Mostly hidden from public view, and rarely recorded or tracked by government or independent evaluators, thousands of private American groups, the vast majority of them faith-based, give billions of dollars each year to African causes, according to John Donnelly in his book A Twist of Faith: An American Christian’s Quest to Help Orphans in Africa. The book tells the story of one such person, David Nixon, an evangelical Christian and builder from North Carolina.
After hearing a speaker talking about the needs of the church and people in Malawi, Nixon arranged to join a small group to visit the country in 2002. On arrival he made all the usual sorts of mistakes made by well-intentioned westerners seeking to “solve” other people’s poverty: giving money out to pastors that he had just met, planning to set up an orphanage without going through the official channels, and coming up with his own plans instead of engaging in extensive consultation.
The book tells of many lessons which Nixon learned the hard way, including the dangers of alienating powerful locals, the devastation which can be caused when a local receives large sums of money without adequate checks and balances, and the vagaries of Western donors whose support melts away as soon as they hear about problems encountered. It is not surprising that most charities choose not to inform their donors when projects have negative outcomes.
The book provides a very helpful and unvarnished account of what happens when Westerners try to start a project to help impoverished Africans. We barge in with grand plans to use our money to save people from their poverty, making paternalistic assumptions and failing to realise that poverty is solved not by adding money but by discovering and removing the things that cause poverty.
The author provides a well-written and sensitive portrait of a man who has struggled to overcome many hardships in his life. The book also includes, by way of contrast, descriptions of the African charitable efforts of Oprah and Madonna – well-intentioned actions, but ones which have reflected the expectations of the donors more than those of the recipients. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is involved, or wishes to become involved, in projects to help eradicate poverty.