Thursday, December 30, 2010

On the Troubles with Foreign Aid Part 3: The Cult of the Individual

If there is anything that galls it is the absolute smug sense of personal superiority that seemingly idealistic people of my generation view the developing world with, and their sense of self in ‘saving’ it. It is the mentality of the post baby-boomer generation – a generation that has had it so good, that feels entitled to college degrees from small and expensive liberal arts colleges, to travel, and gadgets and their own cars from the age of 16 onwards. It is the view of a generation in which the notion of ‘self’ and self-advancement that was novel for the boomer generation has, as Evelyn Waugh might have had it, become habituated settled-opinion rather merely world weary exclamation. It is a jaundiced view that inflates self worth, forgoes the ideas and inherent value of those being ‘served’ and assaults betterment of the collective in favor of the glorification of the individual while simultaneously inveigling the notion of service to the collective.

In the end, the motivation has nothing to do with the experience, the culture or the problems being addressed and everything to do with advancing a grotesque sense of self-edification. As Theroux noted there is something unfinished about Africa that attracts the Messianic above all else. With this approach comes the extension of Western ideals, ideologies and specifically self-edification. The notion of going to ‘save’ Africa has little to do with Africa the continent and more with Africa, the imaginary place of Western imagination. A land completely lacking capacity, choked by mysticism and in need of a savior. And it is not hard to become a savior – all that is required in this view of the world is to give up material comfort for a couple of years in order to garner the praise and adoration craved for the foreseeable future.

This mentality is not much different from the Mission Civilisatrice of the colonial era – that once popular notion advanced by former colonial powers that Western colonial abuse of Africa was somehow justified because Africa was little more than a continent of reckless savages in need of civilization being brought to them. Thus, people could go to Africa to ‘come good’ - to prove their worth by teaching the native peoples how to be proper Westerners. This has been updated within the current Messianic mentality which continues to infantilize African peoples. Thus, white kids with undergraduate degrees can join the Peace Corps and feel that they are off to save the Dark Continent. That the very limited survival ‘skills’ offered by a group of largely privileged white kids boasting liberal arts degrees might improve Africa simply by them deigning to be there may be what is most shocking.

The Peace Corps is a wonderful experience, granted, however one must realize that the PCV is gaining far more from the experience than the community that the PCV is placed in. The limitations placed on Peace Corps Volunteers mean that, basically no matter how strongly one believes in ones work, and no matter the extent to which one can do ‘good’ that will always be limited. The exchange is a completely otherworldly experience within a radically different culture that can provide long term benefit if one, in the Aristotelian sense, one acknowledges that self-examination provides the sinews for a life worth living. This is not to say that the Peace Corps is easy – it isn’t. It is difficult to be the ‘other’ within another culture especially when one grows up accustomed to creature comforts and inter-connectivity. However, it is more to say that the limitations placed on the average PCV mean that Peace Corps is pre-eminently a chance to grow and learn as an individual rather than to ‘save the world’.

The tendency however seems to be towards an almost gloating sense of self worth. A deep rooted solipsism that is reinforced by numerous external inputs at home, where people will treat you as though you are somehow sainted for having worked in Africa, and by a series of Orientalist inputs that make up a constantly re-affirming mechanism for self-affirmation. As the profile of Peace Corps Volunteers has been changed in order to be ‘more representative of mainstream Americans’ this tendency has been further advanced. We have seen increasingly would be Messiahs or those that would, as one member of cohort I trained with did, smuggle suitcases of bibles into Muslim countries in the hope of bringing ‘salvation’ to the locals.

The picture linked here is what set me off on this meditation. The identity of the individual will remain anonymous to protect the guilty, hence the reposting rather than a link to the original. I feel the photo in every way represents the critique I am advancing. Every element of the photo screams of a form of brinksmanship, open to only the privileged and white: a sort of sneering, smug self-indulgence demonstrating both Messianic delusions while simultaneously trying to leverage those into a point of gamesmanship over other well-meaning white people convinced that they too are ‘saving the world’. Even if it meant in jest, the joke fails to meet even the minimum standards or mirth because it is so nakedly and un-ironically indicative of how vulgar the Western view of Africa is.


Joseph said...

Great post, Alex. I came across that same photo too via my Facebook feed; it made me shudder. Thanks for speaking out against such horrid examples of self-aggrandizement.

I've heard some people describe our time as the "age of entitlement." It sums up the situation well: a people so addicted to self that they are only capable of seeing themselves, in each and every situation, simultaneously expecting everything to be given to them and then overflowing commendations for even the most minor acts of "service."

Anonymous said...

At least the Victorians were manfully upfront about their "burden" while we are both sanctimonious and tacky/deluded.

Dr. Bob said...

I read your whole series on Foreign Aid and agree that not much is new under the sun since I was your age many moons ago. Foreign Aid has always been an instrument of foreign policy meant to be conducted only at the level of government not at the level of peoples hearts and minds. That was the difference between capitalist diplomacy and Marxist revolutionary doctrine.
One was conducted in the halls of power and the latter was conducted in the bush and back alleys; which was why for the first twenty years of the cold war the west almost lost the hearts and minds of Africa and what made the Peace Corps so successful.
As to what motivates the members of your generation, I am not sure you should be so hard on them as a group. The few fools who go to Africa with this "messianic" attitude and then have the temerity to blast it all over the interenet have only themselves to blame when the nasties start to come after them. And they are truly out there. For those in your generation or any others stupid enough or thoughtless enough to display such ignorance and hubris to 2 billion internet users, well, it does not take electronic geniuses to track them down to rain down pay back for those who are really determined to do so.
Life can be disturbingly like a Greek tragedy in this electronically interconnected world.
Good posting and very thoughtful.

Alex Deley said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone made good points. I may have been two bilious in my remarks. At the same time, it strikes me, and as Bob noted, not much has really changed.

As per my generation, I think there is nothing wrong with wanting to make a positive difference in the world. It's one of the reasons I went in to planning and specifically development planning - I think it provides me the opportunity to create better communities while also preserving the natural environment. On the other hand, I think it takes a certain arrogance to think that you are out to 'save the world'. It implies a certain Western dependencia for developing countries and the cult of the individual I noted for those involved, including a great deal of churlish posturing, which to me, is what the picture I linked to implicated.