The irony of “White Saviors” in Africa is that if anyone needs saving, it’s White people.
I say this as a member of the world’s Most Persecuted Minority — the White American male gun-owning registered Republican descendant of a Confederate war veteran — whose first African aid experience was a textbook “land grab”.
I say this as someone currently investing most of his time and money in African country startups.
I also say this as someone who thinks his children (or realistically, his friends’ children) will have a worse life if we don’t correct the “geopolitical imbalance” TMS talks about.
Forget human dignity and “we are the world” ditties. White people need saving because of what drives the unstoppable American and European interventions in African countries, and what makes African countries so vulnerable to those interventions.
What I’m talking about is a ruthless universe that would implacably watch humans reduced to dust by an asteroid, suffocated by ozone degradation, frozen by an absence of sun, or entirely consumed by organisms (likely tiny bacteria rather than massive reptiles).
You can call it Mother Nature. You can call it God’s judgement. You can call it Michael Bay’s next movie. TMS calls it the “geopolitical imbalance”, something that started geographically and continues politically.
The first humans in Eurasia and Africa started off with the same intelligence, fitness and biological impulses — heck, the first humans in Eurasia *came* from Africa. Temperature and terrain just helped the former get further, faster, then helped them exploit that advantage over the latter. Nations sent armies and administrators to secure the natural resources, slaves and strategic positions to enrich themselves and fight one another.
Some things have changed and some haven’t. Nations (sometimes even United Nations) still invade one another with soldiers and bureaucrats towards the goals of commerce and competition. Some of the intervention takes the form of aid. Arguably even with “aid” it’s Americans and Europeans, especially those with White skin, who reap most of the benefits of this system.
You might ask why White people need saving if they’re benefiting from this system that excludes and handicaps everyone else. This is where “reciprocity” comes into play — what America/Europe are getting from African countries and vice versa. At best White Americans/Europeans aren’t benefiting as much as they would if this were a less imbalanced system, and at worst they’re facing extinction.
The “best case” argument is a matter of principle. We all benefit when more people are more able to make and trade things — art, scientific advances, food, goods, services, etc. If air conditioning and vaccines aren’t argument enough, then take computers. You can imagine a world where someone besides Jobs and Gates “invented” the computer, but where would we be now if we didn’t have computers at all?
The “worst case” argument is an even worse off world than one without Twitter and Xbox. When the next Ebola or strain of untreatable flesh-devouring MRSA comes, do you want more scientists with more technology…or fewer?
Do you want to see more wars and refugees…or fewer?
When the next Global Financial Crisis comes, you want an economy that’s more diversified and resilient…or less?
When another would-be Al Qaeda or Daesh/ISIS or Boko Haram or Al Shabab starts advertising, do you want them finding more recruits and more opportunities to carry out attacks worldwide…or fewer?
When the next Qaddafi or Kim Jong (or Trump) clone makes a bid for power, do you want them challenging a stronger liberal democracy and a more economically well off citizenry…or not?
Changing this “geopolitical imbalance” and making it work more towards everyone’s advantage is a “kind of change” that matters, to borrow again from TMS. As part of the nascent Austin, Texas social enterprise scene (6,000 nonprofits and counting, God help us), I think it’s a “kind of change” worth paying attention to.
Filmmaker Cassandra Herman and others are looking at the inefficiencies of the aid narrative: the ideas that “Africa is a country”, that poor Africans need someone to “give them a voice”, that Africa should be the first destination for an idealistic young American, etc.
My starting point is acknowledging this: that my being able to invest time and money in another country is indeed a privilege, and that this privilege is a result of what my parents did and what country I live in and where my genetic ancestors did some thousands of years ago.
If I was going to be reductionist, my simplification would be that “trade” is more important than “aid” because “aid” is itself a business and an exchange of goods and services. It’s all part of the same international market as oil and salmon and iPods. That market is very inefficient and distorted and it needs improving.
If time and money are things everyone has available to trade — and if White Americans/Europeans have a competitive advantage there — let’s make ways to invest and trade those things for better outcomes.
A few other notes:
- The halo around “nonprofits” and devil horns on “for profits” are bogus. This framework incentivizes people to launch nonprofits that should be for profit ventures, and launch nonprofits that are harmful, poorly planned and/or unhelpfully redundant.
- It shouldn’t be easier for me to get a $10,000 grant for printing Bibles than to raise $5,000 to invest in a good African startup. The United Nations, USAID et al. shouldn’t be spending millions on aid programs that subsidize the worst habits of bad governments. I shouldn’t be able to fly 8,000+ miles and get a job teaching children in a country where trained local teachers are unemployed. A bright college educated Ugandan shouldn’t depend on a foreign NGO for employment.
- “Patient capital” and “social impact investment” sound good, but if you tell people their options are to do something good or make money, you’re building an unhelpful bias into your system. We need a more inclusive and descriptive definition of “social impact”. There are good businesses in African countries whose social impact is providing quality goods/services and steady employment (and “steady” means without dependence on donors or grants).
- Empowerment sounds nice, but we need to distinguish between “here’s a goat and a micro-loan” power and “here’s making your vote actually affect the country’s financial system and here’s a local bank that you can actually afford to borrow money from” power. Micro-lending and micro-enterprises are nice, but unless you’re talking about semiconductors and nanobots, is anyone really getting rich or even less poor at the “micro” level?
- Look at how much money gets spent on “buy one give one” products like Tom’s Shoes, projects like Jeffery Sachs’ Millennium Villages, misguided products like the Play Pump or Socket, and the Fair Trade premium paid for goods like coffee. What if we took the same privileges and motivations that make those investments possible, and gave people an option to directly invest in a shoemaker’s company in Zambia or a solar generator mechanic in Mali?
- How do we make this privilege of being able to invest more of a “norm” — i.e. more common rather than the prerogative of White Americans/Europeans?