New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof has come under fire by Africa bloggers for consistently placing Western protagonists in his stories of humanitarian crises. He should go the extra mile to understand the politics, writes guest blogger Jason Stearns.
Nick Kristof wrote a nice blog piece yesterday about his portrayal of aid in Africa. He had been criticized for consistently placing Western protagonists in his stories of humanitarian crises, portraying "black Africans as victims" and "white foreigners as saviors." He answers by saying that (a) he often also portrays black heroes and (b) that, as much as he feels uncomfortable with it, it is easier to market a story with strong Western protagonists.
I can empathize with Kristof on this. It is difficult to market stories on Africa. He mentions a trip made by Anderson Cooper to the Congo, in which I took part – Anderson lost 20-30 percent of his viewers just by broadcasting from Africa. Also, when I first tried shopping my forthcoming book on the Congo war around publishers the predominant answer was: We need stronger Western characters.
Kristof has done strong reporting to bring stories to light that no one else will cover. And yet I would like to disagree with Kristof on one important matter. I am consistently vexed by his reporting, not only because he highlights white protagonists, but because his view of politics is often pretty rudimentary. It's not so much that he shows only black victims and white saviors, but it's the kabuki theater of victims and saviors in general that leaves me unsatisfied.
Here is Kristof comparing Congo with Darfur, for example, back in 2007:
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