And they kept spinning around: a review of MDGs: Mzungus in Development and Governments
Cover image of MDGs: Mzungus in Development and Governments. With permission from the author.
The distinction between expats and migrants, based on nationality, class and mobility privileges, can sometimes be problematic, as the first group often use it to distance themselves from the second. Mzungus are a particular subset of expats: those who spin around aimlessly, wandering in circles from one place to another and leaving little impact behind them. It is no secret that many mzungus are found in the development sector, as they move swiftly from one post to the next and often bring along cookie-cutter approaches to interpret and solve local problems.
In MDGs: Mzungus in Development and Governments we follow Omar Bah, a PhD candidate at SOAS, as he presents his thesis in anthropology on the mzungu community in the Democratic Republic of Straight Lines (DRSL). MDGs is a webcomic, a graphic reenactment of the anthropologist’s ethnographic notebook that keeps some of the traditional elements of the dissertation (such as section names and reference lists) with a twist of humour, and combines a sharp analytical eye with witty personal observations. Through thick, expressive black lines with one supporting colour in each section, Omar Bah introduces his experience studying mzungus, embedded in the development expat community in his own country of birth. He straddles the local and expat worlds for his research, posing as a taxi driver for mzungus at the “Bank” and frequenting the circles of development professionals with the help of his two mzungu roommates, Nagavali (an economist seconded by a graduate scheme to the DRSL Finance Ministry) and Greta (who works at a European development NGO).
As his research progresses, Omar Bah paints a vivid portrait of the complex mzungu ecosystem, from unpaid interns, voluntourists, short-term consultants and senior directors, to academics, new-age nomads, journalists and influencers. For mzungus, he writes, their professional hypermobility is a ‘ritual used in order to keep a system of power in place… to keep the business going without any reflection on its ethical foundations and effectiveness’. In DRSL, we often see young mzungus get caught up in ‘bullshit jobs’, spinning from one to another in search of that meaningful post that will actually help them make a change and justify their career. However diverse they may seem, their multinational trajectories share and sustain a common set of cultural practices and behaviours – from worshipping the Lonely Planet guides while ‘in the field’ to leading a social life segregated from the local community. This hypermobility, however, comes at a cost, as the anthropologist discovers through his own experience: maintaining social ties and long-distance relationships can be almost impossible given the constant uprooting, time differences, and connectivity issues.
Mzungus’ disconnection from the social context they work for also feeds into the asymmetry between expats and locals, the hypermobile and the still – and particularly those whose movement is considered undesirable. The comics denounce the persistence of racist stereotypes among some expats, either looking down on locals with a ‘memsahib attitude’ or fetishising their culture; and examine how the mzungu ‘food chain’ creates divisions and inner hierarchies along race, gender and passport lines. While some are able to get away with overstaying on tourist visas, not all mzungus have passports that allow them to travel extensively or even be considered equals by their peers. The irony does not escape the reader either when hypermobile consultants are hired to work on programmes to deter the migration of others, reinforcing border control agencies or upskilling local workers just enough so that their training will not allow them to apply for jobs abroad. This reflects the current trend among many donor countries that have joined in the ‘zero migration’ mantra, linking development aid and other policies to harsher border regimes, without questioning the mobility of their own overseas employees (even when, as we have seen, they may not always be ‘well integrated’ into their host societies).
Policy and research involving migration and development also feature prominently in Omar Bah’s ethnography. One of the most illustrative cases is the mishandling of biometric data of stateless children at risk of deportation, deceptively collected by an NGO that shares them with the government and liberates them for academic publishing, in a careless move that resonates with UNHCR’s recent data scandal in Bangladesh. Bad academic practices also come under the spotlight, incarnated in a European-based professor who refuses to credit hired researchers on the ground and gets swept into the latest publishing craze on ‘refugee optimisation’ and ‘refugee matching’ – two concepts that disregard refugees’ agency and well-being in the name of economic efficiency.
Despite their colonial roots, as Omar Bah’s grandfather remembers, development mobilities and inequalities are also a deeply contemporary phenomenon, made possible by the postcolonial political and economic order, knowledge and border regimes, and globalisation trends that have facilitated travel logistics and communications. Critical perspectives on development, its impact on local institutions and societies, and the stereotypes that get reproduced in the process also abound within and beyond the sector. Academic accounts such as James Ferguson’s The anti-politics machine or the self-reflection efforts of some organisations, such as Radi-Aid’s famous video campaigns, have examined the shortcomings and troubles of the development sector. MDGs builds upon a sound bibliography of critical development studies and graphic novels, playfully drawn into the bookshelves in Omar Bah’s apartment, to offer a different perspective on the mzungu community that turns the anthropologist’s proverbial perplexity into a source of humour and accessible intellectual inquiry.
If you study or work in development, as a self-aware mzungu or as a local, you will enjoy MDGs: Mzungus in Development and Governments and its sharp commentary on global mobilities and asymmetries that may resemble your own experiences. As we wait for the final installment of the MDG comics’ second chapter, we recommend peeking into the site’s collection of materials (books, articles, videos, comics, and various artefacts) to learn about, laugh, and cringe at mzungus.
MDGs: Mzungus in Development and Governments is freely available at https://mdgcomics.com/phdcomic/.
Magda Rodríguez Dehli
Magda was born and raised in Spain and obtained a B.A. in International Relations from the Complutense University of Madrid, studying abroad at UCLA and at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Lyon, and an MSc in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford. She is currently preparing the admission exams for the Spanish civil service. Her two passions are singing in the shower and keeping a close eye on all things political. She is an editor at Routed Magazine.