the savior complex
Where did it come from, this idea that we in the privileged West are supposed to "save Africa?"
In one sense, the booming interest in Africa and in "doing something" to help people there isn't new. It's been there ever since European colonizers, soldiers, and missionaries figured out how to live on the continent without dying of malaria. Missionaries were the most obvious about it: they went to Africa first and foremost for the purpose of saving souls. The colonizers almost universally justified their merciless exploitation of the continent and its people by declaring that they were there for what the French termed the mission civilisatrice - the "civilizing mission." (They largely chose to ignore the evident and obvious signs of existing civilization all around them.)
Likewise, the Cold War shenanigans of both East and West were intended to bring the influence and culture of both sides onto the continent in hopes of saving Africa from the other side. The number of American Cultural Centers and British High Commission Libraries littering the continent are among the relics of this period. (And the Chinese are busy establishing Confucius Institutes all over the continent today in hopes of developing their cultural hegemony.)
I certainly don't want to fall prey to the parochialism of the present by arguing that we're witnessing something entirely new.
And yet. In recent years, something has without a doubt changed with respect to Western attitudes about Africa, especially from where I sit in the states. When I was a university student in the 1990's, people didn't know much about Africa. And, to be honest, most of the people I knew didn't really care. Africa was far too exotic, unreachable, and of the "other" to be of relevance. When I announced that I was going to study abroad in Nairobi, just about everyone I knew thought I was insane. It took a year to talk my parents into giving the okay.
Fast-forward fifteen years and the picture is quite different. Students flock to the continent for study abroad programs. The declaration that one wants to "save Africa" or "help Africa" is a powerful marketing tool, and there are dozens of organizations dedicated to doing so.
What brought about this shift, which has created an impulse to help the continent on the part of the sorts of people who couldn't be bothered to care just a decade or two ago? I can think of a couple of factors that might have contributed to this shift:
- Technological change has made it incredibly easy to send and receive information about the continent. When I studied in Nairobi, there were only two or three internet cafes in the entire city, all with miserably slow dial-up connections. There were no cell phone networks. Today, I can chat with a reporter in Johannesburg via mobile phone, Skype with a friend in Mwanza, and exchange Tweets with a contact in Kigali.
- Increased visibility of African crises developed as a result of these rapid technological changes that allowed . News about African conflicts, disease, and poverty used to be the near-exclusive purview of hardened foreign correspondents who reported in safari vests from exotic locations. Today, anyone with a smart phone and a bit of technological savvy can report real-time information from the continent, which in turn increases visibility of conflicts. It's almost impossible to be a regular reader of a major American newspaper and not be aware of the war in the Congo, the HIV/AIDS crisis in southern Africa, and the mess in Darfur.
- The worsening of the HIV/AIDS crisis, which became particularly visible in the late 1990's and early 2000's, certainly had something to do with the rise of the savior complex among Westerners. Most people are compassionate, and they want to help when they see something going wrong. For some, that meant taking on the notion that it was our responsibility to save Africa from this disease.
- For better or for worse, celebrity activism developed as a result of this increased visibility, which draws even more attention to the continent. Unfortunately, the fact that actors and starlets are generally not particularly well-versed on the continent's history and politics means that they often make misguided policy pronouncements, but the increased attention draws in more people who want to get involved.
- The ease of connecting with ways to help - or creating your own - has really exploded in the past few years. It used to be that if you wanted to "help Africans," you had to get on the mailing list of a charity, mail in a check, and hope the organization used it well. Today, we can evaluate an NGO's use of resources online, make contributions via PayPal, and see pictures of the projects we support on their websites. Anybody with an idea and a few bucks can create a non-profit or a project overnight without having done much research.