Somewhere between savior and tourist

Several of my favorite blogs have been discussing Nicholas Kristof recently. The short version: he has conceded that he often uses a “white foreigners as saviors” narrative when writing about Africa. In his own words:

I do go to developing countries where local people are doing extraordinary work, and instead I tend to focus on some foreigner, often some American, who’s doing something there.

He attempts to justify this practice in terms of providing a “bridge character” for his readers. Here’s NYT Picker dissecting Kristof’s full comment, while Texas in Africa and Sean at Africa is a Country provide further analysis. The basic critique: Kristof’s narratives reinforce the misperception that Africans are poor, helpless and can’t do anything for themselves, and running such narratives lends support to bad policies based on that misperception. He later offered a defense of his defense, which Sonja at Africa is a Country deftly skewers.

I’m not going to pile on Kristof, though I agree heartily with the above posts. I do feel for him in one sense, because I’ve also recently been accused of simplifying reality for the sake of a narrative. All storytelling involves choices. Hopefully these recent criticisms will lead Kristoff to make different choices in the future.

What really interested me was the next post by Texas in Africa, titled “sauti” (voice), about meeting a bishop in Butembo, DRC. The bishop asks TIA to tell the world about the education and health services that the churches there provide. The story offers a strong counterpoint to the “white saviors” narrative, though TIA doesn’t mention Kristof in this post. However, the bishop also said that he had prayed “Who will come and help us?” leading TIA to note:

They didn’t cover this in graduate school. How people will pin their hopes, their belief that one day things will get better on a foreigner simply because of the fact that you are there.

That observation points to a tension that exists when working in developing countries. I think this tension has been overlooked in the commentary on Kristof’s recent admission of guilt.

Of course, anyone working for an NGO, development agency, etc. should realize that going to a developing country to “save” people (whether in a religious, economic or other sense) is more than a little bit condescending. Kristof and other writers shouldn’t be propagating such conceptions. The tricky thing is that, upon arriving, we often discover that people do pin their hopes on us. We chat with guys on the bus who want us to pay school fees for their kids. We meet with community based organizations that hold their meetings in English, which is harder on the group members, because they want us to participate. We repeatedly decline the nice chair because we’re perfectly comfortable sitting on the ground with everyone else. We find that we are repeatedly given much more respect and deference than we deserve. We are unable to take the power dynamics out of the equation (with a hat tip to Sabelo).

At the same time, our intent is to do something useful. We aren’t simply tourists passing through, snapping a few photos and going home with stories. We genuinely care about finding some way to marshall our own energies in ways that help.

One risk of Kristof’s narratives is that they distort the perceptions of the general American public. But another risk is that they distort the perceptions of people actually working in international development, supporting an attitude of arrogance that being a (relatively) wealthy outsider can create. We don’t need any more of that.

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