White Savior Complex

I think it was 1978 when I first heard African church leaders discuss the “white savior complex” and blame the media for creating images of Africa in perpetual crisis.

We sat in a small, airy, modern building in Dakar, Senegal. It was hot. Dust devils swirled the sand outside. It was my first trip outside the United States and everything seemed noteworthy, even the flat, dry landscape beyond the windows.

This memory was conjured up by the public debate about the “Kony 2012″ campaign and its viral video.

The African church leaders complained to me as if I were representative of the entire journalism profession. They had wanted to unload on someone for a long time, and here I was, so they unloaded. I heard about their frustration that positive stories of Africans solving problems and creating economic progress were of no interest to Western journalists. The journalists only wanted stories of crisis, death, destruction, graft and political corruption, the church leaders said.

They only show up when something goes wrong. They take pictures, shoot video and leave. When they leave, the story goes away until a crisis pops up somewhere else. They don’t get the story accurate. They look only at the things they can see on the surface. They don’t understand the culture or the underlying circumstances that lead to human suffering.

They see drought but ignore longstanding issues that have roots in colonial exploitation, roots that create inequity and injustice and keep Africans in a subservient position in trade relationships, lacking the money to build infrastructure, education and viable businesses to compete globally.

But there was more. The African church leaders were also frustrated with the parade of celebrities who come for a day or two, get their picture taken and speak on behalf of Africans. Then they retreat to the most expensive hotels and leave on the next flight out. I heard about white people who come to Africa with a savior complex, as if Africans don’t have the intelligence or capabilities to solve their own problems.

We lack resources, not resourcefulness,” the Africans told me. We don’t need white saviors telling us how to survive. We’ve been surviving here long before white people came and exploited the people and the land. After they leave, we’ll still be here, they said. I got an earful. Welcome to Africa!

All of these themes have come up in the “Kony 2012″ campaign flap. I was surprised by a blog post by a PR professional in the United States who said Invisible Children had deftly managed the public relations flap. Not from what I have read in reactions of Africans to the film. They raise issues that have been percolating for at least 30 years and the fact that the film steps into these troubled waters and stirs them anew is not a sign of deft PR. It’s a sign of good intentions run aground by lack of historical understanding and context.

In reviewing this criticism, I’m not making a case for ignoring the horrendous human suffering caused by Joseph Kony. The criticism does, however, provide perspective. For as long as I’ve been writing about poverty and its effects globally, which is now going on 30 years, I’ve been concerned about the exploitation of children, especially as child soldiers and through sex trafficking. It’s heartbreaking. It makes me angry. It deserves focused, ongoing attention until we’ve put an end to it.

For me, focus and ongoing attention are key. It’s unfortunate that the “Kony 2012″ campaign’s attention got diverted to the accuracy of its claims and the role the storyteller. 

I’m willing to give great leeway to the young filmmaker and his aspirations to put an end to Kony’s reign of terror. I’m reminded of Ann Lamott’s comment in Bird by Bird, “Reality is unforgivingly complex.” I’m grateful that he’s taken on this terribly important issue. And I’m hoping the attention Invisible Children has brought to the issue creates a sustained effort to put an end to Kony and others who exploit children in merciless ways.

This will require a multi-pronged  effort to empower African human rights advocates to press for action by governments in Africa, public support of the kind Invisible Children is creating in the United States and elsewhere to pressure Western policymakers and governments to pursue Kony and others, and to implement aid programs  that include measurable outcomes to protect human rights and prevent exploitation of children, and women who continue to experience rape and other indignities daily in Africa.

It’s been such a long, long time.

Postscript–March 16, 2012: Nicholas Kristof defends the young filmmaker with a compassionate defense. This BBC coverage contains African reaction to the video. David Reiff critiques the advocacy methodology and its outcome (or lack of it) in this article in Foreign Affairs. A tragic turn of events occurred today with the arrest of the young filmmaker. He is in my prayers.

March 20, 2012: Journalist Angelo Izama provides a lucid overview of the political context in which Joseph Kony operates and discusses how this complex context makes it possible for tyrants like Kony to function as proxies for the various political interests that help them to survive.

This collection of posts gives insight into the white savior complex from different points of view.

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