It's been a weird period for would-be white saviors. Mike Daisey, an outspoken critic of Apple's labor practices, has admitted to fabricating parts of his investigation of Foxconn factory conditions. And Jason Russell, co-founder of the group behind the massive KONY 2012 campaign, was picked up by San Diego police following a very public breakdown--and despite the campaign's stated mission to save Uganda, its first-ever Uganda screening was interrupted by audience members throwing rocks.
Founded in 2006 by Robbins, John Ewing and Matey Odonkor, with Carmen Montoya joining in 2009, the project is brilliant and simple: it's a global network that collects problems from the "first world" and submits them to think tanks in the "third world": in Cuba, the think tank is a three-generation family, in El Salvador a rural radio station, in Ghana a group of bike mechanics. The project then returns to the first-world community to implement the suggested solutions. Sometimes they're pretty good ideas--like the 'Analog Updatr,' to help connect with that stranger at the next laptop. And sometimes they're as actively detrimental as the worst of big-budget global aid. But in all cases, the think tanks' solutions are executed with minimal local consent--just as "developing world" communities are often given no choice of whether and how to cooperate with aid programs.
As the project has gone on, the lines between hemispheres have blurred: young women in U.S. prisons send solutions to Wales, and Filipina immigrants in Queens ask the Lebanon think tank for help with police racial profiling. It's a project that humanizes the folly of 'saving' an unfamiliar society, but it also highlights the value and availability of multiple voices, and holds clues for finding real solutions to global issues. Robbins spoke with us by email about moving the dialogue beyond both "African children" and first-world guilt.
You served in the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa, from 1995 to 1997. How did your Peace Corps work in Benin influence Ghana ThinkTank?
For me, the Ghana ThinkTank was a direct response to the discomfort I felt at seeing how international development sometimes played out, where people from "first" world countries were imposing solutions on cultures they had not grown up in. I knew I was a part of that, and worked with that knowledge during my time in Benin.
Ghana ThinkTank was initially a punitive project of sorts, an attempt to make U.S. citizens feel what it is like to have another culture, with their best intentions, tell us what to do. Over the years it has grown into more than that--a way to garner other perspectives, to allow people to face their stereotypes and experience those other people have about them.
How do the folks react to the project? Do you work to make sure they aren't the butt of the joke?
People react differently. El Salvador has sometimes treated the project as a way to express criticality at our ways of life in the U.S.A. Ghana has certainly brought interpersonal approaches to our issues, while Iran has focused on humor. Sometimes it feels like Serbia is treating the process as a joke.
Whether we think the solutions are brilliant or problematic, whether or not they jive with our own culture, we implement their solutions faithfully. We take their ideas seriously, and see them through diligently. So, even an idea that might sound like a joke to American ears--"rename your dog 'love' " (Ghana), "hire immigrant day laborers to attend fancy social functions" (El Salvador), "record funny, dirty memories from the elderly and play them for younger people" (Iran)--is implemented with seriousness.
We report back to the think tanks, and we take this seriously. I have seen the effects of cross-cultural interventions in other parts of the world, and have learned that I cannot use my own culture's ideals to judge another culture. If anyone feels like the butt of a joke, it's us...
Every time we run this project we encounter people who think we are "saving African children." But it is the stereotypical "savior" we are trying to help, and we ask them to listen to "those people" they may think are needy, to learn to rely on them. Part of the agenda is to point at the unintended consequences that outsider solutions can create, while another part is to demonstrate that the rest of the world has something to offer.
What do you think about the narratives put forth by campaigns like KONY 2012, and on what Teju Cole has referred to as the "White Savior Industrial Complex"--TEDTalks, Tom's Shoes, etc.?
Ghana ThinkTank originally was developed as a reaction to the "White Savior Industrial Complex"--to show the hypocrisy, hubris, and small-mindedness that is often integral to this way of working. But I am not going to dedicate myself to a project that only criticizes, so we have worked to make sure this project offers a positive alternative, a way to counteract this complex by providing cohesion, not division.
When a wealthy white person from Westport asks a person from Ghana for help, or a Welshman asks an Iranian for help, and then sees a group of Ghanaian or Iranians discuss his or her problem earnestly, there is pressure to work with us to see their solution through. In the end, the process humanizes a stereotype, and affects a personal life. It's not just a stab at guilty white people; it is also a chance to work past it with the very person they have their assumptions about.
As a white American guy, how do you feel about your own relationship to the white savior archetype?
I am part of that archetype. I try to make my work address and intervene and hopefully also unravel the systems I work within, but I don't pretend I am outside of it. I know I am complicit in the work I address, and rather than let it put me into an intellectual paralysis, or a frenzy of do-good oblivion, I choose to work with my role as a person (who has worked in international development) and as a symbol (a white guy working with, or supposedly for, the Other). It can be sneakily effective, particularly when people enter the project as part of the white savior archetype, and find the tables turning, in very personal ways.
In your speaking engagements, how often do you find yourself addressing rooms full of white people about how the room shouldn't be full of white people?
I think I need to clarify your question. Who do you feel this project addresses? I see several audiences.
To stereotype grossly: when I speak to a room of people, it is usually to exactly the people who should be hearing that side of the project--privileged "first-worlders" who assume their 22 cents a day is saving some starving African child a la Sally Struthers, or intellectuals paralyzed by guilt and fear of paternalism. Of course, it also addresses people who are trying to figure out how they can play a meaningful role in the world without becoming another neocolonial tool (in all senses of the word "tool").
When I am working in Ghana or Serbia (or a prison in the U.S.), the project is addressing a different group of people, with different goals--it is asking for help.
So, I think it is less about white people in particular than class--the "first" world and its assumptions about the "developing" world. (And we have "first" and "third" worlds within our country.) Black people can have just as simplistic stereotypes about Africa as white people can. How many predominantly black organizations raise money in a classic paternalistic way to "save" Africans?
What's next for Ghana ThinkTank? Is it an ongoing project?
Definitely ongoing. We are halfway through a 10-year plan. After five years, we are expanding the time frame and scope of our projects, and trying to fold some of the lessons and practices back into the Non-Governmental Organization industry from which it came. This summer we implemented the Ghana ThinkTank project in Mitrovica, asking Serbs and Albanians in this divided town to solve each other's problems. In the autumn, we will be traveling to Lebanon as part of a "person-to-person diplomacy" initiative through the U.S. State Department.
In your travels, have you met artists from the Global South who are doing projects similar in scale to this? Who should we be tuning in to?
Yes, a local NGO called Generator in former Yugoslavia uses art to bring together Serbian, Albanian and Roma communities. Akirash, a Nigerian artist I met when he was living in Ghana, works at a different scale, but with an eye towards the system he is working within. His work pushes against the expat dependence he experienced in contemporary West African art, asking Africans to recognize the art in their own lives rather than making urban outfitter patinas on fake old African masks for tourist consumption.
This interview has been condensed and edited. This article has been altered since publication.