The legacy of imperialism and a newfound global consciousness in the 20th century has made the idea of trans-national humanitarian impact an issue of much contention and has created an identity crisis in the west about its role in the post-colonial world. The polarity of the debate regarding Kony 2012 has revealed this crisis like no other.
An article critical of the movement by Teju Cole, “The White Savior Industrial Complex” was posted in the Atlantic Online last week and is still among the top five articles receiving the most traffic. It opens with seven tweets previously made by Cole, each a quotable statement bashing the integrity of humanitarian efforts and the west’s attitude towards developing countries. The article continues to bash away, going beyond Kony 2012 and clearly identifying all the wrong reasons for anyone to be an activist or an aid worker in Africa. Cole’s most brutal point is to suggest that NGOs and development organizations have maintained the same attitude as previous Imperialists, “From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected.” In the 19th century, it was the burden of the Europeans to civilize Africa. In the 21st century, it is the burden of the privileged west to amend for past colonialism . . . by civilizing Africa.
Is Cole being too harsh? Aren’t there people with a good heart who care about global human rights and strive to see a world with more equitable opportunity for all? There probably are, but people need to ask themselves what matters more: The well-being of those they are helping or the ascension of their own status to poverty fighting heroes? This question is very relevant in light of an interview with Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children and narrator of the viral Kony 2012 video. He explains, quite literally, that people in America grow up watching movies with villains and that Joseph Kony is a real world villain that needs to be defeated. If Kony is the villain, what does that make Invisible Children?
But perhaps the discussion of real impact should outweigh that of personal motivation. Despite personal reasons for getting involved in a particular cause, it is a good thing that people are being made aware of the issues and are taking responsibility for their fellow man. As quoted in Cole’s article, the prominent journalist Nick Kristof commented on the “savior” question, “it seems even more uncomfortable to think that we as white Americans should not intervene in a humanitarian disaster because the victims are of a different skin color.” Clearly, his judgment is weighed towards impact.
The problem with this, however, is that the more weight you put on impact, the less time you devote to reflecting on your actions. With less reflection, one’s motivations become streamlined into something simplistic and without substance. This can be dangerous because personal motivation is a key determinant of what real impact is going to look like. If the true motivation is personal gain and heroism, then the activist is far less likely to get his or her hands dirty into the complex issues that allow Joseph Konys to be bred and children to be vulnerable to abduction. In reality, the line between who creates problems, who the victim is, and who at the end of the day emerges as the savior is far more blurred than Russell’s Hollywood analogy.
It is fair to say that the mass awareness of a thug like Kony is a good way to put pressure on policy makers whose job it is to get their hands dirty and do something. But this makes people comfortable solely with the satisfaction that they have been part of an effort to instigate a change in policy that they ultimately have little say in and won’t necessarily lead to a better situation. People should really think about their motivations and relate them to what it means for actually helping others. This way, people will adopt a way of thinking that works with complexity, a necessary step in tackling the issues and letting go of false “good guys” and “bad guys” constructs of the world.
– Shehryar Nabi is a sophomore majoring in History