of orphan care programs that are incompatible with local needs.[24]


In Malawi, like most of Africa, there are adaptive kinship systems that “prioritizes maintaining children in their communities and families.”[25] The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) did a great job in highlighting the issue of orphans in Malawi, but the added attention gave rise to Western humanitarian entities practicing the institutionalization of orphans. This is contrary to the recommendations of the Malawian Government and UNICEF and tends to show scant regard for the cultural traditions of Malawi. Undoubtedly, the efforts to help the orphans are well-intentioned, but these efforts ignore a key trait of Malawian culture and are primarily motivated by selfish concerns. It appears that one of the biggest reasons for this practice instead of supporting community-based care, is to show donors a “tangible and visible manifestation for their investment.”[26] This may keep donation flowing, but if those funds keep supporting projects that are contrary to key aspects of the political economy of a country, this faulty application undermines the customs of a people and will keep producing unintended outcomes.

In many ways, this appears to be a continuation of a trait displayed by the first humanitarians. Where the humanitarian entity is run by white Westerners who choose to “help” the “helpless” Africans in a manner of their choosing. A transformation to supporting community-based care will lead to better outcomes, but Western humanitarians need to partner with locals to highlight the importance of such projects and how they are a vehicle to an increase in agency among the African beneficiaries of such help. This may be one of the best ways to rival the large-scale tangible manifestations of projects like the Orphanages that prompt Western donations.

Unintended Outcomes

One of the biggest issues with institutionalizing orphans is the provision of new primary caregivers. The lack of a biological connection which would have otherwise existed in the setting of an extended family has obvious implications. Freidus’ research revealed that “children misbehave because they do not feel the need to obey or respect paid employees.”[27] This is reciprocated when “paid employees may not extend the same amount of attention and affection towards children in their care as they would their own biological children.”[28]

Another negative unintended outcome is the stigmatization of persons designated as orphans. Orphans are often marginalized and “there is the potential for orphans to experience low self-esteem, social discrimination and community hostility.”[29] Sometimes, the staff at an orphanage play a crucial hand in debasing the former traditional existence of the orphans within an African context. For example, sometimes they “are encouraged by staff to think of life in rural areas as inferior to their experiences at the orphanage.”[30] A direct consequence of this is the undermining of the traditional view of the African extended family, because orphans begin to express “disdain for and even rejection of village life.”[31] This ultimately weaken the ties that those orphans have with their own culture; and due to the individualistic Western discourse which is a likely indoctrination of the Orphanages, the orphans are lacking an essential aspect of functioning in African society. There was also jealously which developed as a result of the improved lot of orphans. Despite organizing “holiday breaks” to assuage the disconnects which developed between orphans and their extended families, none of the orphans “was willing to return permanently to life in the village, and nearly all cited community jealousy as the reason.”[32] Therefore, it is understandable why “educated orphans described struggling to find employment and this was partially due to lack of family connections.”[33]

Similar observations were made by Bornstein in Zimbabwe. It was noted that the intent of sponsorship was to “seek to transcend economic disparity via personal relationships between individuals in “developed” nations and the children they sponsor in “less developed nations.”[34] The potential for eradicating poverty and bridging the gap between far flung worlds is undermined by social difficulties created for the sponsored children in orphanages. Bornstein also mentions how child sponsorship programs can potentially alter a child’s social identity, create friction within their local communities and place strains on familial ties due to inherent jealousy and perceived shift in social status. All children are not sponsored and therefore all are not granted the same resources which can create an imbalance at the local level.[35] Bornstein succinctly noted, “The liberatory potential to link people and transcend inequality on a global scale occurs in local political economies that reinforce the very disparities that sponsorship aims to overcome.”[36]

Bornstein’s observations are very important because a direct consequence of the “developed world’s individualistic discourse”[37] which is being transferred to less developed countries through child sponsorship is the formation of a sub-class of persons that have the potential to further disrupt African culture. It is unlikely that this would be the outcome of a community-based project which included the extended families.

The way forward

There will probably always be an issue when it comes to Western-led humanitarian interventions in Africa. It is unrealistic to set the bar at perfection. Such utopian outcomes should be restricted to a theoretic realm. However, more must be done to avoid unintended outcomes. Many aid agencies have steered clear of assisting with infrastructural projects. For example, World Vision Malawi concentrates on building capacity of teachers, providing learning materials, sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools to enable a safe and conducive environment.[38] But, an infrastructural project that serves the entire community, as well as  supporting some community-based projects, such as the work done by the Franciscan Sisters of Africa[39], is a good starting point.

There are issues with internal politics everywhere, so Africa is not unique in this regard. This is not any form of promotion for Western donors to stop sponsoring specific targeted humanitarian interventions. The preference is clear, and as previously discussed it probably stems from Western individualistic ideals. But, there will be more buy-in from the wider community if due consideration is given to the traditional way of doing things: a way that respects the cultural traditions of a place. To not do so, especially when disregarding official recommendations, as in the example above in Malawi, is proof that such a course of action shows a blatant disregard for the proper way to operate within the Malawian context. This creates distrust and suspicion as to the true intentions of those sponsorship projects. Recipients of sponsorship are asking, “Do you think there are ulterior motives behind humanitarian aid?”[40] In many ways this is a legacy of the actions of early missionaries working in tandem with colonial officials. The only way to fix this is to engage local partners.

If anyone is in doubt about the good of the orphanages, Freidus made an important conclusion. The beneficiaries of the current sponsorship systems weighed the pros and cons and the fact that they “were thankful for the opportunity to be in the orphanages and none would give up his/her place to return to the village”[41] But, if the ultimate goal is to increase the efficacy of those programs the words of Uzodinma Iweala ring true. Westerners should “Stop Trying to Save Africa,” If the proper partnerships are formed the West can help Africa save itself. [42] Doing what Western entities think is best and pursuing their own agendas strengthens the superiority complex that many locals criticize. Many more people will benefit if a wider net is cast. Malkki showed that sometimes persons have a genuine need to help.[43] If people are willing and able to help, it will be to the benefit of all if they are properly guided regarding the intricacies of the field locations where their aid agencies operate. If this understanding is acquired and the proper local partnerships are formed it will be to the benefit of both the “helpers” and the helped.

This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.


Primary Sources

Freidus, Andrea. “Raising Malawi’s Children: Unanticipated Outcomes Associated with Institutionalised Care.” Children & Society 24, no. 4 (2010): 293-303. doi:10.1111/j.1099-0860.2010.00313.x.

Scherz, China. Having People, Having Heart: Charity, Sustainable Development, and Problems of Dependence in Central Uganda. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

“MALAWI ORPHANS AND VULNERABLE CHILDREN FACT SHEET.” U.S. Agency for International Development. Accessed August 26, 2018.

“Our Work.” World Vision International. May 05, 2017. Accessed August 24, 2018.

Secondary Sources

Barnett, Michael N. Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.

Bornstein, Erica. “Child Sponsorship, Evangelism, and Belonging in the Work of World Vision Zimbabwe.” American Ethnologist 28, no. 3 (2001): 595-622.

Freidus, Andrea. ““Saving” Malawi: Faithful Responses To Orphans And Vulnerable Children.” NAPA Bulletin 33, no. 1 (2010): 50-67. doi:10.1111/j.1556-4797.2010.01040.x.

Malkki, Liisa Helena. The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015

“Malawi.” UNICEF. Accessed August 26, 2018.



“Fundraising For Malawi Orphans Using Online Tools.” PR Voyageur. April 26, 2008. Accessed August 24, 2018.

Iweala, Uzodinma. “Stop Trying To ‘Save’ Africa.” The Washington Post. July 15, 2007. Accessed July 13, 2018.

[1]James H. Sweet, “The Iberian Roots of American Racist Thought,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 54 (January 1997): 147.

[2] Kenda Mutongi, Generations of Grief and Grievances: A History of Widows and Widowhood in Maragoli, Western Kenya, 1900 to the Present (1996), 20.

[3] Michael N. Barnett, Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013), 119.

[4] China Scherz, Having People, Having Heart: Charity, Sustainable Development, and Problems of Dependence in Central Uganda (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 70.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 5-8.

[7] Ibid., 140.

[8] Ibid., 141.

[9] Ibid., 85.

[10] Ibid.,

[11] Ibid.,

[12] Ibid., 74.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 2.

[15] Ibid., 78.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 79.

[18] Ibid. 81.

[19] “MALAWI ORPHANS AND VULNERABLE CHILDREN FACT SHEET.” U.S. Agency for International Development. Accessed August 26, 2018.

[20] “Malawi.” UNICEF. Accessed August 26, 2018.

[21] Andrea Freidus, ““Saving” Malawi: Faithful Responses To Orphans And Vulnerable Children,” NAPA Bulletin 33, no. 1 (2010): 53.

[22] Ibid., 54.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Andrea Freidus, “Raising Malawi’s Children: Unanticipated Outcomes Associated with Institutionalised Care,” Children & Society 24, no. 4 (2010): 294.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 297.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 298.

[30] Ibid., 299.

[31] Ibid., 300.

[32] Ibid., 300.

[33] Ibid., 302.

[34] Erica Bornstein, “Child Sponsorship, Evangelism, and Belonging in the Work of World Vision Zimbabwe,” American Ethnologist 28, no. 3 (2001): 595

[35] Ibid., 599-600.

[36] Ibid., 595.

[37] Ibid., 600.

[38] “Our Work.” World Vision International. May 05, 2017. Accessed August 24, 2018.


[40] Erica Bornstein, “Child Sponsorship, Evangelism, and Belonging in the Work of World Vision Zimbabwe,” 600.

[41] Ibid., 301.

[42] Uzodinma Iweala, “Stop Trying To ‘Save’ Africa,” The Washington Post, July 15, 2007, accessed July 13, 2018,

[43] Malkki, Liisa Helena. The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.

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