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Do we really need white people to 'save' Africa?

New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof has come under fire by Africa bloggers for consistently placing Western protagonists in his stories of humanitarian crises. He should go the extra mile to understand the politics, writes guest blogger Jason Stearns.

By Jason StearnsGuest blogger / July 20, 2010



Nick Kristof wrote a nice blog piece yesterday about his portrayal of aid in Africa. He had been criticized for consistently placing Western protagonists in his stories of humanitarian crises, portraying "black Africans as victims" and "white foreigners as saviors." He answers by saying that (a) he often also portrays black heroes and (b) that, as much as he feels uncomfortable with it, it is easier to market a story with strong Western protagonists.

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I can empathize with Kristof on this. It is difficult to market stories on Africa. He mentions a trip made by Anderson Cooper to the Congo, in which I took part – Anderson lost 20-30 percent of his viewers just by broadcasting from Africa. Also, when I first tried shopping my forthcoming book on the Congo war around publishers the predominant answer was: We need stronger Western characters.

Kristof has done strong reporting to bring stories to light that no one else will cover. And yet I would like to disagree with Kristof on one important matter. I am consistently vexed by his reporting, not only because he highlights white protagonists, but because his view of politics is often pretty rudimentary. It's not so much that he shows only black victims and white saviors, but it's the kabuki theater of victims and saviors in general that leaves me unsatisfied.

Here is Kristof comparing Congo with Darfur, for example, back in 2007:

"Darfur is a case of genocide, while Congo is a tragedy of war and poverty.… Militias slaughter each other, but it’s not about an ethnic group in the government using its military force to kill other groups. And that is what Darfur has been about: An Arab government in Khartoum arming Arab militias to kill members of black African tribes. We all have within us a moral compass, and that is moved partly by the level of human suffering. I grant that the suffering is greater in Congo. But our compass is also moved by human evil, and that is greater in Darfur. There’s no greater crime than genocide, and that is Sudan’s specialty."

"Evil" is greater in Darfur? I'm not sure I know what that means. The level of human suffering is lower in the Congo?

But his writing on the Congo has evolved. He has emphasized that the rapists are not just savages, but that they rape as a strategy to undermine communities, control the population and get their hands on resources. This year, he came up with a four-step solution to solve the rape crisis: (1) Pressure on Rwanda to stop supporting the ex-CNDP, (2) A regime to monitor mineral exports from the Kivus, (3) A push to demobilize the FDLR and (4) A drive to professionalize the Congolese army.

This is pretty much NGO orthodoxy, and is pretty good. And yet, I still have two problems.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Africa bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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