It’s 2014, do you know where your Noble Savage is?

I have real mixed feelings about the latest web video from Survival International. (You can see it here – I’m annoyingly not able to embed it because it’s not on YouTube.)

On the one hand, the little vid is great fun. Oren Ginzburg’s writing is to-die-for, the illustration is gorgeous, and anything David Mitchell touches instantly turns to comedy gold.

Go and have a look.

Back safely? You see the problem, right? They’ve rummaged through the musty cupboards of discredited western ideologies, picked out the Noble Savage, dusted it off and set it to a killer soundtrack.

I hate to be too critical, as I’m sure there are some settings where tribal people were getting along just fine without development interventions, and participatory community project building just screwed everything up for them. Survival’s whole thing is to work to safeguard those types of communities, and that’s their prerogative, no question.

The problem is that There You Go leaves viewers with the distinct impression that all of Africa is a happy frolicking ground for happy natives in traditional costume who spend their days chillaxing and living off the fat of the land until some evil egghead from a foreign NGO comes and screws everything up.

It’s obvious enough, but it’s worth stating again: there’s a monstrous falsification of African realities at play here.

Most people in Africa are caught in an untenable middle ground between traditional ways of life that had already stopped being feasible by the time independence came and a modernity their societies haven’t quite gotten the knack of. It’s not a very happy middle ground either; idealized images of gorgeous Ethiopians staring purposefully off into the distance don’t make up for the realities of poor health, unattainable education and chronic hunger that hundreds of millions of Africans face day-in-and-day-out.

It may be that aid is an ineffective way to deal with the very serious problems of partial modernization that plague Africa – that’s an argument I’m much more sympathetic to – but to trash the aid industry writ-large as mobilized to address imaginary problems is more than a stretch, it’s a lie.

What’s troubling is that Survival is so clearly targeting this video outside the development world, hoping for a viral hit among people who don’t really think much or know much about Africa. The conclusion it obviously hopes to elicit – a knowing shrug coupled with an “I knew it, this aid stuff is a crazy racket” seem to me wildly destructive.

Again, Survival is entitled to advocate for the people they want to advocate for. But this is really not the way to go about it. There’s a crazy amount of baby going down the drain along with that bathwater, and it isn’t ok.

8 thoughts on “It’s 2014, do you know where your Noble Savage is?”

  1. Totally agree. I was so confused by the video that I spent a few minutes reading the rest of the website, and the impression that I got from their FAQ/about-us/etc is much more nuanced: the idea that development must always be controlled by the local population is something I think we can all get behind. And I’m totally willing to believe that there have been cases where, for example, unholy mining-NGO alliances have done more harm than good (just a ‘hypothetical’ example, as a Canadian).

    But yeah the video by itself is very extreme and misleading… if they’re using it as a stand-alone PR piece I’m worried.

    1. Their overall approach reminds me of Lemi Riefenstahl’s glorification of the Nuba as aesthetic objects to be admired while the observer who admires them does so from afar, while enjoying the decent nutrition, education, and medical help provided by modernity.

      For my generation, Susan Sontag’s takedown of Riefenstahl buried this way of thinking. It’s on the web; everyone should read it.

  2. I have to say I understood the video in a different way, though it might be because I love Mitchell’s work and I know his style. For me it was being critical of the empty, buzz-wordy jargon, that people use. And how it allows you to get away with anything by sounding vaguely serious without beng clear and detailed. I took it more in the vein that it’s so powerful that even a utopic, idyllic community would be completely wrecked by it. Thus, what chance do real communities with pressing needs have?

    (nb, this comes from a Mitchellologist, not from someone in the world of development)

  3. For clarification, the video is an animation of a book. The point that what’s depicted is entirely against the people’s wishes (and so completely different from projects desired by them) is, we hope, clear.
    The book has an added written foreword and conclusion which make additional points. They can be read on the same page as the animation.
    Nothing in the book or film is intended to point to Africa. Indeed, it might be interesting to ask why anyone thought it did.
    The writer drew his material from his own experiences (in another continent) and invented none of the terminology used.
    The ‘noble savage’ myth is not helpful and Survival probably does as much to debunk it as anyone.

    1. Thanks for writing in! I’m sure all of that is right. And yet – as a stand-alone artifact (which you have to assume is how many will experience it, if only because of David Mitchell’s star power (swooon!)) it’s really really problematic.

  4. What’s really really really problematic is that many ‘development’ project are not wanted by the people concerned, and are extremely damaging to them. I don’t know what you mean by ‘targeting this video outside the development world’. What’s the ‘development world’? A closed cell of ‘experts’ working without public scrutiny? It’s a film about people having projects forced on them. It happens – a lot. Don’t you think it should be exposed?

  5. Your own FAQ says you are ‘a cri de coeur against the kind of development project that sounds great at a cocktail party but goes flat the second it hits the field’. Do you only want your ‘cri’ sotto voce?

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