The idea that it is the role of Western states to save the people of the "Third World" seems like a subliminal, pre-acknowledged consensus in many circles of Western society.
Many people in power seem to favour using that language. In Canada it is very common as of late, particularly in regard to the long U.S.-backed occupation of Afghanistan. Back in 2007, when the New Democratic Party (NDP) was calling for the withdrawal of troops, Prime Minister Stephen Harper justified remaining part of the occupation so as not to "abandon Afghans."
Saving Afghan women, or silencing them?
Here the assumption is made that the military presence is one with completely benign intentions. Rhetoric was deployed by Conservative Members of Parliament and Ministers about not leaving Afghanistan's women to a horrible fate. The women of Afghanistan in particular, considering the misogyny of the pre-2001 Taliban government, are a favourite rhetorical tool for supporters of the war.
Of course the Western world, all save a few including MP George Galloway from the UK, was willing to turn a blind eye on the mujaheddin, precursors of the Taliban, when they were used to drive out the Soviets.
The right-wingers and some liberals using the language of women's rights may in fact push for the continuation of the military occupation in Afghanistan by shutting down the voices of actual Afghan women such as Malalai Joya, claiming that if it wasn't for Western intervention they would (apparently) be killed -- thus effectively silencing the sources of dissent on the basis of that they are women. From the Western Saviour's point of view the Western forces are in Afghanistan to protect women, therefore women in Afghanistan who speak out against the occupation are wrong to do so. Can someone truly be for women's rights if they use rhetorical tactics like these to dismiss the courageous women who do speak out on the very basis that they are women?
I recall one time speaking to a co-worker about the mission and my reservations towards the military presence of Canadian troops there. His response was: "I think that country has been screwed over so much it needs some help." There it is present again, the idea that exists among so many people in this part of the world that our motivations and interventions can only be beneficial to people in those other parts of the world. The idea of 'we know what's best for them' is so prevalent that there seems to be no real debate about it in mainstream discourse.
Intervention fuels cycle of violence in Afghanistan
And how is Afghanistan? How much have we done for them?
A recent report from Amnesty International presents a less than rosy picture. Half a million Afghans are now homeless due to the intense fighting between NATO forces and the insurgency, and about 30,000 Afghans live in makeshift tents outside of Kabul in deplorable conditions.
Unemployment and addictions to opiates has reached unprecedented levels. The insurgency, made up of former Taliban but also of Afghans who simply resent foreign presence in their country, is also ironically partly funded by NATO's presence. Certain rural routes in Afghanistan are filled with insurgent and tribal fighters unfriendly to Western forces, but the military pays local (sometimes Taliban) militia safety payments in order to allow convoys full of supplies for troops to travel these routes unmolested. This money paid by Western powers goes directly to funding a brutal insurgency that only exists to resist the foreign military presence to begin with. In this case the only thing we are bringing is more war and helping to entrench a cycle of violence in Afghanistan. So much for liberation!
On top of all this the women of Afghanistan, the supposed reason why American, Canadian and European troops are stationed in Afghanistan, are not faring much better than they were under the Taliban. A report from 2011 found that that 87 per cent of women had experienced physical, psychological and/or sexual abuse. All this has taken place under a Western-backed government made up largely of warlords that have virtually legalized spousal rape and recently backed a decree that officially states women to be subordinate to men.
For 10 years we have had our troops stationed in Afghanistan, accompanied by relentless propaganda from both conservatives and liberals alike about our mission being to "free the women of Afghanistan". We have a simplistic understanding of the reality in Afghanistan. It was not always as it is now. War, first external and then internal, was what brought it to its current state and it is nothing short of incredibly naive to believe that militarizing a society further will solve the problems.
Libya: Disastrous results for civilians
This brings us to our next example: Libya. This is a recent story and the dust is still settling, so to speak, on the situation in this North African state and since Colonel Gaddafi's killing the issue has largely disappeared from world media.
The uprising began largely peaceful and, like the Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, may have truly been an expression of the people's popular will against what was largely considered an authoritarian dictatorship. But things became more muddled and less clear cut, as they often do, as it went on.
The United Nations, led by the Western states, but also including some support from Russia and China, backed Resolution 1970 that called for "a no fly zone" over Libya and for "the protection of civilians." There emerged an armed force opposing Gaddafi called the Libya Free Army which became the National Transitional Council once the rebels gained territory and began governing.
The resolution stuck at first but the United States and other NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) states took actions beyond their initial mandate and directly intervened through aerial bombardment and assistance to the Libya Free Army. There is a debate to be had on when nations can intervene in the case of situations such as this one, but, as I am about to explain, the decision of NATO leaders to go beyond their international mandate led to disastrous results on the ground for many civilians in Libya.
The images of Colonel Gaddafi being lynched by the NTC have been broadcast around the world by now. People may feel mixed about whether was what happened is truly justice, but there are many other images we seldom, if ever, saw on our television screens.
Although respected international human rights organizations called for an end to Gaddafi's regime and for the protection of Libyan civilians, shortly after the civil war officially ended they seemed to be telling a slightly different story than the one we were told beforehand. Amnesty International, one of the most respected of these groups, found that there was no concrete evidence that the Libyan government committed large-scale acts of killing against protestors.
Credible human rights reports largely ignored by media
Amnesty only had media reports to go on for news on Libya before the invasion but now that Gaddafi was dead they had more access on the ground. The government, they found, did repress initial demonstrations, but the investigation reports that "there is no proof of mass killing of civilians on the scale of Syria or Yemen," nor was there evidence of anti-aircraft guns being used against crowds, nor was there proof that black sub-Saharan African mercenaries were used by Gaddafi. This investigation also criticized Western media for portraying the conflict as one-sided and clear-cut. Most of the political parties in Canada continued to support the mission, however, even the historically anti-war NDP.
When the NTC (National Transition Council) took Tripoli and other cities in Libya there emerged news of massive lynching campaigns against black Africans due to the rumours of Gaddafi hiring black mercenaries. The majority of those killed were sub-Saharan African migrant workers who had come to Libya in hopes of supporting their families back in their respective sub-Saharan countries. It is also reported that black African women were raped in refugee camps by rebels. The aerial bombardments by NATO have been found to have killed many civilians as well.
The role of NATO going beyond its mandate led to these developments on the ground and it is nothing short of terribly ironic that a resolution that was made to protect Libyan civilians may have ended up killing so many of them. As the dust settles on Libya, the story may become clearer in time.
Where does this leave us? From the cases I have mentioned above (and there are so many other examples both historical and contemporary) what does this say about the role of the Western Saviour Complex? It is something very real and very present in the discourse of so many in the Western world, this idea that comes from the colonial era and has survived in different forms throughout our neo-colonial era in this globalized world. Is there a place for people from the so-called First World to do anything positive for people in the so-called Third World?
In search of examples of positive solidarity with the 'Third World'
We hear of non-profit groups in the West wanting to go "introduce" organic farming in parts of Africa for instance, despite the fact that Africans have been practicing organic farming for thousands of years. If anything, perhaps people in Africa could teach people in the West on that subject.
There are, however, various NGOs and solidarity activists that arguably actually do make a positive difference in their contexts. Many of these groups are composed of people who are not only well-intentioned, but also well-informed of the contexts in which they work and are capable of showing some humility in their work.
In this day and age the entire world is becoming more intertwined and interconnected on so many levels. It is worth asking how one can become a truly useful member of the global community who truly stands alongside other peoples in their struggles.
A first step for anyone interested in such an undertaking would be to first examine the phenomenon of the Western Saviour Complex, question one's assumptions about one's own society and other societies and their respective contexts.
This article is not meant to give a solution of how to become involved, globally active individuals or groups but to simply examine one of the major obstacles, this prevalent mentality that does more harm than anything else.
There are no clear answers to the world's problems, but if one wants to form an opinion and contribute anything positive in other parts of the world then the very first step is to listen to others before speaking.
A little humility can indeed go a long way.
Part I of this article examined the case of KONY 2012 in the context of the long history of the 'Western Saviour Complex.'
Jesse Zimmerman is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.