The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The West is obsessed with ‘saving’ Africa. Is that the problem?

Michelle Obama tweeted this image on May 7. (The White House)

Earlier this year, after the Nigerian Islamist militia Boko Harem kidnapped scores of Nigerian schoolgirls, Western Internet users took to the Internet to show their outrage. And while #BringBackOurGirls began as a Nigerian phenomenon, it was hard not to feel a little strange as it spread across North America and the United States. What was the purpose of this Western attention to Africa – and was it actually helping?

As a lot of people have noted, the attention suddenly heaped upon Nigeria's girls faded as suddenly as it began. It's a depressingly familiar scenario, even down to the use of a hashtag: Just a couple of years earlier, #Kony2012, a hugely-popular campaign designed to indirectly help catch Ugandan militia leader Joseph Kony, had collapsed into criticisms and rebukes.

For director Cassandra Herrman and co-producer Kathryn Mathers these two cases aren't unique, but are part of a broader issue with how Western Europe and America treat Africa. It ranges from the (roundly criticized) portrayal of South Africans in the latest Adam Sandler film, "Blended," to the well-intentioned but flawed charity projects in sub-Saharan Africa that thousands of American college students work upon every year. The pair's new documentary, "Framed," is an attempt to answer why Westerners are so obsessed with "saving" Africa, and why this obsession so often goes awry.

FRAMED trailer from Cassandra Herrman on Vimeo.

The seeds for "Framed" were planted when Mathers, an anthropologist, accompanied Herrman's UC Berkeley journalism school class on an international reporting trip to her home, South Africa. Herrman's story went on to become an integral part of Mather's book on how Americans view Africa, "Travel, Humanitarianism and Becoming American in Africa."

Mathers had been researching the attitudes of Americans to Africa for over 10 years. She says that "while specific ways of engaging and particular vocabularies have changed," she was consistently amazed at how Africa was so central to the concept of charity for young Americans. "It has been for a long time the space that young Americans are most likely to see as needing them to save," Mathers explained in an e-mail. "As a result, with the best intentions they end up producing images and ideas about Africa that ignore local structures, local activists and locally driven solutions to the problems they are trying to solve."

While many developing countries face similar perceptions, Mathers argues that African countries in particular often find their problems oversimplified or misinterpreted. "The images circulating of Africa set it up as a place of lack, not just of technologies and structures but of responsible adults, competent bureaucrats, even caring people," she says. "These images have been around for centuries and despite their contemporary iteration in social media they often don't look that different from colonial images that functioned to justify European intervention in and exploitation of African places and people."

Of course, criticism of Western views of Africa aren't rare these days. Following the #Kony2012 debacle, there was a lot of soul-searching about the virtues of Western attention on African problems, while the Web site Africa Is A Country has been criticizing (and lampooning) attitudes to Africa for years now. African critics like Kenyan-author Binyavanga Wainaina (featured in the film) are in no short supply either, and the recent Bill Easterly book "The Tyranny of Experts" took a broader look at how global institutions fail the countries they try to help.

Not all of these critics would argue that attention in itself is the problem, more how attention is used. Mathers would seem to agree with that, and she hopes that "Framed" won't stop people from paying attention to Africa, but just make them think more about how to.

"I believe that good intentions should be directed to finding out who and what organizations are trying to solve the problems you want to solve, and finding ways to directly support those people," Mathers say. "As Zine Magubane (a South African-born professor at Boston College) says in the film, there are always people in those communities trying to solve their own problems – no matter how devastated they may seem to be."

You can read more about Framed and donate to its Kickstarter campaign here