Three thoughts regarding Western aid and non-profits…

This is the happiest picture of Zizek I could find. "He who increases knowledge, increases sorrow."

Recently Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” campaign has been met with a lot of arguments and criticisms. Rachel Held Evans has compiled a series of links that summarize the arguments for and against this most recent initiative by Invisible Children.

This is part of  a much larger trend to think more critically about Western non-profits, aid and activism in general. While much has been said I thought I would offer three thoughts on this larger topic for discussion.

First: I am incredibly skeptical and pessimistic about current Western non-profits and aid programs because they are run primarily by Westerners who are still very paternalistic and imperialistic in their attitudes. 

Several centuries ago Westerners (mostly Caucasians) went around the world destroying, raping, and exploiting everything they touched.  In their minds they were “civilizing” the world by bringing (Western) education, medicine, technology and practices. Many of the world’s problems today, from environmental destruction to genocides and wars, are a direct result of the expansion of Western culture.

Now a new generation of Westerners (mostly Caucasians) are going around the world and attempting to fix the very problems their predecessors created. In their minds, they are “helping” the world by bringing (Western) development strategies, money, experts and practices.  It has been said by many others, but I too fear that the same paternalistic and imperialistic attitudes that fueled colonialism now fuels the new hip social activism and in this Western aid is simply an extension and evolution of “The White Man’s Burden” which caused most of the problems in the world in the first place.

Even in more progressive strategies, such as those that focus on development, we are still going into a country that is not our own and telling them what is best for them. How arrogant.

Second: I fear that much of this “self-less” giving is actually thinly veiled self-centered altruism. Much of our Western aid is about us; it helps us feel good about ourselves and alleviate our guilt at having destroyed the world.

I agree with Zizek. Pay special attention to his discussion of Toms and fair trade coffee at Starbucks.

I am especially skeptical of non-profits started by my peers (Christians in their 20’s and 30s) because many of us were raised with the infantile notion that by participating in short-term poverty tourism (a.k.a short-term missions trips) we were being God’s gift to the world.

Speakfaithfully Public Service Announcement:  All short-term missions trips are incredibly wasteful and for the most part pointless. We do them because they give us “warm-fuzzies,” and because the exotic stories they generate help us pretend we are better Christians than we actually are. However, they do little if anything to help the people we are going to serve and the money, time and resources could be much better spent in other ways. 

Third: I think the best thing we can do is to as thoroughly as possible stop exploiting other countries, stop bombing them and stop destroying the earth. 

Many indigenous communities were self-sustaining and living within the limits of their environment. Westerners came in, destroyed their way of live, and then remade them into our image.  Our cultural imperialism is going to bite us in the ass incredibly hard when other countries with higher populations begin consuming and wasting resources at the rate the U.S. does.

In one of the greatest jokes in history, the Westerners who are recognizing that our entire way of life is unsustainable are now advocating for practices that indigenous communities exhibited before we destroyed them, often as if these practices are novel innovations put forth by the incredibly wise and insightful Westerners, again here to save the day.


P.S. Some additional food for thought…

An interview with Kenyan economist James Shikwati who famously said, “For God’s sake, please stop the aid!”

An article by Tad Delay regarding the Kony 2012 campaign.

Another blog about the Kony 2012 campaign.


About Speakfaithfully

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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1 Response to Three thoughts regarding Western aid and non-profits…

  1. Jin roh says:

    I don’t think I’m nearly as pessimistic about point number one as you are. Westerners have been arrogant, and in many cases we still are arrogant. Still though, DDT did kill malaria in the United States and many believe that it is its absence in Africa that is allowing it to spread.

    And as aside, having Lived in South Korea, I am certainly glad that “western imperialism” made out there. That country has its problems for sure, but the Christians who are there are doing good work, espeically for the North Korean refugees.

    I think you have a point about self-serving altruism. Though I think if a bunch of suburban kids can get a guided culture shock for two weeks, than I don’t think that is such a bad thing.

    I agree with point number three. I also add that “telescopic philanthropy” happens quite often. Christians in the first world do not have to travel Asia to spread the Gospel.

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