Madonna's Malawi Scandal: What Foreign Aid Groups Should Learn From Her Disgrace


For spectators of both global development and popular culture, the past two weeks have been particularly fascinating. After a four-year absence, Madonna returned to Malawi, where her much-beleaguered charity claims to have been building schools — or mere classrooms, according to the government. During this recent sojourn in Malawi, Madonna made “poor people dance for her,” as President Joyce Banda claimed, and demanded VIP treatment at airports ... or did she?

Following an extraordinary pair of statements from the Malawian government and from Madonna herself, the debate rages on about her charity, her behavior, and what has motivated the strong backlash against both. No less than Binyavanga Wainana — a key thought leader in how we think and talk about Africa — has weighed in on the controversy, with a scathing indictment of Western development and its general cluelessness and condescension towards the continent.

I have watched this tempest in a teacup unfold with rapt attention, as well as a helping of secondhand embarrassment and recognition. I am a white Westerner, and I have worked in international development, primarily in Africa, for more than 10 years. The behavior decried in the statement issued by the Malawian government (although apparently not approved by President Banda herself) was like a checklist for the worst tendencies in expat aid workers. It was all there: the expectation of special treatment at the airport and elsewhere, the disregard for local officials, and more broadly, imposition of the “obligation of gratitude” to which all so-called beneficiary nations should be “chained.”

I bristled with recognition when I read the government statement, and I imagine that many other development workers did too. In my career, I believe that I have done my best to be humble and respectful towards the host countries where I worked. Still, much like Madonna, the “honorable intentions” of those who work in development are not enough, and we must continually examine our motives and behavior. And, perhaps more importantly, we must listen to the sometimes harshly critical voices of the population that we are trying to serve.

The statement from the Malawian government was also remarkable because it read like a vigorous repudiation of the “white savior” narrative so prevalent in development, particularly where celebrities (and celebrity journalists) are involved. The anonymous author of the statement refuses to position Malawi as a poor nation needing Western magnanimity to save it from itself. The Malawi of the statement (and of reality) is a hardworking, proud, and viable nation state that asserts its own dignity and identity. This echoes the change in development strategy. As an anonymous official told the BBC’s Andrew Harding, "[the] old image of a white person holding a starving black child is just embarrassing these days. The emphasis is on partnership, on building resilience in communities, and on business models."

Whether this relatively recent shift to deepened “collaboration” will prove to be truly equitable and productive is yet to be seen. In any case, money — of the aid or investment kind — talks: Widespread recession and austerity in the West and the rise of the BRIC countries might mean that the “white savior” narrative is on its way out.

Of course Madonna and her advisers have their own explanation for the Malawian government’s criticism, accusing the president of holding grudges and telling lies, and also implying local corruption. That Madonna’s response evokes one of the oldest tropes about post-colonial Africa — corrupt and greedy officials — is not surprising either. Does public and private corruption exist in Malawi? Probably. But explaining away the real financial irregularities in one’s charity by blaming local corruption is a racist and tired excuse. Any backlash to this equivocation by Madonna and her advisers is justified.

In conclusion, and in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I have loved Madonna and her music since I was a child in the '80s. She was ahead of her time when she verbalized in the mainstream media the intersectionalities between being a woman and being a gay man in American society, however crudely or without nuance she may have done so. Her unabashed embrace of the “white savior” narrative in her engagement with Malawi is disappointing.

Perhaps Madonna will heed the lessons of this PR disaster and modify her behavior accordingly. The larger world of development and philanthropy would be wise to do the same.