A Norwegian artist, Morten Traavik, is organising an online beauty contest with a difference: the candidates are Angolan women injured by landmines.
Some aid agencies have called the project a “freakshow”.
I think I approve but am not sure. As an attention-getting stunt the contest is certainly effective, and it has a serious development aim. Does it exploit and demean women and the disabled? No more than any beauty contest, and probably less – it’s especially valuable to these particular women to feel glamorous and desirable. The women are volunteers affirming themselves in an odd way, not passive objects of Western benevolence like Princess Di’s. Beauty contests are popular in Angola anyway, so Traavik’s scheme is not of itself cultural colonialism.
What I don’t like is that only the winner gets a free high-tech prosthesis fitted in Norway, a very rich country. I dare say this will change as the final nears.
As with all foreign aid, there’s a risk of diversion of funds via fungibility: aid for schools etc. allows the government to spend more on palaces and guns. The Angolan government is notoriously bad: the country ranks 147 out of 179 in Transparency International’s “corruption perceptions” world rankings; the Mo Ibrahim Foundation ranks Angola 42 out of 47 African countries on governance. Angola’s huge oil revenue is secret and a lot of it is shunted directly into offshore bank accounts. You could argue that Angola’s kleptocracy is so extreme that aid diversion becomes difficult. Anyway, aid diversion is an argument for supporting schemes like Traavik’s that work on attitudes – for states of mind can’t be stolen.