By now, you’ve likely heard about President Trump’s reported remark last week that the U.S. should bring in more people from Norway instead of from “shithole countries” like El Salvador, Haiti and African nations.
The reaction was swift and loud. Citizens (and allies) of those countries filled social media pages with photos of idyllic beaches, city skylines and shiny structures in so-called “shithole countries.”
They also shared impressive lists of personal achievements that ended with: “I’m from a #shithole country.”
But before long, backlash to the backlash began to surface.
In a widely shared opinion piece for Al-Jazeera, South African writer Sisonke Msimang called the alleged comment “racist” and “tacky” … but truthful at the core.
“Poor people do not leave their countries because of wanderlust: They leave because life feels pretty ‘s***ty,’ ” she wrote. “This — it seems — is a more important reality to address than whether a discredited man who is a known provocateur has hurt some feelings.”
Sure, people in even the poorest places display enviable joy and determination, but she says the pretty landscapes and long lists of accomplishments gloss over terrible daily realities faced by those who have been left out of development success stories.
“The ‘Africa as paradise’ social media posts are a sort of creative non-fiction then,” she wrote. “Of course, the Cape Town skyline is beautiful, but we also know that life in Crossroads or Nyanga or any of the many sprawling townships that ring that city is hard.”
In addition, the posts that show off African development often featured the work of outside actors, according to Teddy Ruge of Uganda who is the CEO of Raintree Farms, an entrepreneur and a development critic not known for pulling his punches.
“Show me a road that your country with your taxes paid for and was built by your people,” Ruge says. “Yeah, it’s certainly there in some places, but that’s not the norm for the continent. The norm for the continent is ‘Let’s have somebody else fix our issues.’ ”
Ruge goes so far as to say that after decades of inaction and dependence on aid, Africans shouldn’t be surprised by the negative perceptions.
“If we fixed our own problems, we wouldn’t be called a shithole.”
Trump’s alleged comments were an easy opportunity to rant on a soapbox, he says, but wouldn’t that energy be better spent “ganging up” on their own leaders to demand better governance, policy and implementation?
Still, Ruge and Msimang agree that the Trump administration is ignoring clear data if it thinks people who immigrate to the U.S. from poor countries take more than they give. They also believe that solutions will only be reached by sustaining thoughtful, constructive conversation on the underlying causes of poverty, vulnerability and migration.
“To characterize any place in hyperbolic, negative ways is unhelpful always,” says Abby Maxman, president of Oxfam America.
Editor’s note: NPR has decided in this case to spell out the vulgar word that the president reportedly used because it meets our standard for use of offensive language: It is “absolutely integral to the meaning and spirit of the story being told.”
Joanne Lu is a freelance journalist who covers global poverty and inequity. Her work has appeared in Humanosphere, The Guardian, Global Washington and War is Boring. Follow her on Twitter @joannelu.