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The Banality of Pity: Aid, Africa and the Persecution Complex

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I got a list of demands

written on the palm of my hands

I ball my fist and you’re gonna know where I stand

We’re living hand to mouth

You wanna be somebody?

See somebody?

Try and free somebody?

       Saul Williams 

I am often baffled to the point of weeping at the images of African children trafficked through my facebook feed in the name of “Ending Poverty” and the quest for Peace in conflict-fragile regions on the the Continent of Africa. These racialised images, provide substantial ’empirial evidence’ for the “Sub-Saharaness,” of Africa, which, through this voyeuristic lens – presents a pornorgrapy of violence, that can be interchangeably read: “these  sub-human and less fortunate beings.”

English: Photo of Dambisa Moyo. http://www.dam...

This racialisation of poverty, particularly, the licentious and unethical [re]presenations of African Children in the media, through, renowned Charities,International NGO’s — their promotional advertising, fundraising campaigns; and oh, one must not forget, to throw in for good measure, the obligatory Facebook cover photographs, and memes, of the ubiquitous /emaciated / malnutritioned/ African child, with kwashiorkor, flies and all . These are always a guaranteed tear-jerker; or how about George Clooney surveying the body of a dead African in Sudan or Darfur? I have to hastily add,  that this is not the state of play with allINGOs and Charities, quietly providing what Dambisa Moyo has described as “band aid” solutions, in their attempts to address poverty in the ‘developing world’, something quite distinct from sustainable growth – the desire real life African’s affected by poverty, have for real jobs, and not the ones iconized in the minds of the peddlars and poverty pimps.

I am particularly struck, by the racist narratives at work in these dominant [re]presentations of poverty by those in the global north, of those in the global south, and how they elide the critical scrutiny, those engaged in development/ emancipatory projects would not hesitate to ascribe to Islamophobic, Xenophobic or homophobic, heteronormative fascists. Perhaps, more disturbing, is how prevalent these images remain, even post-enlightenment critiques,  of the Invisible Children KONY 2012 campaign; and the ‘constructive’ deluge of social media chatabout this misguided developmentalist discourse, that ensued,  which  was supposedly, laying the foundations for the New Jerusalem, we all await in earnest. Not so. In thinking about a title for this piece, I was reminded of Teju Coles, provocative series of Tweets about The White Savior Complex: “The banality of evil transmutes into the banlity of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.”

I want to revisit some of the reactions, as a consequence of Teju Cole’s tweets, that triggered a wave of ressentiment and accentuated the different ways in which ‘whites’, development professionals, every day Joe Public and black/ African people talked about the Kony 2012 episode, and how they percieved development aid. More on this later. However, the point, I wish to make here, is, that perhaps Cole spoke into the souls of many a black folk — distant  African Diaspora relatives, about those on the recieving end of the benevolent White Industrial Aid  Savior Complex. Maybe this same constituent had just had enough, and along with many others voicing similar sentiments – Coles tweets became toxically resonant.

“These sentences of mine, written without much premeditation, had touched a nerve. I heard back from many people who were grateful to have read them. I heard back from many others who were disappointed or furious. Many people, too many to count, called me a racist. One person likened me to the Mau Mau. The Atlantic writer who’d reproduced them, while agreeing with my broader points, described the language in which they were expressed as “resentment.”

They certainly touched a raw nerve for me, as an African descent daughter of the Diaspora. Above [the picture at the beginning of this piece] is a picture of an American NGO – non-profit 501c3 – pimping African Children. Ironically, this picture promotes the kind of beggary, not too disimilar from that, which can be seen on the streets of Bombay to Addis Ababa. Perhaps, the major rethink,International Development is in dire need of, is for it’s focus to shift from patronising the ‘poor’,  to deprogramming the truly impoverished. Based on the overwhelming images of Africa and African children we are bombarded with, it would appear, that when development professionals look at Africa, they see famine, disease, death and poverty. When I look at Africa, I see landscapes of indescribable beauty and a people so majestically, culturally and spiritually rich; when I look at Africa, I see home.

The mere fact that the aid industrial complex talks in terms of training up future generations of aid workers, in my mind speaks, schadenfreude; that there is no will to END POVERTY in Africa. “Development Aid” – should not imply a job for life, or some sort of nepotistic network of nebulous activities one hands down to the kids. No. On the contrary, development has had ample rethinks – its time for an EXIT STRATEGY

English: Louis Michel, European Commissioner f...

English: Louis Michel, European Commissioner for Development Aid and François Bozize, President of the Central African Republic during a conference in Brussel about Aid. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the unprecedented cacophony of noise, that formed the response to the KONY 2012 viral video, few seemed to consult African voices, which includes a formidable cheetah generation, of economist, writers, global activist and community leaders, who have long since the current onslaught of righteous indignation agianst the Invisible Children campaign, sounded the trumpet, concerning the darker side of the aid industrial complex. One of Aid’s most outspoken critics, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo’ has spoken quite scathingly of the  government of “do-goodery”, in her book titled Dead Aid, explaining why the constant foreign aid sent to Africa has caused more harm than good. Granted, Dambisa makes very clear distinctions about the different types of aid she is critiquing, like William Easterly, author of the White Man’s Burdenthey both highlight a prevailing paradigm within developmentalist discourse, that embodies a ‘white savior complex’ – indicative of the way in which, the “West engages with the “rest”.  Central to Moyo’s thesis on Dead Aid is the problem of elite capture.

The aid industrial complex, Moyo argues,  unwittingly enables, corruption within some of Africa’s regional governments — where  historically, leaders have acted with impunity misappropriating money, donated towards the perennial war to end poverty. Consequently, dependency is created,  that  kills entrepreneurship. In the process African citizens are disenfranchised, “because the government is beholden to foreign donors and not accountable to its people. A wise Nigerian elder, Chinua Achebe reminds us that,

“While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.”

In thinking about a list of demands, many African voices have since KONYGATE, reinforced the need for “African solutions to African problems”, but who is listening? Where do we go from here, and can anything good come out of the KONY 2012 debacle? After much hate, debate and self-loathing , how can this remarkably decadent moment in the history of developmentalist discourse, generated by Invisible Children’s KONY 2012 campaign, be turned on it’s head to benefit the people of Africa ?

On their KONY 2012 website, Invisible Children highlighted 12 political leaders and 20 cultural influencers, including Mark Zuckerburg, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber,BonoOprah and Bill Gates. Visitors have the ability to send messages to these 32 people directly on the website, calling for these celebrities to use their power of influence (when they speak, the world listens) and the politicians to take action (when they agree, change happens) to use their position to do something about this issue.

Well, what would happen if we were to turn this on it’s head, and identify 12 African political leaders, and 20 African Cultural influencers for example,Emmanuel JalLam Tungwar KueigwongMeklit HaderoWayna Wondwossen, K’naanAkon, Liya KebedeAlex WekBinyavanga Wainaina,Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dambisa Moyo and so forth? This would truly constitute a paradigm shift and an end to the “White Savior Complex” there appears to be much whining about in development field. Significantly, Melinda Ozongwu (This is Africa) writes:

“Perhaps when charities are looking for spokespeople and ambassadors they should look to Africans as well.They should look at our “celebrities” and prominent figures, people who understand Africa far better than any celebrity visiting for charity projects who’s rushing from 5-star hotel to disease-ridden village and back again to the 5-star hotel. Our celebrities, in my opinion, have a responsibility to their countries, whether they live in them or not. That way communication doesn’t just stop at a TV ad or a glitzy campaign. People from beyond the continent can help with a fresh perspective but, truly, nobody knows the problems we face as well as an African does. We don’t only know about the corruption, we know who the main culprits are. We know who will waste the money; we know where the real thieves live. An African celebrity doesn’t need to look at a picture of a starving child to feel empathetic; they probably don’t have to look much further than their own village. Youssou N’dour as a UNICEF ambassador makes sense.

Is this the way forward?  Earlier this year (in March), some few days after the Kony 2012 video went viral,  I attempted to harness the critical outpouring and rage, in the form of a constructive  online debate, focusing on  Teju Coles notion of the White Savior Complex, using the picture (below) and a quote taken from Graham Hancocks, Lord’s of Poverty, as a prompt for the discussion. This is what followed. A diverse range of voices, ( over 100 or so), from different, ethnic, religious, professional and non-professional backgrounds participated. 

Teachable Moment

KONY 2012: There is a rich body of literature and research that reflects critically on Aid and Development in Africa. This epistemology, includes work by African and non-African development professionals/ experts, who have written for decades on some of the key issues that have emerged out of the KONY 2012 debacle. As Graham Hancok in his book Lords of Poverty (1989), writes here, about what Teju Cole has referred to as “The White Savior Industrial Aid Complex“:

“The aid personnel who consume these resource come in all shapes and sizes, all kinds and varieties. Some are very good indeed – and undoubtedly earn their pay. Others are extraordinarily bad, their motivation is questionable and their input is negligible or even harmful. All to often, during Third World disasters, staff, experts and consultants are not subjected to any kind of careful scrutiny before they are sent into the field; common sense gets abandoned in the rush to help….It should be said at the outset that much of this help is barely tangible to the victims of this catastrophe. Many Western ‘disaster experts’ turn out to be merely on expensive fact-finding missions….Worse than this, as an anthropologist who spent several years living amongst African refugees has observed:’During an emergency, whatever their background, almost any white face which arrives on the scene has the chance of a job.”
CC: What are your thoughts?


[R: Respondents]

R- A

May we tell then our stories as we know them, as we see our reflections on our liquid mirrors of flowing rivers and tears, as we feel it on the backs of our torsos.


Who cares what the real reason is. Its okay as long as the enemy within us is exterminated. We can’t go on blaming the West for our ugly problems in Africa and the rest of the third world. We should try to and criticise ourselves for the corruptions, selfishness, neglect, etc, etc. And we must accept that sometimes, those one considers “enemies” can join forces with the individual concerned to deal with a problem. WWII was a good example: the Soviets joined “the good” in the West to eliminate the “bad” in the West. Colonialism is history. Let’s look forward and deal with our problems, not nag about the past and imperialism!


I have seen this time and time again. The white guy gets paid buku bucks when there is a local with the same qualifications who could do a much better job. I get really irritated by the profiteering I have seen for so many years. Wazungu at the Intercontinential discussing poverty when their drinks alone could do so much!


Further, as highlighted by many of my colleagues on this thread, why the sudden Kony attention. Where have you been in the last 20 years? Have you forgotten Congo uhm among many other issues around the world? Is this another Darfur tangent? Have we forgotten that, and how we latched onto that after what, centuries? I am not a critic of aid and development, but I criticise how it is applied and the subsequent impact of the application.


I think Kony should pay for his past crimes, just because they happened awhile ago doesn’t mean he should not be prosecuted but I also think Uganda has more pressing issues. I hope people can stop lumping together an entire continent. I learned about Uganda because a good friend of mine is from there. Unfortunately he cannot return home until the current government changes. It really is sad how little USA knows. When I was planning a trip to neighboring Rwanda, I went to a mobile phone shop to see about getting an Intl cell. The clerk didnt even know where Rwanda was, thought it was a city in Uganda…UGH A pair of hands to help is all it takes. We all bleed the same color. If you have a heart and are able bodied then help where you are led. If that means your own city or across the globe so be it. I have had a long standing heart for Rwanda and now Uganda (b/of my friend not this Kony campaign) but that doesn’t mean I will ignore my neighbor if he/she needed help.


I’ve watched the video….and this is just a well planned propaganda by the US, so that they may set base in the heart of Africa.


I know this has nothing to do with kony 2012 but it has everything to do with the misrepresentation of africa by foreigners… over the weekend grenades were thrown in the Nairobi CBD area and 6 people died, others were injured and of course coz of our war with the al shabaab and other similar attacks we (kenyans) know who it is… so yesterday (sunday), CNN reports that there was ‘violence’ in kenya depicting an image of a kenya going through post election violence for a second time…


Let me put an african perspective to this story… kony 2012 did not capture the work that ugandans did themselves to get rid of kony… the mothers, daughters, grandparents who worked hard towards getting peace… it did not highlight the roots that the LRA had from colonialism yet the marginalization of the acholi people started with the dividing of africa… it does not even address facts; for example the LRA are less than 3000 not 30,000 as was being alluded to in that documentary… last but not least , this man who says he has been building hospitals and schools in uganda for the past 8 – 10 years does not even know where uganda is… uganda is in east africa not central africa

i am surprised that people are surprised that africans are offended… really? you have no idea where my country is and now you want to gather people to send money to your organization to raise awareness about a thing that happened 26 years go… why do foreigners find this acceptable? would this be okay if he was talking about a school in harlem or california saying how the school needs money yet he’s not giving facts? wouldn’t people want to know more? 

do you know how many times the word africa is used instead of uganda in that documentary? foreigners have for eons portrayed africa as one unit of death, pestilence and war… where people have no food, are chopping each other to death and walk around in skins living in trees… when foreigners visit africa they want to go the slums or an orphanage or a refugee camp because that’s what CNN shows them…an africa that has drought, civil war and nakedness… and even if we are killing each other have any of you stopped to ask yourselves where those ‘africans’ get the guns from? we don’t manufacture them so where do you think we get them from? …

as africans we try, or are sometimes forced to learn your culture, mannerisms and euphemisms… we are asked to act like you, talk like you, behave like you… yet foreigners do not extend the same courtesy when they come to africa… 

for you to offer help in any civil war, you have to understand its origin… kony started this ‘war’ coz it benefitted someone… this selfishness and self serving nature was bred and forged in colonialism… the full honest truth is that africa fights because one community was favored more than another by their colonial masters and the oppressed now feel that it’s their turn to eat… corruption is not an african word. there is no african dialect with the word corruption in it… so my friends, for you to stop kony you have to stop that self serving mentality… that idea that resources are scarce so we (africans) have to kill each other to survive… if you don’t remove that then another kony will simply rise up in his place

now honestly, that’s a lot for any one person to handle… how do you change the course of generational brainwashing and obvious stupidity? … 

that’s why the only people who have answers for africa are africans themselves… we understand each other… we know why so and so acts the way he does and sometimes its brutal, but we know how to discipline each other

i won’t lie there is a lot to be done… but foreigners should not assume we are doing nothing…

our biggest problem at this time, are our governments (please do research on the various human rights violations the ugandan government has committed against it’s people). it’s slow, but we are fighting for what we believe in… and we do not object to help… but when you have a video that shows you talking to your five year old son about war for shock value… that is bull sh*t. that is a man who is self serving looking to get famous… when you use colors and symbols that you know for a fact will play on the emotions of your citizenry instead of going to the congo and picking the stories of people currently being affected by the LRA and how they are coping, i am sorry to say so but you are a d*ck (excuse my language) who wants to get famous like the kardashians
# i’ve met amazing foreigners who have a passion for africa like they were born and bred here but the new africa will not accept to be misrepresented for other people’s gain and emotional state of wellbeing… africa is no longer that land of skin wearing savages selling each other for a mirror and a piece of soap

I’m sorry, but africa is just not going to sit their and stand for it so…


Hi, knock knock.. Could someone please count how much multi-culturism is represented on the board of directors? You know, the one that makes ALL the decisions? I’ll wait…


The Kristof article is excellent. He has a humble & mature way of balancing things. A judge not approach that I can respect & appreciate. So much to be learned from this healthy conversation.


One positive of this shallow self aggrandizing Kony 2012 campaign by Invisible Children is that it is leading to thoughtful dialogue. I for one will very carefully be reevaluating how my NGO works with & depicts the people we aim to serve in Uganda. For starters, we will always show the joy & potential of the children in our programs & never try to throw them a “Pity Party” or exploit there stories via Invisible Children type weep-a-thons films. Every word on our website, every motive in our heart and every action of our bodies will be reevaluated to make sure we are nothing like this campaign


One positive of this shallow self aggrandizing Kony 2012 campaign by Invisible Children is that it is leading to thoughtful dialogue. I for one will very carefully be reevaluating how my NGO works with & depicts the people we aim to serve in Uganda. For starters, we will always show the joy & potential of the children in our programs & never try to throw them a “Pity Party” or exploit there stories via Invisible Children type weep-a-thons films. Every word on our website, every motive in our heart and every action of our bodies will be reevaluated to make sure we are nothing like this campaign


NEWSFLASH: The Industrial Complex doesn’t have any level of emotion involved. It’s all about chewing up and spitting out people regardless of who you are. Instead of spending time figuring out how to bring down someone else’s effective campaign to save human beings, why not go out and make your own positive impact on the world? This picture is of Invisible Children staff members as well as some whom have been impacted. If you want and organization that looks different then either begin to sacrifice a paycheck and/or comfortable lifestyle to join forced w/ the numerous groups out there making a difference or start your own! There can never be too many people helping PEOPLE.


Claudette Carr if it is not meant to be racist why is it called ‘white people’ saving africa’. i understand if there should be more critical thinking into the strategies behind aid and ngo organisations but as i understand many of these are multicultural organisations comprising of many different nationalities, colours, creeds and races, including KANY 2012. i think this poster is misleading and reinforces a stereotype of the white man doing bad in africa. we don’t need any more racial stereotypes and i can’t see how this one is any more acceptable it just breeds negativity and hate and discredits legitimate good work happening in the field.


I havent had time to watch kony 2012 but kindly point to one African nation that got reprieve or a better economy thru Foreign aid,tell me! show me please!


Hey all — i think that the kony2012 campaign shouldn’t be supported ‘as is’, but we should take this really amazing opportunity and platform to voice more productive and useful solutions that those of us working on the issues know are better than the ‘savior complex’ – there’s value in this, check out my quick reasoning:



Ok. but can we ” critically challenge” ideas AFTER all the children are safe?


I find this picture, article and implication quite racist and agree with what Vaughan says.


wtf???? am I the only one finding this racially offensive?????



Bloody ridiculous article!! sure, development and charity efforts are often misguided. but to make the leap to saying that whites working in Africa are misguided and wrong is naive, boringly old hat, offensive and racist. since when was it ok to make judgements based on the colour of ones skin?


Who cares what color people are if they really care and sincerely want to help. if kids are being tortured- color, gender, geography, most other things become pretty unimportant in the face of wanting to help a child.


People of all races are motivated to help others for infinitely selfish and selfless reasons. However, if it is guilt that moves you to better this world, it is better to be doing something than nothing at all.


Everyone should read Walter Rodney’s book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, if you really want to get a historical grip on the mess on the African continent. I was referred to this book by my mentor and friend, Asa G. Hilliard, III


As Teju Cole tweeted, “”The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”


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