This year, I spent my spring vacation with a Peace Corps Volunteer host family in the Dominican Republic. We visited a USAID project site, a school under construction, and a political rally in anticipation of this month’s presidential election. I was surprised to learn some of my North American colleagues found my visit offensive—“Do you have any idea how politically incorrect that is?” I was asked.
The problem? I am a middle-class, Western-European-sampling-plate American, and I stuck my nose in the affairs of a developing country. My trip would have been justified, many thought, had I gone with a specific task—NGO work or reporting. But visiting for my own edification was inappropriate.
I was taken aback. Do I not have a right to participate in the debate? Should we all stop studying international relations, stop crossing state borders, and just focus on problems at home? And if not, then where do we draw the line?
My colleagues’ criticisms rang of the “white man’s burden” question—a conversation recently raised anew in American media, spurred by the release of Invisible Children’s Kony2012 video. An advocacy-inspired effort at education, the video glosses over the facts in an attempt to grease the skids of public opinion—the ones that often fuel American democracy. Nigerian-American author Teju Cole weighed in on this debate, what he terms The White Savior Industrial Complex . His argument—a caution against the feel-good tendency in the developed world to absolve privilege-induced guilt through dedication to saving things about which we know very little—was ironically embraced by many in the North American international development community. Both Cole and my critical colleagues would likely have told me to stay home, but for opposing reasons—Cole to guard against self-fulfilling proselytizing, and my colleagues because I was not going about it through the proper channels.
From the furor over Kony2012 has emerged a quickness to scrutinize foreign engagement—a quickness that may easily be carried too far in either direction. This debate is not original—these questions are raised anew every time the field of international relations encounters something morally distasteful in the mirror. And they are healthy questions to ask. At the essence of the problem lie three options:
The first, an extreme interpretation found in the recent media backlash, is isolationism. To hell with globalization—everyone, please stay put. But history continues to prove this option unviable. The argument for the technology effect, albeit cliché, is increasingly relevant: Ideas will travel on their own, even if people don’t choose to go with them. Simply allowing poverty and underdevelopment to persist is no longer a real choice. If you think option one sounds ridiculous, you’re right.
Option two, on the other end of the spectrum, is unchecked engagement—ignorant and occasionally self-promotional though it may be. Sure, USAID, NGOs, peacekeeping operations, interventionist wars…with all your good, bad and ugly, keep it up. Advocacy projects, you may stay, too. Mis-information? Blog and YouTube away. It might be enough to sway someone’s constituency. And hey, a few of those donated dollars might eventually get to the right place. When institutional regulations—or human judgment—fail, unchecked engagement becomes the status quo. But, as demonstrated by the debate at hand, collateral damage and infighting caused by this option may well outweigh its benefits.
The third—and the only viable—option is that development institutions internalize this debate as a reminder that information is a powerful tool. With the ability to influence public opinion comes a hefty surcharge of accountability. Comparing this debate to calls for private sector reform following scandals like Enron isn’t really a stretch; institutional reform of the public and non-profit sectors requires a similar introspection. While institutional culture bears responsibility, the ultimate burden falls on individual conscience. Consider the livelihoods of Joseph Kony, Paul Farmer, Thabo Mbeki, and Invisible Children’s Jason Russell. All generated media coverage by crossing international borders to pursue their objectives, for better or worse.
The difference between them lies in the objectives themselves—the social output of which is determined by our reception of their aims. At times, that judgment is instinctive. Other times, when we lack information, it is shaped by public debate. Some of the most enlightening commentary in making sense of Kony2012 came from Ugandans. And the greatest insights I gained during my visit to the Dominican Republic came from Dominicans. Seems obvious, right? Yet it is too often forgotten in the rush to fix—and to criticize those who go about fixing in the wrong way.
The true act of presumption here is not engagement itself; it’s the latent idea that engagement by those from developed countries can effectively address complex issues in the developing world with or without adequate local guidance. Kony2012 and the debate it spawned are reminders to each of us to live with a realistic understanding of the lens through which we view the world. Policy and advocacy professionals wield the power to sway public opinion—often in unanticipated directions. Before passing influential judgments on issues in international affairs, we—like journalists—bear a responsibility to follow a code of ethics, to base our analyses on primary sources, and to consider the ramifications of our expressions.