A Small Note on Teju Cole's 'White-Savior Industrial Complex'

By Jeffrey Goldberg

If you haven't read Teju Cole's Atlantic post on Kony2012 and Nick Kristof, well, you're the only one. Read it, it's very interesting, and it brought to mind a conversation I had with a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor years ago in Uganda. We were both staying at the Sheraton in Kampala, which was (and maybe is, I haven't been there in years) a very nice hotel on a hill, surrounded by gardens.

The contractor was working to promote democracy in Uganda on behalf of the U.S. government, and I asked her how much time she spent in Uganda (I assumed, because she was staying at the Sheraton, that she was there for only a week or two at a time). She told me that she spent six months in Uganda, in the hotel, and in an office nearby, and then the next six months at home in California, near Carmel, not working, but living off the money she made the previous six months. I noted that this was quite a fortuitous arrangement, and I joked that she better not bring about democracy too quickly. She answered me quite earnestly: "Yes, I know, I would lose this job."

A second, small observation: When Mrs. Goldblog and I were living in Liberia, one of the best jobs to be found in Monrovia for actual Liberians was at a makeshift car-washing center near UN headquarters, where, every day, dozens of brilliant-white SUVs -- Toyota Landcruisers, mainly - belonging to the dozens of NGOs in town were scrubbed clean of mud. It was a bizarre thing to see, these $50,000 vehicles belonging to "non-profits," flyspecked by Liberians the NGOs were ostensibly there to help.  

There are brilliant people working in development all over the world, of course, but the system of incentives is worth examining, and so too are the assumptions about the utlity of many aid programs. More on this when I return from my travels.  

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/a-small-note-on-teju-coles-white-savior-industrial-complex/254990/