“The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems”

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Illustration by Michael Marsicano

“Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you are a 22-year-old college student in Kampala, Uganda. You’re sitting in class and discreetly scrolling through Facebook on your phone. You see that there has been another mass shooting in America, this time in a place called San Bernardino. You’ve never heard of it. You’ve never been to America. But you’ve certainly heard a lot about gun violence in the U.S. It seems like a new mass shooting happens every week.

You wonder if you could go there and get stricter gun legislation passed. You’d be a hero to the American people, a problem-solver, a lifesaver. How hard could it be? Maybe there’s a fellowship for high-minded people like you to go to America after college and train as social entrepreneurs. You could start the nonprofit organization that ends mass shootings, maybe even win a humanitarian award by the time you are 30.

Sound hopelessly naïve? Maybe even a little deluded? It is. And yet, it’s not much different from how too many Americans think about social change in the “Global South.”

If you asked a 22-year-old American about gun control in this country, she would probably tell you that it’s a lot more complicated than taking some workshops on social entrepreneurship and starting a non-profit. She might tell her counterpart from Kampala about the intractable nature of our legislative branch, the long history of gun culture in this country and its passionate defenders, the complexity of mental illness and its treatment. She would perhaps mention the added complication of agitating for change as an outsider.

But if you ask that same 22-year-old American about some of the most pressing problems in a place like Uganda — rural hunger or girl’s secondary education or homophobia — she might see them as solvable. Maybe even easily solvable.

I’ve begun to think about this trend as the reductive seduction of other people’s problems. It’s not malicious. In many ways, it’s psychologically defensible; we don’t know what we don’t know.

If you’re young, privileged, and interested in creating a life of meaning, of course you’d be attracted to solving problems that seem urgent and readily solvable. Of course you’d want to apply for prestigious fellowships that mark you as an ambitious altruist among your peers. Of course you’d want to fly on planes to exotic locations with, importantly, exotic problems.

There is a whole “industry” set up to nurture these desires and delusions — most notably, the 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S., many of them focused on helping people abroad. In other words, the young American ego doesn’t appear in a vacuum. Its hubris is encouraged through job and internship opportunities, conferences galore, and cultural propaganda — encompassed so fully in the patronizing, dangerously simple phrase “save the world.”


I highly recommend reading the full article. They author isn’t making the argument that Americans should stop trying to work in other countries; rather, they emphasize that we should be working in the right way. (I was pleasantly surprised to see the NGO Tostan mentioned — my high school French teacher is friends with Tostan’s founder, and we did yearly fundraisers for them. I’m glad they’re doing the right kind of work in Senegal!)

This is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. For so long, I’ve felt like at some point in my life after college, I want to go to India and do some kind of work there — be it in environmental or educational policy, helping a school or orphanage, or anything else. But at the same time, I wasn’t born in India, nor am I an Indian citizen. I haven’t spent more than a couple months at a time there — and that too just staying with relatives in Hyderabad, Bangalore, or Delhi. I’m not fluent in any Indian language. I haven’t even been to India since ninth grade. Do I even have the right to want to make a difference in a region of the world that is so distant from me and my life?

I don’t have an answer to this question, and I don’t expect to any time soon. Just something to keep in mind.

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