As a visiting assistant professor teaching global development at Duke University, I have recently spent a lot of time with young Americans wanting to learn about humanitarianism. Most of them, as they take classes and plan study or internships abroad, envisage a career in the development or aid industry. Almost all of them grew up with the relative privileges of the United States or Western Europe but do not believe that their work will be in these places. Rather, they expect 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 organizations, raise money, and create projects. They travel to African villages, build schools, teach, dig wells, and volunteer in clinics. When they return, many are smart enough to realize that they did 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 programs, believing that they might find a better way to save the world.
These individuals also inspire the work of an increasingly diverse group of high-profile musicians, actors, and celebrities. The activists 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 clicktivist campaigns such as Kony2012, which targeted an African warlord, and #BringBackOurGirls, the meme calling out the Islamic radicals who kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, as powerful ways to raise awareness.
These critiques might begin with the understanding that the whole aid and development industry 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 itself and its emphasis on supporting a cause and its associated organization over and above 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.
Meanwhile, many contest that raising awareness about depoliticized issues that may or may not be important to the people supposedly being helped often does little aside from raising funds for an organization 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. That era is thankfully over, but its consequences continue to echo through ongoing inequalities that determine who gets to be the savior and who has to be saved. Recognizing this could help aid organizations construct programs that take into account these power imbalances, but in general, that is not happening. Instead, postcolonial dynamics go largely ignored, while the white savior complex 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 it may know almost nothing, and one that can influence a vast array of political, news, entertainment, and social trends. Today's white savior 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 savior complex is its ability to ingrain and spread the notion that Westerners are the solution to African problems. This requires portraying the latter as helpless and endlessly recirculating images only of abandonment and violence, or innocence and primitivism. Another trait of the white savior complex is that unlike the imperial, top-down "white man's burden," it takes place in a virtual space shared by the savior and the people being saved and in a world in which the goals, personalities, and projects of white saviors can be immediately beamed out, commented on, "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 mobilizing 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 saviors' stories still persist? Why do even influential writers such as Nicholas Kristof argue that his readers will not care about stories about Africa unless he puts the American center stage?
A version of this article originally appeared in Think Africa Press.