In 1913, Albert Schweitzer steamed up a river in French Equatorial Africa to found a hospital. And there, on the banks of the Ogooé in Gabon, he broke ground. For more than a century, Dr. Schweitzer’s hospital has treated thousands of patients, asking for payment only what they could afford. In the early days, Schweitzer himself treated sleeping sickness and conducted surgeries, but after his death in 1965 a host of doctors carried on his work. In the 1980s, the hospital saw a building boom and expanded beyond the white-washed edifices of the original structure, which now houses a museum. It is considered one of the top malaria research facilities in Africa.
But today, the hospital has fallen on hard times. The Guardian reports:
A Gabonese hospital founded more than a century ago by a Nobel peace prize-winning doctor to atone for colonial crimes is in the grip of a funding crisis that could force it to close.
The Albert Schweitzer hospital in Lambaréné, a town of 25,000 45 miles south of the equator, cannot pay its bills because funding from the government, which is struggling to cope with the global slump in oil prices, has not arrived.
At the same time, more than a century after its French-German founder arrived in Lambaréné, the hospital has been embroiled in a row about racism and corruption, with several former high-ranking hospital officials believing it would be better if it closed down.
Charges of racism and bigotry are nothing new at the Albert Schweitzer hospital. In humanitarian circles, the Alsatian doctor remains a controversial figure, lauded for living his own philosophy of “Reverence for Life,” but condemned for holding paternalistic attitudes vis-à-vis the African patients he served. Schweitzer’s 1965 obituary in the New York Times captures the criticism well:
When Schweitzer was in residence at Lambaréné, virtually nothing was done without consulting him. Once, for instance, he all but halted the station’s work when he received a letter from a Norwegian child seeking a feather from Parsifal, his pet pelican. He insisted on seeing personally that the youngster got a prompt and touching reply from his own pen before work was permitted to resume. His autocracy was more noticeable as his years advanced and as his medical assistants grew less awesome of him.
Schweitzer regarded most native Africans as children, as primitives. It was said that he had scarcely ever talked with an adult African on adult terms. He had little but contempt for the nationalist movement, for his attitudes were firmly grounded in 19th-century benevolence. Although thousands of Africans called him “le grand docteur,” others plastered his village with signs, “Schweitzer, Go Home!”
Schweitzer would treat patients by day and practice Bach on his piano by night, rehearsing for concerts he would give in Europe to raise money for his hospital. But the model he established was not sustainable—the image that comes to mind is of a mustachioed physician, bent over some patient in self-abnegation—for he did not do much to ensure that the institution he had founded would continue to flourish in his absence.
So now a great relic of the colonial era is set to close. Schweitzer would certainly object to such a characterization—he saw himself as a moral figure out to right the wrongs of colonialism in setting up the hospital, not as a benevolent-looking agent whose hospital would one day become a symbol of colonialism’s more benevolent face. But if we view Schweitzer as a latter-day colonialist, suddenly the line between the colonial era and the present becomes quite blurry. American teenagers on mission trips and college students embarking on “summers of service” appear to follow in Schweitzer’s footsteps. So do Western aid workers. There is more continuity in the West’s relationship with Africa than we are comfortable acknowledging, and for good or for ill, we owe our collective impression of Africa as a suffering land in need of our help to none other than Dr. Schweitzer.
The model Schweitzer established at Lambaréné—a personality-centered, one-off project in the middle of the jungle—is emblematic of a flawed approach to development in Africa. The hospital was so dependent on Schweitzer’s celebrity that in the decades after his death, its funding has seesawed; it now relies on a mix of government and private sources to continue operations. Today, with oil revenue declining, the Gabonese government is cutting back on its support; it is uncertain whether private sources will step up to provide more funding. But this story is not unique. Across sub-Saharan Africa, there are countless schools, wells, and hospitals that well-meaning Westerners have constructed à la Schweitzer. Many of them are now forgotten and neglected places of no use to anyone in particular.
Fortunately, over the past two decades, philanthropists and governments have gotten somewhat smarter about aid. Now there’s more of an emphasis on measuring progress, working with market incentives, and developing sustainable institutions. For example, PEPFAR, an anti-AIDS initiative started by President Bush in 2003 and continued by President Obama, has effectively bridged the gap between pharmaceutical companies and African governments. PEPFAR delivered anti-retroviral meds to more than 9.5 million patients in 2015 alone and is crediting with helping to reverse the tide of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Once the AIDS crisis was all over the media. When was the last time you saw a story on it? In this case, no news really is good news.
It is certainly unfortunate that the century-old hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon may soon close. Doctors, both European and Gabonese, have performed good works there for thousands of patients and this piece does not mean to diminish their work. But it does intend to provoke questions about how the West interacts with Africa, and about the ways in which charity and government aid can actually achieve worthy goals in Africa. Schweitzer’s model is not enough, and we would do well to be skeptical of NGOs that issue fundraising calls to “alleviate suffering in Africa.” They must specify the country, specify the cause of the suffering, specify the solution, and specify how it will be measured and sustained. Otherwise, we would do well to resist abstract appeals to “help Africa.” It is indeed midnight for Dr. Schweitzer.