Reacting to The White Savior Industrial Complex

[Originally published April 5, 2012 on USAID’s internal blog The Policy Post]

By now every development/humanitarian professional has been asked: what do you think about the documentary Kony2012? For those of us who have actually grappled with the question of how best to contain the LRA and mitigate the impacts of its ravages in Central Africa, the reaction is split between:
(1) Awe that someone managed to get 90+ million people to pay at least temporary attention to the plight of Central Africans, Congolese, and Ugandans in a part of the world normally relegated to an afterthought; and
(2) Discomfort with the simplistic reduction of a complex crisis to a problem to be solved through enthusiasm.

Into the firestorm of public debate over the viral video, Nigerian-American author Teju Cole lobbed a rhetorical grenade, citing Kony2012 as a manifestation of what he called “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” He did so through a series of provocative tweets (critiquing social media through social media), which he subsequently elaborated in a brilliant article in the Atlantic. The two most cutting of his 140-character critiques
challenged the motivations behind the individuals and organizations committed to “making a difference,” contending that:

This world exists simply to satisfy the needs — including, importantly, the
sentimental needs — of white people and Oprah.
The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.

The idea that there exists a “development industry” is nothing new: anyone familiar with Washington has likely denigrated the “Beltway bandits” that soak up taxpayer dollars (NICRA!) to deliver aid abroad (technical advice at the bargain price of $1,000 a day). Nor is it overly controversial to allege self-serving motives in joining the “industrial complex”: it is a truism that working for an international organization abroad (and the government in particular) is the easiest way to raise a child — nannies, cooks, and housekeepers on the cheap, and paid housing to boot! But to suggest that our quest to improve the lives of others is in fact a search for an emotional salve to palliate our discomfort with our own privilege… ouch! That hurts.

As a white male squarely within the industrial complex Cole excoriates, I immediately found myself reacting defensively to the uncompromising language of the 140 character thrusts. But in reading through Cole’s article, I found myself nodding in intellectual assent, granting his points even as I began reasoning my way out of being directly implicated. Taken in the broader context of the article, he makes four points:

  • Foreign policy problems are neither simple in themselves nor are they reducible to slogans
  • There is the principle of first do no harm
  • Those who we seek to assist should be actively involved in the solutions to their problems
  • Have some humility with regards to the people in those places… It begins with some respect for the agency of the people in their own lives

Which boils down to the bottom line underscoring the article: “If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.”

Aha! I read these words with satisfaction: yes. Of course. Indeed, these principles are in fact restatements of best practices in international development. We can be justly critiqued on the extent to which we follow them, but those of us who wear the label “development professional” with pride hold ourselves to that standard. And this explains the seeming incongruity with which all my Peace Corps and USAID friends
(overwhelmingly white and over-educated) “like” this article on Facebook: this White Savior Industrial Complex thing must refer to someone else. Someone who isn’t familiar with Mary Anderson or the Sphere standards; who thinks “country ownership” involves transfer of title; who thinks we can free Tibet through a bumper sticker. In other words: not us.

But it also serves as a powerful reminder. That what we do is not about us. That success is not about what we do, but about what they do. And it is a reminder that it’s not enough to work our beliefs: we have to live them. And here Cole and I are in profound agreement: “There is an internal ethical urge that demands that each of us serve justice as much as he or she can.”

I went to Nairobi for my first TDY (aid-speak for Temporary Duty) as a USAID employee. On the flight home I struggled to come to terms with the cognitive dissonance between our mission — combating poverty, improving lives — and the lived reality of that experience. We — development professionals — lived behind gates patrolled by armed guards, mere miles from some of the worst urban slums in the world. As I reclined comfortably in the taxi home from Dulles, I ruminated on another uncomfortable reality: Nairobi isn’t the only
divided city in the world. Anacostia isn’t Kibera, and there aren’t necessarily armed guards patrolling my safe northwest neighborhood… but it does underscore the powerful privilege of my position.

So yes: humility is vital in our ability to do our jobs effectively. Humility with respect to our ability to make an impact, humility with respect to what we think we know, humility as respect for the people on whose behalf we purportedly work. But I differ with Cole on two points. First, I don’t think the industry is as racialized as his label would suggest. Anyone who’s watched TED (a target of his first tweet) knows that the desire to make a difference transcends racial boundaries. Last month I attended a Hill event on “African-
Americans in Foreign Policy,” and was heartened to see hundreds of young, enthusiastic, would-be saviors… none of them white. To dismiss the “industry” as the latest manifestation of the white man’s burden discredits the sincere commitment of people from all walks of life to improving the world: be it on a local, regional, national, or global level. Second, I don’t think the appropriate response is “until you can address the whole, don’t deal with the part.” In this I’m with Bill Gates, who when asked why he devoted all his
resources to health and education when studies consistently showed that bad governance is the root problem, said something to the effect of: “Show me how to solve bad governance and I’ll spend my money there. Until that moment, I’ll do what I can.” In other words, will providing humanitarian assistance in Darfur address a long history of colonial oppression and neglect from Khartoum? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide it.

Cole concludes the article with a recommendation: “Let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy.” To him I would say: great. What’s your solution? What’s your strategy? After all, there’s already a movement afoot to raise awareness about the role of money in politics, and it counts among its members many of those same people lampooned as “white saviors.” It’s called Occupy. It’s a broad-based effort to generate collective action around a central theme. Now the question: how to translate that activism into public policy? It is the challenge of moving from thought to action, of translating advocacy to effective
policy. It begins with accurate problem diagnosis, continues through an assessment of potential tools to respond, and concludes with a cost-benefit analysis (which necessarily includes accounting for the realities of politics and the diverse and inevitably competing interests at stake) before articulating a policy prescription.

In the context of do no harm, humanitarian professionals famously turned an old adage on its head, arguing that an appropriate response can sometimes be: “don’t just do something, stand there!” Fair enough. But as a white savior overeducated at a liberal arts college, let me offer a parting riposte from the Bard himself, who even more famously noted: “And thus the native hue of resolution was sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought.”

It is the responsibility of policymakers to find that middle ground, comforting ourselves in our inevitable imperfections with another cliché: the perfect is the enemy of the good. So if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get back to work trying to find that balance. Or as Cole would say, sating my sentimental need to validate my sense of privilege. Either way, I’ve got my work cut out for me.

Global citizen, husband, father, activist. I want to live in a society that prioritizes partnership over domination.