Oprah’s good intentions

Oprah’s Leadership Academy for Girls in Henley-on-Klip, just 25 miles south of Johannesburg, opened early last month. Zeroing in on South Africa’s substandard educational system, Oprah’s Leadership Academy is one huge step toward remediation. But Oprah’s generous gift has received condemnation at home and abroad. Critics have questioned her philanthropic motives and have raised the ethical question of what it means for Americans to give to Third World countries without imposing self-serving agendas as a moral imperative.

In a country beleaguered by HIV/AIDS, Oprah’s extravagance for only 152 girls has many wondering why she would spend $40 million on one school when she could have spent $1 million on 40 schools — especially if her objective is to improve and democratize education for girls throughout South Africa. For many grassroots organizations and activists in South Africa, their frustration with Oprah’s charitable gift lies with its failure to distribute her vast donation in a way that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. And for Oprah’s critics, the academy is seen as a shrine built to herself on a world stage whilst disguised as goodwill.

Many South African educators worry that Oprah is replicating the American paradigm of elite education. While they applaud Oprah’s objective to educate young girls to become the country’s future leaders, they worry that the outcome will produce a privileged class that will not only become disconnected to their families and friends, but will also become disinterested in the ongoing struggles in their communities. As with many of Africa’s educated class who have left their family and village for a chance at success, they often don’t return. Consequently, the money and resources poured into these students never benefits their communities and contributes to their country’s brain drain.

While it is admirable for Americans to want to help Third World countries most in need, it is equally as admirable for us to respectfully ask how we can best meet their needs — the cardinal rule in International Philanthropy 101. Otherwise, the global reception of American’s donations — while filled with a heart of good intentions as Oprah’s is — will continue to be perceived by Third World countries as our unexamined acts of benevolent paternalism at best, unbridled colonialism at worst. Why? Because how we give matters as much as what we give.

Published in The Metro, February 7, 2007.

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