An End to the Savior Complex

Glimpses of African Dignity and Development

By Rhea Kumar


[dropcap]G[/dropcap]litzy architecture. Tall skyscrapers. This picture of progress reminds viewers of upcoming cities in China or Europe. But how many Westerners would think of Luanda, the capital city of Angola, when we see this skyline?

While the image of Luanda may surprise some, it accurately shows the scale of urbanization in Africa today. About 40% of the continent’s population of 1 billion people lives in cities, a figure comparable to China and larger than India’s . Large scale urbanization has allowed Africa’s economies to diversify beyond the natural resources sector. According to a 2015 McKinsey Insight, Africa’s real GDP overall grew at 4.8% in the last decade, twice as fast as in the 1980s and 1990s. More than two thirds of its growth came from manufacturing, telecommunications and infrastructure development.

Despite all the positive developments in Africa, modern images such as the one of Luanda are at odds with our own perceptions of Africa as a continent of devastation, in need of the West to rescue it. Wabantu Hlophe’18, a Political Science major from Swaziland, argued that “breaking apart the savior complex [in the West] is…one of the most frustrating challenges [faced by Africans today].”

The Western media is flooded with images of African wars, famines, and poverty. These problems are real: many of Africa’s poorer constituent nations continue to be heavily resource dependent, and fifteen of its countries are currently undergoing some sort of political conflict.

However, “while there are problems, it does not show the whole picture,” argues Resla Wesonga’19, a freshman from Kenya. “I come from a village [in Kenya], but people don’t go for a day without food.” Images of devastation in Africa promote a one-sided and demeaning image of the continent rather than a holistic story of its development. Images “colonize the minds”, says Wesonga. “People [in the US] look at me exotically and tell me- you are so lucky to make it out of Africa. You’ve escaped early marriage, circumcision…you must feel so happy and free to be here.”

Behavioral economics tells us that people tend to react more strongly to losses than gains of the same value, and its theories seem to be at work when it comes to the savior complex. Professor Elizabeth Bradley, Master of Branford College and Director of the Global Health and Grand Strategy programs, explains these ideas in the context of Africa. “It arouses our emotion when we see famine or when we see injustice…and that sticks because it comes with an emotional bang.” The myopic focus on negative events has led to a continued negative portrayal of the continent. People like Bradley, who have travelled to and worked in Africa, see this as a problem. “If you walk down a street in, say, Addis [Adaba] or Monrovia in Liberia you are going to see a lot of tough things but if you walk down a street in New Haven you are going to see a lot of tough things. But people aren’t putting the homeless person sitting outside Starbucks, they’re not putting them on a Twitter page…[and talking about] the poverty in New Haven.”

However, the problem is not completely driven by the West. The education system in Africa continues to be very Eurocentric, focusing on Europe’s interventions in Africa rather than African contributions to civilization before they were colonized. Additionally, many Africans feel that the liberation leaders of Africa tend to adopt pro-West attitudes, at the costs of the interests of their native population. According to Hlophe, while leaders in Southern Africa were quick to fly down to Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, they had a somewhat more delayed response when it came to the attacks in Garisa, Kenya a few months later.

This stereotyping of Africa also undermines the efficacy of development aid. While negative imagery of Africa directs foreign aid to the region, images of hunger or disease cannot explain the root causes of these problems or ground realities in Africa. Bradley points out that the single minded focus on AIDS, TB and Malaria has led to a neglect of other pressing healthcare problems. While AIDS is rampant in southern Africa it affects only 1% of the population in Liberia. Liberia would rather spend on preventing maternal mortality, yet the rigid nature of funding from the West prevents it from spending on this health outcome. Simultaneously, local players are contributing positively to Africa’s development. Hlophe argues that the majority of aid and humanitarian work during the Ebola crisis in Africa was done by local African people. Yet the US was the first to claim credit a year later when the crisis died down. Bradley summarizes: “To share power [and not just money] is tricky [for the West].” Western aid to Africa is often focused on feeding its own savior complex rather than recognizing or enabling local African enterprise.

In response to the stereotypes surrounding their countries, a number of African groups have begun promoting an alternative narrative of Africa. A compelling example is the photo campaign on Twitter titled #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou. Since June 23, 2015, more than 50,000 tweets from 50 different African countries have debunked popular myths about Africa, focusing both on the remarkable growth stories of many African countries, as well as the cultural diversity and beauty across the continent. However, activist campaigns cannot fully reverse stereotypes about Africa on their own. Says Wesonga, “People trust CNN [more than] people like me tweeting and tweeting. We can try more and educate people-but we can’t do this alone.” Reversing stereotypes is a long process that will involve changes in the attitude of the Western media, as well as concerted efforts by the foreign and tourism ministries as well as the political leadership.

Says Maria Kiwanuka, a  former finance minister of Uganda who was visiting Yale, “60% of the world’s arable land is in Africa. There is no reason why we cannot feed the world.” Her comment fits in beautifully with this picture of a Uganda-based NGO training farmers from the Twitter campaign. Activists, social workers, leaders, common people, farmers are all working hard to change their continent’s future, as well as misguided Western perceptions away from them.  

Let’s not take their spirit away from them.


Rhea Kumar is a junior in Branford College. Contact her at