The Savior Paradox
It’s as if a cat purposely knocks over a vase of flowers and we, too busy to clean, decide to leave the liquid on the floor for days. Allowing it to seep into the wood. Waiting for the animal to sop it up…
After some time, we drop a paper towel from counter-height, letting it float down to rest on top of the spill. The cat lightly dabs its paws on it; does it even know how to clean? It has never had to. The water softens the wooden floorboards below and becomes a permanent part of the foundation.
The flowers, at one point beautiful, wilt and decompose. Someone comes by to pick them up, and lay down fresh flowers on the original gravesite. We tell guests to just step around that spot when they come for dinner. Sorry, it was the cat. You know how they are.
The dictionary defines “diaspora” as the spreading out of a group of people. Synonyms being disbandment, dissolution, escape. Disbandment implies a group agreement to do other things, yet escape means forced. Did Africans collectively decide to “do other things,” away from their home countries?
Historians frequently use the term “African diaspora” to refer to those who were forcibly part of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Today we talk about the diaspora in reference to anyone of African origin who no longer lives on the continent. There is an implication that these people are still interested in the wellbeing of Africa as an entity, or at least in their specific home country. The question then becomes, are these the people who should be held responsible for improving socioeconomic conditions on the continent?
Truthfully, the entire world is invested in Africa, whether for self-serving (economic, paternalistic), or altruistic (moral, religious) reasons. Governments, nonprofits, and individuals alike hold stakes in the Motherland, yet Africa is continuously ranked at the poorest continent (by per capita GDP).
Are colonizers, rapists, enslavers, and their descendents waiting for Africa to solve the problems they themselves caused? Are Africans hoping for external aid that will eventually offset the damage done by external powers? Members of the diaspora have two options: focus on building their own individual wealth, leaving the reparation work in Africa to international NGOs and foreign/local governments, or work on building capacity in their home nation themselves.
It is not selfish for the diaspora to focus on individual wealth. If we consider the diaspora as simply African people outside of Africa, then it would appear to be the most tremendous act of colonial defiance in and of itself. By leaving the continent, people of the diaspora literally deconstructed colonial spaces.
Now, by focusing on themselves as individuals, they can use the entire world as their platform for writing new, anti-colonial, stories. Quite literally rewriting history is undoubtedly impactful for present-day Africa.
At the same time, let’s not forget that there are African-founded and run organizations that focus on education, conservation, and maternal health, just to give a few examples. However, if so much African talents continue to choose work predominantly outside of Africa, then the majority of development projects within the continent will continue to be headed by foreign governments and outside organizations (do a Google search for African NGOs -- a quick look at most of the organizations’ websites will reveal an “about the founder” page; the existence of such a page guarantees that you’ll be blessed with the picture of a White Savior ®).
It is an acknowledged truth of international aid that foreign resources have never developed anything lasting, but have instead been (at best) an ally to local efforts and an immediate but temporary alleviation of poverty. The best kind of aid works like an intern to strong existing governments.
There are two issues in Africa then: lack of effective governments, and misaligned goals. Do the goals of African governments align with those of the African people? And more pressingly to an outsider like myself, do the goals of aid organizations and foreign governments align with those of the African people? I mean, really, how would that even be possible if these efforts are not being spearheaded by the diaspora?
It would be misleading to leave out, here, the paternalism that has now become inherent in international development; yet another downside of accepting aid. Do the paternalistic intentions of aid matter if the receivers are aware of them? Is it fair that African governments must deal with this if they are to accept assistance? What is the alternative?
Will the white world change its approach to Africa anytime soon, or should the people of the diaspora return home to build anew?
Nicole Hicks is a writer, yoga teacher and nonprofit professional. Visit her site to read more articles and learn about what she does.