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Why Gupta’s Casual Racism Should Worry You


GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — In this bustling lakeside town I spent a wonderful Christmas evening baking pizza in an outdoor oven, sipping a cold bottle of the local Primus brew. Earlier in the day, I was at a lakeside café reading a good book, watching families dressed in their Sunday best, as they strolled toward the adjoining restaurant for their holiday meal. Little children in their miniature suits and gowns paused to take photos with the Santa Claus cut-out propped next to the entrance.

This American Jew had a lovely Congolese Christmas–a perk I was able to enjoy as a UBC student studying abroad in South Africa, where my holiday trip began. And yet I felt guilty.

I felt guilty because I neglected to heed the call of my university’s new president, Arvind Gupta, and ask the locals celebrating here on December 25 whether they knew it was Christmas.

Perhaps the several thousand cases of Ebola, currently solely concentrated in the adjacent West African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, had gotten these folks so mixed up that they weren’t actually sure what all those small, colorful orbs were doing decorating their restaurant. And why, they might have wondered, were faux fir trees scattered around the lakeside?

If that sounds a bit absurd, that’s because it is. Even in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country routinely ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world, the Christian population sure as heck knew it was a day of celebration.

Maybe if I could have reassured President Gupta that the Congolese, residents of what the West has variously termed the “Heart of Darkness”, the “Bleeding Heart of Africa,” and otherwise written off as one more “War-Torn Region in Africa,” were happily celebrating Christmas despite a public health crisis ongoing thousands of miles away – for perspective, the epicentre of the outbreak, Sierra Leone, is closer to Berlin than Cape Town – he would not have felt the need to “challenge” UBC’s 300,000 students and alumni to join a campaign led by an aging British musician to generate pity for supposedly sickly Africa and donate around $20 to an opaque foundation seeking to “fight ebola.”

“Tonight, we’re reaching out and touching you,” Gupta crooned in the grainy webcam video, posted on UBC’s official Facebook page, singing lyrics from “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” before the clip fades to black.

Creepy. But not nearly as creepy as what a closer examination of Gupta’s participation in the Band Aid 30 challenge, as well as what an assortment of his public statements tell us about the type of university he intends to run.

Gupta has repeatedly said the path forward for UBC must include close collaboration with the private sector, but his endorsement of Band Aid 30–a simplistic, patronizing, racist and ultimately destructive campaign–shows a disturbing lack of the critical approach essential to ensuring our university doesn’t become an industry lapdog.

Gupta’s Ignorance on Aid Debate a Distressing Sign

Anyone who has shown even a cursory interest in current events knows that foreign aid to African countries is a fraught topic. “Aid” is an enormously broad category and includes everything from controversial voluntourism trips to long running, small-scale NGO projects, to work funded by the Catholic Church, and debt forgiveness by foreign governments. Scholars and pundits are divided on the effectiveness of various types of aid in successfully tackling issues like reducing infant mortality, combating HIV/AIDS and addressing food shortages and on the question of whether ongoing, large-scale development aid prevents governments from becoming self-sufficient but many are harshly critical.

“This money has bred dependence and inflation; it doesn’t allow people to ever really become productive,” Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, explained to Der Spiegel.

Many also criticize Western development aid, which often includes stringent conditions – anything from requiring recipient governments to hold regular, free elections to forcing them to restructure their entire economies and privatize industries – as a form of neo-colonialism.

(Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which Gupta advises on matters of science and technology, has been widely criticized for folding its foreign aid agency into the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development and tying aid to foreign policy objectives and economic opportunities for Canadian companies.)

While hardly universal, this critique is prevalent enough that the director of the European Union’s aid program in Africa has called the practice of tying aid dollars to democratic reforms “like blackmailing,” adding that such conditions were often seen as a “colonial tool.”

But while there is much nuance in the foreign development debates – Africa is a Country has a particularly great critique regarding foreign aid – there is a broad consensus in progressive circles around what kind of aid is racist, patronizing and destructive: campaigns like Geldolf’s Gupta-endorsed Band Aid, for one.

“Representing Africans–yet again–as helpless and without dignity while representing ourselves as knowledgeable problem-solvers (who give up nothing in our attempts to do good) IS part of the problem and NOT part of the solution,” Cecelia Lynch writes in a succinct takedown of Band Aid on the Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa blog. “[W]hat we need is to target the neoliberal austerity policies that have led to the breakdown of health systems in West Africa as well as other areas of the world (including many parts of the U.S.).”

For Gupta to buy into Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” song suggests an utter lack of awareness of the fact that throwing Western money at African problems is anything but entirely noble. Gupta’s participation in the campaign reeks of an increasingly popular white saviour complex that views Africa as an opaque box of humanitarian suffering that responsible Westerners are obligated to help in the most base manner: if there is a famine, ship food; if there is violence, send peacekeepers.

As Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole writes in a critique of the White Saviour-Industrial Complex:

“His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated ‘disasters.’”

Au Bon Pain bakery's Christmas decorations in Goma

Au Bon Pain bakery’s Christmas decorations in Goma

Gupta’s Aid Ignorance Jives With His Support for Industry

That President Gupta views Africa in this way, coupled with his other public comments, suggests he sees the world through an uncritical capitalist lens, and that he intends to integrate UBC more tightly into the corporate world in Canada and abroad.

Gupta has said the right things about UBC’s role in society, but his actions from the Band Aid video to his allocation of tens of millions in research funding at a time when the Board of Governors is hiking students fees and complaining about a lack of funding for the university, say far more about his plans.

“We should think about our role in creating great Canadian citizens,” Gupta told the Georgia Straight. “And great Canadian citizens have to be engaged with the world. They have to be engaged in their community. They have to want to give. They have to want to volunteer.”

These are platitudes of the finest order, but examining Gupta’s past actions suggest a leader enamoured with private-public partnerships alongside corporations that contribute to the societal ills Gupta wants us as students “to give” and “volunteer” to eliminate.

From 2000 until his inauguration as president Gupta served as CEO of Mitacs, a Canadian nonprofit that works with the federal and provincial governments and over 900 industry “partners.” The foundation brought in $10.4 million in private-sector investment in 2013, money that went toward research projects and internships equipping students with “vital business, interpersonal and  entrepreneurial skills.”

One Mitacs project had an SFU student measure a particular kind of pollution from Vancouver-based mining company Teck Resources’ stacks of mine waste. While measuring such pollution is ordinarily “very difficult and costly to measure” – an obligation that a mining company like Teck, which made a profit of $3.7 billion in 2013, would be required to take – Mitacs only provided a team of interns for the project.

Meanwhile, environmental organizations are protesting Canadian mining companies’ refusal to make public exactly the sort of pollution data being gathered by Gupta’s Mitacs interns. And elsewhere, other Canadian mining companies have abysmal human rights records in their operations overseas, including in Botswana, Kenya, DRC and Zimbabwe.

Yet amidst all this, Gupta, in his inaugural speech as president, announced his intention for UBC to “continue to support the resource sector, the traditional mainstay of the BC economy.” He added that industry “challenges” would be put front and center in the classroom, saying, “…we will reach out across civil society, always ready to address the challenges facing governments, industries… We will integrate their needs into our research mandate… And we will integrate them in our teaching mandate.”

READ MORE: Industry ties at UBC’s new mining institute have been widely criticized and student activists have been waging a grassroots campaign to shut it down.

While Gupta told the Straight he wants to create “great Canadian citizens” who are “engaged with the world,” it appears he is unable to “think constellationally” when crafting a university that can meet these aims. Real social justice work involves a critique of capitalism, or at least of the way large corporations operate in our capitalist society, but as detailed above Gupta has enthusiastically worked with industries that do serious damage both in Canada and abroad.

Gupta has repeatedly made clear he views the university as a means to boost Canada and BC’s economy, even suggesting that Mitacs was funding scholarships for 282 undergraduate students from India, Brazil, China and Mexico to study in Canada explicitly because, “Many of them will go back to their home countries and give us connections.”

His Band Aid endorsement suggests a worldview wherein there is no contradiction between offering sustained support for a Canadian industry alleged to have been culpable in brutal massacres in the Global South, and crooning off-key pleas for pocket change to be sent to the same populations affected by research coming out of Gupta’s university and foundation.

As Teju Cole further explains, “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”

 Band Aid Endorsement a Red Flag For Gupta’s Vision of UBC

The reason Gupta’s apparent attitudes toward Africa, as witnessed in the Band Aid video, are so crucial is because it is one of the few indications we have about how he plans to run the university. Still early in his term as president, it is hard to pass judgement before Gupta has taken concrete action. Yet the Band Aid endorsement shows that Gupta falls squarely within the mold of the classic Western businessman: believing in the inherent good of Western society, believing in the inherent inferiority and subservience of the Global South and believing that the West should dedicate its primary resources – its capital, both human and financial – toward areas that will help it grow.

In a deeper exploration of the Band Aid campaign, New African attacked the “politics of pity” embodied by Geldolf and Gupta’s attitudes toward the continent. The politics of pity stand in contrast to the “politics of justice,” and those who pity are compelled to simply offer cash or food to those who are damaged by unjust actions on the part of Western corporations or governments, rather than fight for structural change.

“A five-minute song cannot argue for a certain worldview of widely-accepted stereotypes; it can only tap into and enhance those that already dominate the cultural and political environment,” James Wan wrote.

Gupta’s endorsement of the campaign, then, shows that he already holds the worldview of a white saviour and accepts the stereotypes of “Africans” as helpless, sickly and in dire need of assistance. He is not a president who will run a university in a way that helps change the oft-problematic Western worldview and the view of the Other embedded in it.

 What the Future Holds

Our new president has big plans for growing UBC’s role internationally and within provincial life. He envisions a university working hand-in-glove with industry and government for the betterment of society at large. The danger is that it is all too easy for a university to become a government or business lackey. It is a far greater challenge for a university to be an agent for positive change within those sectors.

This should be taken as a warning to the student community at UBC. If we aren’t careful, we could soon be studying in the service of Kinder Morgan and Stephen Harper.

More importantly, it should be taken as a warning for Arvind Gupta. The protests against student fee hikes have shown that we aren’t a group of students that will take whatever the administration throws at us lying down. I’ve strayed from The Ubyssey, my typical campus journalism stomping ground, to publish this piece in UBC’s new alternative press, partially for the symbolism: there are more eyes watching you than ever, Gupta, and you ought to be careful what you do with our university.

Special thanks to editors of the The Talon, and especially Maneo Mohale, for their suggestions and guidance in the editing of this piece.