It is fairly commonplace both in academic circles and political polemics to argue over the merit, motivations, and benefits (or consequences) of “Western” involvement and interest in Africa. I just came across a recent incarnation of this debate, with different sides taking aim at the recent “trendy-ness” of humanitarian work in Africa. Attention paid to Africa by celebrities such as Bono and heads of state like Blair have supposedly created a craze on US college campuses over numerous charitable efforts to help the disadvantaged of that continent. “Stop Trying to ‘Save’ Africa” through self-involved and self-interested projects, the Washington-post op-ed asserts. Yet at least one blogger (and more looking at the comments) thinks that more attention paid to the issues facing Africa is better than no attention at all.
From where I stand, it’s a complicated and nuanced question. Personally, I’d like to be able to admit that I’m a passive and objective observer. But it would be useless for me to try to ignore my perspective, one that fits closely with the (recent) college do-gooder profile that the Washington post article critiques. How dare we (I) presume to know anything about anything? And yet, isn’t there something to be said for idealists who hope to work for justice and humanity, even if it means they themselves benefit? I know many college students work on these issues at least in part because of the attention they get from other students, or simply because it makes them feel better about themselves. But self-interested incentives nearly always play a part in motivation to any action, and so why not for a good cause? It’s a dangerous line to be sure, but not one that cannot create beneficial situations.
Given this, it’s all the more important for me to constantly re-evaluate my motivations and goals, especially for the trip I will soon be taking to Africa. Am I cognizant of my role in my environment, or am I ignorant, or worse, unwilling to acknowledge ignorance? I don’t think it’s fair to say that I am doing what I am doing for entirely altruistic purposes- how often is this ever the case- and so understanding what my real motivations are will be vital to avoiding some of the pitfalls of orientalism and Ameri-centrism.
Ultimately, I’m confident that I can have a positive impact on the communities I visit while also gaining valuable experience and knowledge. I’ve studied non-Western colonial history enough to carry a sense of cynicism when it comes to “saving” anyone, and so I don’t pretend to be god’s gift to Africa. Instead, I hope to help as well as receive help, in the hopes that my experience will allow me to increase my impact as a global citizen in the future.
On a somewhat unrelated note, interesting article found through an interesting blog.