African Relief and A Western Messiah Complex?

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“Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West’s fantasy of itself.”

Those are the words of author Uzodinma Iweala, in his article Stop Trying To ‘Save’ Africa in The Washington Post.

The salient paragraph:

“There is no African, myself included, who does not appreciate the help of the wider world, but we do question whether aid is genuine or given in the spirit of affirming one’s cultural superiority. My mood is dampened every time I attend a benefit whose host runs through a litany of African disasters before presenting a (usually) wealthy, white person, who often proceeds to list the things he or she has done for the poor, starving Africans. Every time a well-meaning college student speaks of villagers dancing because they were so grateful for her help, I cringe. Every time a Hollywood director shoots a film about Africa that features a Western protagonist, I shake my head — because Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West’s fantasy of itself. And not only do such depictions tend to ignore the West’s prominent role in creating many of the unfortunate situations on the continent, they also ignore the incredible work Africans have done and continue to do to fix those problems.”

He adds:

“Why do Angelina Jolie and Bono receive overwhelming attention for their work in Africa while Nwankwo Kanu or Dikembe Mutombo, Africans both, are hardly ever mentioned?”

I’ll tell you why. Westerners worship celebrities and live vicariously through them. Celebrities are magnets of attention and so celebrities sometimes seek to use their status by maximizing it as a catalyst for good. In the process, I think they become victims of their own celebrity. The cause isn’t as sexy as they are, so the cause really becomes about the celebrity’s image, not the cause’s worth. Africa just becomes a vehicle to ultimately promote oneself.

But African change-agents such as Kanu and Mutombo aren’t glitzy enough to be worshiped, they’re too busy doing the difficult front-lines work to seek out the limelight. In other words, it’s not about them.

He then concludes:

“I hope people will realize Africa doesn’t want to be saved. Africa wants the world to acknowledge that through fair partnerships with other members of the global community, we ourselves are capable of unprecedented growth.”

Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us, and we need to strive to meet their needs as we have opportunity – including opportunities to speak up on their behalf. Yet we need to beware of the motives and the after-affects of our giving – including when that giving takes the form of physically serving their needs. We also need to be thoughtful about how our giving will affect them, and us.

Will it weaken them by perpetuating their dependence on aid, or enable them to get on their feet and provide productively for themselves? This is the kind of hard question that, for example, needs to be asked in regard to African aid. Nancy Birdsall argues (PDF):

“I propose that if external aid is to be helpful or institution-building in Africa’s weak and fragile states, donors need to emphasize not providing ore aid but minimizing the risks more aid poses for this group in Africa.”

Why? Well, she explains,

“Rajan and Subramanian (2005) present evidence that sectors in aid-dependent countries that are more reliant on skilled workers do less well the larger are [sic] aid inflows. They suggest that aid inflows increase demand, including by NGOs and government and donors themselves, for local talent that then has fewer incentives to engage in entrepreneurial, private sector activity more likely to be in tradable sectors, especially manufacturing.”

This is a tough situation, no doubt. Should we stop aiding Africans financially? No. Should we be pay closer attention to the impact of our aid instead of just throwing money toward them as a means of soothing our consciences that we’ve done our whole duty? Yes.

This means we have to do more than just give the needy money. It will mean giving them ourselves in ways that learn about their deeper needs and find ways to remedy the situation, and not just fund a broken pattern of living. Whether that is an African nation or our next-door neighbor.

This is harder than giving money, because it requires something we value even more: our time and attention. I’m thankful for those people and causes that seek to provide financial aid to Africa. But I’m even more thankful for those that are there in Africa giving them hands-on teaching in valuable life and trade skills, and systems of effective self-governance. Those are the kinds of organizations – the ones seeking to provide real solutions to the issues faced by those in need – that ought to be sought out in our quest to channel aid to people and places like Africa.

The command to love your neighbor as yourself is a call to service and sacrificial giving, and a call to abandon ourselves in the process. It’s a call to give ourselves away, and get muddy and bloody if need be.

As a minister of the Gospel I find that I need to beware of self-congratulation and the itch for recognition in this business of serving other’s needs, especially the immediate needs I’m faced with in the local church.

I have to remember that loving our neighbor and ministering to others is not about me. And I have to remember that it’s not enough to just give them a buck, so I can feel better about myself for “helping” them. That makes it more about me and my own feelings than it does about them and their needs.

Motives matter.

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One Response to African Relief and A Western Messiah Complex?

  1. Judy says:

    SO GLAD THAT THE TRUTH HAS BEEN SPOKEN…

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