"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


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.
Tomorrow I'll discuss why I think the idea that Africa is ours to save is terribly misguided. For now, I'm interested in your thoughts as to from where this idea that we should be "saving Africa" came. What do you think?


Anonymous On Africa said...

Thanks for this very interesting and insightful post!!
While I also tend to believe that the "save Africa" discourse has a long history - going back as you note to religious justification of colonialism, I think that this "save Africa" momentum has increased in the last two decades as a consequence of the end of the Cold War.
At the same time that global connections have increased, global politics has put Africa on the margins. And with capitalism triumphant, and no possible alternative to it, the obvious response to the perceived hopelessness of Africa was simply to reach out our hands and help/save those worse off.
A discourse which may however be enjoying less space in the near future as resources and increased international competition (read China) begin to take up more space on the international agenda...

Tuesday, May 04, 2010 4:55:00 AM

Blogger Claude Van Inkins said...

I think the Save Africa discourse justifies the depth of western interventions into African economies, politics and society. The whole concept of development, when driven by western ideas and western resources, is a hugely intrusive process, as it tries not just provide help to people who need it (i.e. charity) but to fundamentally change the whole environment which these people live in (development). Of course it's not only westerners who believe in development, but it is mainly westerners who drive a certain vision of what it is and how it ought to be achieved.

This intrusion is generally dismissive of traditional sovereignty which would otherwise restrict the degree to which outsiders could intervene in the socio-econ-political fabric inside a state.

The only way that this intervention - whether right or wrong - can be justified is through claiming that there are people living within these states whose powerlessness, helplessness and poverty is so dire that the west is allowed to undermine the traditional sovereignty of the state. They need saving as they cannot save themselves.

So I believe that the idea of saving Africa legitimises the extent of the intervention, which explains it.

What drives the intervention?


Tuesday, May 04, 2010 6:14:00 AM

Blogger Eric said...

In terms of renewed interest in 'saving Africa' I think the Cold War is a pivotal point. No longer is Africa polarized through Communist/Western discourses and no longer can mass amounts of money be funneled under the auspices of defence or 'stemming the red tide'. A new way was needed to continue the money and the influence and that new way was aid.

Yet the discourse that posits Africa as in need of saving is nothing new as you noted and perhaps the most salient feature of aid. This has always been what has troubled me - why is it, in an age where information is at our fingertips and travels at the speed of light, do we still choose to act as the colonizers did and ignore that Africa has civilizations (although, most are now ravaged by hundreds of years of colonial contact) and that Africa has the resources (physical, human and knowledge) to "develop" themselves?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010 7:37:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a bit confused by the "anti-savers", if that's a term to use. I understand that misguided aid may in fact constitute the majority of Western interaction with Africa. But I would be outraged if my government, my civil society or I looked on at something like the Congolese conflict and simply said, "they've got the 'resources (physical, human, and knowledge) to "develop" themselves' so let 'em do it - if it takes a few millions dead over, so bit it." The history of Europe's or North America's development was bloody and cruel and in hindsight one can't help but ask if it had to be that way. Some of the "save Africa" impulse surely comes from the hope that it doesn't have to be that way for everyone. Put another way, if your looking for a struggle worth supporting and you live in Europe or North America, where is it? I know those society's are far from perfect but compared to where I have lived in Africa, they have little to complain about. What's wrong with wanting to help where the help's most needed? Or is helping different from saving?

None of which is to say that helping or saving or whatever is easy or that the motive alone should justify doing harm.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010 9:19:00 AM

Blogger gopepe said...

I would also add the globalisation of 'travel' to your list (although, this may come under the header of 'technological change').

The fact that it is both easier and cheaper to travel abroad, increases contact between 'Africans' and 'Westerners'. This has in-turn led to the development of numerable 'volunteering holidays' and the like.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010 10:57:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’d like to suggest that for some individuals, groups and companies, it’s more of a selfish pursuit for a more interesting life. There is adventure that arises from a "new frontier," one that is oftentimes hugely outside of Western culture.

The continent can fill the void of newness and realness in Western counties. It’s bursting with creative opportunities that are otherwise available because of bureaucratic holdbacks, boring arguments about things that aren’t important and other such colored tape. In the West, it seems like there are various steps needed to get from point A to B, innovation can be slower, meticulous. In Africa, there are daily tech changes and applications that have never been seen or used before. There is excitement to try new ideas, to invent and to experience a changing standard-of-living that is entirely Africa, entirely different.

Though it wouldn’t be the first thing many think of that read the papers, I feel the continent has a weird freedom that tags along with development. It’s a freedom of operating, innovating and living that many Westerners don’t get to experience… I think that makes the continent a huge draw. Of course, that’s a bright side of things… but when used for good and not evil, it makes for a less boring life, either organizationally or individually.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010 11:23:00 AM

Blogger Chris Waluk said...

I'm not sure if it's a religious thing, or just a human thing, but people inherently want to help those they consider less fortunate.

I feel like there is a problem in America with the disparity between the rich and the poor. The poor, in my mind really aren't that poor, but because they see how much more the other side is living, it's troubling. I think with America's increased awareness of Africa, and even Africa's awareness of America, the disparity there is troubling. How can someone not feel guilty throwing away food if your neighbor is starving? Africa is more and more becoming our neighbor and our access to resources and wealth make us feel responsible to help.

I can't speak for everyone, but maybe it's helpful if I just share my interest in the continent.

I chose to become a high school teacher because I enjoy working directly with people in helping them improve their lives. I purposely avoided working in an affluent school because I wanted to "make a difference". I've never lived in Africa, but since I've begun teaching I have been there twice. I have to tell you that it is hard for me stay in America (and I don't plan on staying much longer) because of the ambition and drive I see from some of the poor people I've met in other countries. As a teacher, it's just more exciting to help an orphan become a doctor rather than convince a drug dealer to go to community college. Working with poor families in America is like fighting a battle all the time as so many families I deal with treat education like a punishment rather than an opportunity. On the other hand, when I was in Uganda I would get bombarded with letters from children begging me to sponsor them. There's something inside of me that just feels like I'm of more value over there than over here? I'm evaluating my career, but I think everyone asks a similar question about how valuable their money is every time they give to a charity. And I know that aid is not about us, but you can't rule out someone's evaluation of themselves as they consider what to do with their lives.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010 11:45:00 AM

Blogger Alex Engwete said...

Missing in your list of causes that brought about the sea change in the new (Anglo-Saxon) movement to "save Africa" is the ecological and biodiversity concerns: vast swaths of rain forests--the "lungs of the globe"-- happen to be in Africa. Factoring these concerns into the concern, "save Africa" translate into "save Africa in order to save ourselves." In fact, most Congolese right now perceive this movement with suspicion: for them, the whole thing is not about "let's save the Congolese"; it's all about "let's save the forest"; "let's save biodiversity, and to hell with the Congolese people!" I should amend that by saying that there's an ambivalent attitude, as Congolese also recognize that without the activism of American and other western civil society groups who've brought pressure upon their governments and the UN, the strife could have worsened.

I say that this new movement is mainly "Anglo-Saxon" because Francophone countries (France) or partially Francophone countries (Canada) and European countries (especially Scandinavian countries) have been busying themselves with Africa for a very long time. This shows in the percentage of their GDP that go to cooperation with Africa...

This preoccupation with Africa was so prevalent in France (particularly in the French left) that a major "new philosopher," Pascal Bruckner, attempted to debunk that orthodoxy (your "savior complex") from the mainstream in the 1980s by writing a book titled "Le Sanglot de l'Homme blanc"(translated as "The Tears of the White Man"). A pun on Rudyard Kipling's (was it Kipling?) "white man's burden."

Tuesday, May 04, 2010 12:26:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks for the very interesting discussion, everyone.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010 2:21:00 PM

Blogger savina said...

May I just add that while all the changes you list took place, a "progressive" idea of history and human civilisation hardly shifted. So though we now receive many more news and images from the continent, the lense through which we still read them, and indeed, the way they are brought to us by the media, is very much as development yet-to-be, as a primitive version of us. This in turn makes it difficult to imagine that African countries have their own original resources, are able to save themselves and in fact may not necessarily welcome the idea of being saved by us. I am always struck by how primitive a view of Africa many European friends - some of them quite intellectually sophisticated and informed people - have.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010 3:46:00 PM

Blogger jobitek said...

I couldn't let this one pass up even with all the insightful postings, yours notwithstanding TIA. For an African who has always been African even before the nineties, the internet and globalization, it's always been a bit baffling that we needed saving and that the saving had to come from outside. That's not to say that we never saw or understood dire poverty, disease, corruption etc, but it never seemed that other places (with similar challenges) might inspire as much attention and compassion. I waited for the volunteer holidays and young people to go save the Eastern Europeans after the Iron curtain came down. After the Serbian war, numerous earthquakes in China, moonsoons in South East Asia... Perhaps the biggest part of this challenge could be that Africans need convincing that they need saving, and then inviting them to the table to discuss ways in which they can be saved.
I look forward to the next installment.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010 4:28:00 PM

Blogger linda said...

I don't know how old you are but am guessing 30s due to the mention of "a couple of internet cafes" in Nairobi when you studied abroad in college. Two things:
1. Your post may be right about the 90s, although I would say only partially right. People could have been less concerned with "bad news" because there was so much positive news in the U.S. then - good economy, the Clinton administration, and frankly the main warfare USA paid attention to was in Europe (Bosnia, Serbia etc) making "exotic" locales even less covered. On the other hand, there was South Africa emerging from apartheid, a big, half-full deal. And so forth.
2. But only partially right. In (y)our childhood, the 1980s, Westerners were all about saving Africa, from famine and hunger and food woes. The 70s had their own Africa focuses. And so forth.
I know you said it's not entirely new, but I'm not sure it's new at all. There may be a perfect storm of technology and news coverage, but I think people's underlying attitudes of either wanting to "do something" to help or not remain largely the same across decades, if not centuries.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010 9:04:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I appreciate this comment but just don't think that "saving Africa" explains away the motivations of humanitarians. This framework has far more currency with advocacy groups and the media arms of NGOs targeting US audiences than with the professionals who make working in different African countries their life's work. Among humanitarian professionals, very few see themselves as a savior. On the contrary, we are obsessed with the consequences of our choice to involve ourselves in any given country's situation and with finding ways to act responsibly. Anyone who has privilege (and this is a relative term) who seeks to address the injustices of those without, must face the charge of wanting to "save", whether it be in Kindu or Kentucky.

And while I understand that the answer to the savior complex is often seen as supporting local solutions, I remain unsatisfied with the generality of this remedy. Just as Saving Africa is demeaning, supporting the self-development of Africa is a chimera b/c any involvement requires taking sides. In no country is there a monolithic, beneficent, local African society to support - only a complex web of social stratifications, political divisions and cultural groupings (as in all countries). The hope of engaging in "support of" Africa without "taking sides in" seems unrealistic.

And a final note, I think it is an error to believe the savior complex applies to Africa only. One of the United States' first engagements in developing other countries began in Europe- with the Marshall plan. The difference there was that the US self-interest was such a clear motivator. Perhaps the problem with aid in Africa is that it is seen almost completely as charity.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010 10:25:00 PM

Blogger Andrew said...

This is a very nice discussion.

As you acknowledged in your post, the 'missionary impulse,' both literally and broadly speaking, has been around for quite some time and is hardly unique to the present era. For my own part, I'm a child of the 1980s, and I remember African issues - the Ethiopian famines, LiveAid, the Cold War contests, Apartheid, and so on - being pronounced concerns that managed to attract considerable attention. But I'd agree with the end of the Cold War + the advent of the new technologies gave rise to fertile grounds for a much more diverse 'normative entrepreneurship' than that which existed in the missionary days of old. NGOs, celebrity activists, reams of academics and development experts have entered the scene in force - sometimes individually, sometimes in concert with one another- ready to carry out their pet projects (including research projects). True enough, not all of these actors subscribe to the 'save Africa' mantra, but raising it - either to defend it or as a focus of critique - is certainly one way of cutting through the din and organizing the field.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010 6:51:00 AM


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