We’ve all seen the stirring films and images. A starving baby and helpless mother. A shanty town and miserable slum. A brave foreigner riding to the rescue–and being lauded for it.
Who really benefits from our charity in Africa? Is it the African huddled for warmth who gets a few extra calories? Or, is it the brave Westerner on top of a truck taking in the cheers?
This is the question at the center of a new documentary that questions Western attitudes about Africa, and wonders why we’re so keen to help Africans while America has so many of its own problems.
“The photos and footage are deeply disturbing. We want to stop the suffering: send the medicine, send the food, send our help,” says Cassandra Herrman, the director of Framed. “But for all our sincere intentions, our saving undermines the agency and self-determination of Africans.”
The film, which needs crowdfunding help before Herrman can finish it, follows several Africans who are tired of Western condescension. For example, photographer Boniface Mwangi visits the U.S. and tells students to work more locally. “Why do you want to fly all that way, and on your way to the airport you pass poverty, to go and help poverty in Kenya?” he says. “Africa doesn’t need a savior–America needs a savior.”
Herrman is making the film with Kathryn Mathers, a blogger at the site Africa Is a Country. They have a theory about why we’re so fascinated with refugee camps and products endorsed by Bono. It’s really about us, not them. “In American media and pop culture, Africans remain objects of our pity or moral outrage or fascination. The images are deeply disturbing, even enthralling, but they aren’t really about Africans; they’re about us,” they say.
“We believe in taking a second look at the framing of Africa in crisis. If Americans started to think differently about Africa it could profoundly shift our concept of aid and development and in turn, transform how we feel about ourselves and about doing good,” Herrman writes in an email.
To be clear, they don’t disagree with everything the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation does. They just think Africans could do a lot of the work for themselves. “We hope the film will show that Africans already have the capacity to inspire and empower themselves, and yet the simplistic and unchanging messaging around aid robs Africans of having agency in their own development,” Herrman says.