3 July 2014

Africa: Why Won't the #whitesaviourcomplex Go Away?


I have recently spent a lot of time with young Americans wanting to learn about global development and humanitarianism. Most of them envisage a career in the development or aid industries.

Almost all of them grew up in the relative privileges of the US or Western Europe but do not believe that their work will be in these places. Rather, they anticipate, as they take classes and plan study or internships abroad, that they will be solving the problems of any number of African, South and Central American, or Asian countries.

These young people are masters of social media and show creativity and incredible drive in the ways they approach the problems that they think need to be solved. They blog, tweet and instagram but they also form organisations, raise money and create projects. They travel to African villages, build schools, teach, dig wells, coordinate planning committees, and volunteer in clinics.

When they return, many are smart enough to realise that they did very little to change anybody's lives except their own and that they may have even been disrespectful to the people they were supposedly helping. Yet they continue working mostly within the same kinds of programmes, inspired by Nicolas Kristof and Bill and Melinda Gates, believing that in these they might find a better way for them to save the world.

These individuals also inspire the work of an increasingly diverse group of high-profile musicians and actors and even celebrities created by the aid industry itself. They might be suitably ironic about the impact made by these celebrities, but they remain convinced that their power to raise awareness is invaluable. In the same vein they enthusiastically embrace the clicktivist campaigns such as Kony2012 and #BringBackOurGirls as powerful ways to raise awareness.

Yet there is a growing critique of these young people's work and enthusiasm, which has produced its own hashtag: #WhiteSaviourComplex.

A new generation

These critiques might begin with the understanding that the whole aid and development industry is deeply problematic and requires a complete overhaul or, in some people's views, eradication. But they also speak to the particular character of this generation's forms of engagement, the main issue being its focus on hope as a goal in and of itself and its emphasis on supporting a cause and its associated organisation over and above actual attempts to fundamentally eliminate the causes of poverty.

Most damning is the idea that these activists are driven not by the compulsion to effect change per se, but primarily by a desire to feel good about themselves and their role in the world.

Meanwhile, many contest that raising awareness about depoliticised issues that may or may not be important to the people supposedly being helped often does little besides from raising funds for an organisation founded and staffed by Westerners.

Some might ask what the problem is with trying to do good in places where you don't live. Indeed, it is not easy to critique anyone's good intentions. However, it is necessary to critique the context and content of the actions these intentions produce.

On the issue of context, it is impossible to escape the history of colonialism. This era is thankfully over, but its consequences shaped the present and continue to echo through ongoing inequalities that determine who gets to be the saviour and who has to be saved.

Recognising this could help construct programmes that take into account these power imbalances, but in general that is not happening. Instead, colonial dynamics go largely ignored, while the white saviour complex in fact adds a new layer to these global imbalances.

The development industry, which previously consisted of agencies and governments giving and spending aid, is now joined by a new generation - one whose personal goals involve influencing the lives of people about whom they may know almost nothing, and one that can influence a vast array of political, news, entertainment and social sites and media.

Today's white saviour complex thus inherits the problems of traditional forms of development and aid but in combination with extremely powerful technologies and social media that usher in a whole new universe of inequality and dispossession.

One of the most intrinsic characteristics of the white saviour complex is its ability to engrain and spread the notion that Westerners are the solution to African problems.

This requires portraying the latter as helpless and recirculating images of abandonment and violence or innocence and primitivism while ignoring alternative and just as available images.

Another trait of the white saviour complex is that unlike the imperial and top-down 'white man's burden', it takes place in a shared virtual space between the saviour and the people being saved and in a world in which the goals, personalities and projects of white saviours can be immediately beamed out, as well as commented on and liked or retweeted, into the worlds of Africans themselves.

This can undermine the work of Africans in their own communities. Africans are, after all, actively mobilising new technologies and social media to shape their own worlds and engage directly with the ways that others represent them.

So why, even in these shared spaces, do narratives in which Africans are just the backdrop to American saviours' stories still persist? Why do even influential writers such as Nicolas Kristof, for example, argue that his readers will not care about stories about Africa unless he puts the American centre stage?

These are some of the questions our film FRAMED tries to answer, while also showing that Africans such as author and commentator Binyavanga Wainaina and photographer and activist Boniface Mwengi are not exceptions but simply a couple of the strong, visionary, innovative and passionate Africans that are struggling to make things better in the real and virtual worlds.

FRAMED is in the midst of a Kickstarter funding campaign with a little over a week left. The film will be directed and co-produced by Cassandra Herman. You can watch the trailer and support the film here.

Kathryn Mathersis the author of the book Travel, Humanitarianism and Becoming American in Africa and is a writer and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of International Comparative Studies at Duke University, where she teaches global development and urban anthropology.

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