Building a Self-Reliant Africa from the Bottom-Up

Teddy Ruge, aka TMS Ruge, has made a name for himself by pushing back against international do-gooders in Africa. The Ugandan-born writer and entrepreneur has spent most of his career questioning the very definition of international development.

Ruge says it’s time the international community understands that Western governments are not responsible for developing other nations.

“I think there’s a role for emerging countries and emerging communities to play in global development,” he tells Tiny Spark. “And we need to be supported according to the way we want to develop, not how it’s designed in Washington or London.”

Teddy Ruge (Courtesy of Teddy Ruge)

Teddy Ruge (Courtesy of Teddy Ruge)

Ruge points to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a prime example of the chasm between those who design international development and the poor who are supposed to benefit from it. The goals were formulated in 2000 to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems, including poverty, hunger, HIV/AIDS and childhood mortality.

In 2010, Ruge watched as the United Nations held a summit in New York for world leaders and dignitaries to revisit the MDGS. Meanwhile, Ruge traveled back to his hometown of Masindi, Uganda, and turned the microphone to the poor themselves. He discovered that many didn’t even know what the goals were.

High-level policies aren’t his only frustration. Ruge has also called out celebrity-led charities, like actor Ashton Kutcher’s 2009 campaign against malaria, which had him racing CNN for a million Twitter followers. The Hollywood star promised to buy 10,000 bed nets if he won. In response, Ruge wrote on his blog, “Celebrity stunts of altruism are killing livelihoods in Africa.”

He notes that those in the developing world are often used as sidekicks or props to justify acts of kindness. “Just because you’re doing something for the poor doesn’t mean you’re doing it right,” Ruge says.

Villages in Action conference in 2010. (Courtesy of Teddy Ruge)

Villages in Action conference in 2010. (Courtesy of Teddy Ruge)

Doing good effectively is about empowering local communities, not keeping them dependent, Ruge argues. Giving away things like bed nets, T-shirts and shoes doesn’t solve problems. He says interventionist methods erode people’s abilities to create robust industries and institutions within their own communities. He adds, “Most especially, [they] make our governments lazy.”

Ruge says the West should instead consider what Africa actually wants and needs, such as investing in one of the continent’s many startups, giving business guidance, being a mentor. Better yet, just directly ask Africans what their priorities are.

Ruge remains optimistic. He believes the foreign aid model is shifting away from interventions and toward partnerships.

And as this new paradigm takes shape, Ruge says we need to reconsider what it means for a nation to be “developed.” He asks whether someone who gets paid $3000 a month, owns property, but also carries debt should be considered “more developed” than someone in a village who can prepare organic meals, maintain active lifestyles and send their children to school for less than one dollar a day. “Why can we not call that development? Why does he have to have a car, garage, running electricity and credit cards in order for it to be considered development?”

What about you? Does development mean luxury cars? Organic food? A tight-knit community? Is it time we redefine development?

Additional Resources

Transcript of Ruge’s interview with Tiny Spark

The Guardian: We need to hear from the poor if we want to tackle poverty

The Guardian: How the African diaspora is using social media to influence development

Twitter: @TMSRuge


  1. Thanks for the great perspective!

    In very brief, and in response to the final question you pose here: I think it’s time ‘we’ redefine ‘we’!

    As Mr. Ruge underlines, the constructions that ‘we’ – all of us – have created to circumscribe the ‘us’ and ‘them’ in this context, the ‘we’ who are developed and ‘they’ who are to be developed (and so on in any number of similar formulations), invert terribly the agentic priority, don’t they?

  2. TMS and Amy lay out a pretty good case. A lot of the negatives he identifies happened in South Sudan: Washington D.C. and others chose the form of assistance, the recipients and the goal (strong central government to defend against Sudan and terrorists, an economy based on the oil industry). Now when this strategy failed, they call South Sudan a “failed state” and the dominant narrative is that the USA and others must “save” South Sudan.
    How can that possibly be right?

    There’s no way to stop the West from involving itself in developing countries. There will always be a “national security” interest, whether that’s the Cold War with the USSR or Cold War 2: Son of Cold War with China or the War on Terror. There will always be an economic interest too.

    That’s the kind of inertia TMS describes when he says the South is being excluded from how Development is defined and how it happens. It’s dangerous and it doesn’t work well.

    We (speaking as an American working in an East African country) have to start over from the position TMS describes. Let the community/entrepreneur define what they want to do and help them build on it. It’s not about becoming the Mark Zuckerberg of antimalarials or the Bill Gates of microlending. Your web app isn’t going to be “the next Facebook”, but you can make a lasting impact if you help someone set up their community’s first locally-run clean water bottling factory.

    The South is up against a whole mix of protected interests, patronizing attitudes and skeptics – just like the civil rights movement and even the integration of women in the military (again, from an American perspective).

    Under heavy scrutiny and in a tense atmosphere we have to change those attitudes, challenge those interests and convince the skeptics. It’s impossible without a strong sense of purpose and a support network

    And in the end it is about justice and economics. The world is better when more people are more free to create and exchange.

    (Sorry for the long post but I get such a charge out of the content TinySpark puts out).

    • Amy

      All beautifully said, Rogue Aider.

      A growing number of influential organizations, donors and social entrepreneurs are realizing that genuine partnerships are the way to go. As you say, relationships where both parties are free to “create and exchange” brings dignity and greater chances of success to any initiative.

      Glad you’re getting fired up by our content! Thanks for listening.

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  1. Ugandan To Aid Groups: Don’t Tell Us What We Need — Ask Us! | my blog
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