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Almost a year and a half on, Dr Claudette Carr revisits Konygate and the politics of poverty, aid and the white saviour complex.


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

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


I am often baffled to the point of weeping at some of the images of African children, trafficked through my facebook feed, in the name of Ending Poverty;and, the quest for Peace in so-called, conflict-fragile regions on the continent of Africa. These racialised images, provide substantial ‘empirial evidence’ for the  Sub-Saharanessof Africa. This  voyeurism – presents a pornorgrapy of violence,  encapsulated in a developmentalist schadenfreude, that enunciates to those in the  global south: “these  poor, sub-human and wretched beings.”

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. Such imagery, are always guaranteed tear-jerkers: for example, of  George Clooney surveying the body of a dead African in Sudan or Darfur;  or how about Angelina Jolie, engaged in the superficial embrace of an African child, whose leg is visibly chained to some object omitted from the picture, only God can explain.

I must hastily add,  that this is not the state of play with all INGOs and Charities, quietly providing what Dambisa Moyo describes 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 forreal 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 assistance might ascribe to, say,  Islamophobic, Xenophobic or homophobic injustices. Perhaps, more disturbing, is how prevalent these images remain, even post-enlightenment critiques,  of the Invisible Children KONY 2012 campaign. It was hoped that the ‘constructive’ deluge of social media chat about this misguided development adventurism, would begin to lay the foundations for the much vaunted paradigm shift, we all await in earnest. In thinking about a title for this piece, I was reminded of Teju Coles, provocative series of Tweets about how,  The White Savior Complex: “The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.”

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”
― Martin Luther King Jr

I want to revisit some of the reactions, as a consequence of Teju Cole’s tweets, that triggered a  visceral wave of resentment and highlighted the intersectionality of perspectives (in terms of race, gender, class and religion), and the different ways in which ‘whites’ / non-whites, development professionals and African people, talked about the Kony 2012 episode, and how they perceived development aid. More on this in another blog/article.

However, the point, I wish to make here, is, that, perhaps Cole, spoke into the souls of many a black folk — distant  African Diaspora sons and daughters, about those on the receiving 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.”

The Cole tweets, certainly touched a raw nerve for me. Above is a picture of an American NGO – non-profit 501c3 – pimping African Children. Ironically, this picture promotes the kind of beggary, not too dissimilar from that, which can be seen on the streets of Bombay, and 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 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.

A Poem About You And The Universe

I read a poem about the Universe
That perceived the breadth of the earth,
The Sun
The moon
The sea
The treasures of the snow
The hail;
The womb of ice –
The hoary frost of heaven;
Every Seed-bearing plant
Every tree,
Every living creature,
The firmament displaying it’s handiwork
That included you and me.

I read a poem about the Universe
That channeled spirits far and wide
The joy
The pain
The sadness
The tears of bitter strife;
Of hurt, sorrow and anger
Of misery, dread and war;
Of famine, death and flies

Endless images 
Of children with kwashiorkor.

I read a poem about the Universe
That gave voice to narratives untold:
The dance
The tastes 
The smells
The circuits of the sea;
The gold and silver
Every hidden treasure,
Every garments smell of Myrrh,
Of Aloes, Cassia and Ivory
Measure for measure,
Every nuance, every treasure.

I read a Poem about you and the Universe 
In it you who were last became first
And they that were first became last.

~Claudette Carr, Copyright 2013

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.

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 against 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 Jal, Lam Tungwar Kueigwong, Meklit Hadero, Wayna Wondwossen,K’naan, Akon, Liya Kebede, Alek Wek, Binyavanga 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?

_______________________________________________________________________________ editor’s note:

On a hopeful note, here’s one charity ad that’s a tad different.

MamaHope’s new call to action video is resonating with Africans mainly because it features 4 sassy women who ‘wish you would keep your ‘poverty porn’ to yourself!’

It’s the anti-charity ad – sans “poverty porn” to get at viewers’ wallets for hefty donations, depressing music, sad-eyed children, starving animals. Because who wants to be pitied!? The ad is an ode to  respecting Africa’s people, not pitying them.


Source: Copyright 2013, Dr Claudette Carr.
About Dr Carr:

Dr Carr is the founding Director of the Jethro Institute for Good Governance (JIGG), and has over seventeen years experience lecturing in International and Community Development, Youth & Community Work, Social Work, and Social Policy, at Brunel, Birbeck, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences (Switzerland) and the University of Westminster. Alongside Lucerne colleagues, as Principal Lecturer, Claudette  co-ordinated the programme for the MA in International Community Development.    As the London Course leader, she successfully facilitated the Summer School in International Community Development at Westminster. In Partnership with J!GG, The Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee, and the University of Westminster, Claudette has set up and secured funding for the Sylvia Pankhurst Scholarship for Ethiopian girls, and the Dr John Garang Scholarship for South Sudan starting in September 2012.

She holds a PhD in education and degrees in social science and applied anthropology from Goldsmiths College, and is also JNC qualified in youth and community work. Her research interest include Community politics and new social movements; black and ethnic self-organisation in the UK and Diaspora; the emergence of vernacular histories and indigenous knowledge(s) and their impact on the assertion of ethnic identity.  Her PhD thesis looked at ‘How Black History is constructed and represented in different sites of education’.Claudette is currently researching ‘Diaspora Organisations in the Horn of Africa and their role in community Governance (Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia)’. She is the co-author of an open letter to the Swedish Minister of Culture, that address the recent Swedish Racist Cake controversy, and recently partcipated in the conversation- ‘Racism is No Joke A Swedish Minister and a Hottentot Venus Cake’, which will be published in a forthcoming anthology, Afro-Nordic Landscapes: Equality and Race in Northern Europe (Routledge, 2012), edited by Michael McEachrane and with a foreword by Professor Paul Gilroy. Dr Carr writes and blogs regularly and her work can be found here:

12 Responses

  1. Trish

    Thank you for this article. I have been sponsoring children for over 20 years now through Plan Australia which I just now cancelled after reading your column. Thank you for liberating from my ‘white saviour complex ‘. I agree with every word and will never give to a African aid based charity again

    • Afritorial

      Hi there,
      Thank you so much for your email. I can imagine it was a very heartfelt decision you took to cancel the child’s sponsorship wit PLAN. Its important though to note that we’re not advocating that our readers immediately cease child sponsorship or giving to charity unless they feel it is the only way they can act to spur charities to thinking deeper about how they work in the regions they serve in.
      What the article was questioning is the aid industrial complex that pimps ‘poverty’ and images of distressed children. We’re also not proponents of foreign aid as it tends to build dependency and a handout mentality in its recipients.
      However a quick cutting off of funds would be as detrimental those in need of that money as they don’t have the skills,education and knowledge to pick themselves up … yet.
      What we encourage you to do is to write to PLAN and let them know the reasons for your cancellation. Encourage them to look into the ways in which they market themselves i.e. moving away from what we call the pornography of poverty. Ask them to look at starting up self-help groups in the communities they serve thus setting the foundation for economical independence. Ask them to look at handover plans where they consider moving out of a community and handing over management of welfare and services to the local people to oversee them independently in the long run. Its only when the third world empowers itself that it will stand strong.
      Action from concerned citizens in the West like yourself will go a long way in getting these communities there. Thank you again for reading our article and we hope you are encouraged to cheer Africa, Asia and the 3rd world as we learn to stand on our own two feet.
      The Team @ Afritorial.


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