July 27, 2009

The White Man’s Burden

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:57 am by Editorial Team

In the realm of international aid and development, it’s hard to judge effective interventions for development.  However, I’ve begun to notice one tell-tale sign of bad development: the white man’s burden.

How many times have you seen fundraising and advocacy efforts that try to place the salvation of the project on one act or the group of people carrying it out?  How many times have we seen the objects of our efforts labeled and put into boxes?

Case in point:  Invisibile Children.  Having traveled to Uganda and Sudan, child soldiers and the abuses of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army have been on my heart.  I was excited when a group of college students who called their project Invisible Children came along to promote awareness of the issues in Uganda and to raise support.  However, years after viewing their materials, I’m convinced that while they probably have good intentions, their materials contain a significant amount of white guilt and elicit a messiah-complex.  Their movie victimizes the people of Uganda by referring to the people as “The Raped” and “The Abducted”, and most of the movie is about them and their experiences, and less about Uganda.  The movie trivializes the people in Uganda and makes their problems one-dimensional — which means it’s easier for us Westerners to swoop in on the clouds and solve their problems.

I don’t mean to harp on and single out Invisible Children.  They are good guys who are attempting to do something meaningful, but their story is an example of one that is repeated all too often in the realm of “charity.”

We cannot trivialize the needs and issues faced by the people we want to help.  They lead complex lives and face complex issues, just like we do.  We don’t like people coming in and running our lives, so why should they?  True aid development (both internationally, at home, and in our personal relalionships) seeks to partner with, to listen, to understand, and then “maybe” to offer some form of assistance.  When we reduce people’s problems to being raped, abducted, poor, homeless, or hungry, we destroy their humanity.  In order to help people, we must honor their humanity first, seek to understand, and then seek to find ways to help.

Our traditional way of helping those in need is not sustainable, will create dependence, keep people mired in their problems, and will only satisfy our guilt that we are doing nothing.  The white man’s burden is a guilt for other people’s suffering and a messiah-complex that believes that we have the solutions and answers, before we’ve even asked the questions.

We don’t.

We may have a few extra resources and a few extra ideas.  But until we listen to people and their needs, truly understand their lives, and seek partnership over charity and subsistence, we  all fail.

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