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Retiring the Western Hero

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In a recent Rolling Stone magazine profile of Bowe Bergdahl, the disillusioned American soldier who became a prisoner of war in 2009 after walking off his base in eastern Afghanistan, writer Michael Hastings depicts a young man of impulsive idealism who wanders into the arms of a Pakistani terrorist group.

Through interviews with the 26-year-old's family in Idaho, Hastings describes Bergdahl's growing yearning to participate in something larger than himself, something unconventional and cool. He tried to join the French Foreign Legion and was turned down. He dreamed of becoming a survival expert like Bear Grylls of the TV show "Man vs. Wild". Before his tragic decision to join the U.S. Army, however, Bergdahl had one other plan -- helping to stop Joseph Kony.

In 2008, he spoke to a family friend who was working as a missionary in Uganda about going over to Africa to teach "self-defense techniques" to villagers being targeted by brutal militias like the Lord's Resistance Army. He and his father even fantasized about the creation of a special ­operations unit to "kill these [expletive deleted]" in Africa, imagining that "someone needed to run an op with some military people dressed up like U.N. people" to take out warlords in Darfur and Sudan. Before a spot in the friend's missionary program could open up, though, Bowe had decided on a different adventure.

The intergenerational fantasy of a handful of foreign Rambos or machine gun preachers smiting the baddies in Sudan is only a shade more childish than the notion that the peace and security of embattled villagers might turn on a few Tae Kwan Do lessons. In play-stories like these, a short, sharp dose of Western corrective action -- usually involving automatic weapons -- is all that's needed to solve the world's problems.

My purpose in mentioning Bergdahl is not to make light of the suffering of a young man who right now is being held captive by some of the most frightening people around. His story, however, illustrates the naiveté and self-regard with which Americans often see their role in addressing suffering in far-away lands. Bergdahl's Afghanistan reading list included the campus favorite Three Cups of Tea, an account of another lone American altruist that has now been partially discredited. Faint echoes of Bergdahl's African musings can also be found in the breakout video, with 92.9 million hits and counting, of Invisible Children's controversial Kony 2012 campaign.

All of this came to mind while I was speaking recently with aid and development professionals about ways to get Americans engaged in global issues using narratives that don't involve Western heroes or protagonists.

One example is Every Beat Matters, an effort by Save the Children that places local community health workers front and center as the faces of assistance and development. To raise awareness and money for frontline health workers, the campaign introduces a group of medics working in remote villages in seven countries on three continents -- and to the individual children whose well-being they are advancing. Visitors to the campaign's web site can view videos and photographs from a day in the life of Afia Afroze, a health worker in West Rajguru, Bangladesh, and of Desita, who helps deliver babies and counsels new mothers in Indonesia's Aceh province.

The site includes a cool line-drawing of Domingo Lux, a community health worker from El Baldillo, Guatemala, made up of the dozens of separate cardiograms of the children he treats. Click on each cardiogram and you see a photo of the actual child whose ticker drew that happy line -- and you hear a recording of her actual heartbeat.

To add a consumerist sweetener, the pop group One Republic wrote a song, "Feel Again," incorporating some of those recorded heartbeats. The single isn't my cup of tea, but some of the proceeds from each download go to help community health workers like Afia Afroze, Desita (who uses only one name), and Domingo Lux.

Aid organizations have long struggled with the issue of how to get donors engaged. Faced with the choice of making supporters feel they're singlehandedly saving the world versus showering them with administrative details about vaccines, food, and emergency tarps, it's not surprising many choose to emphasize the individual, be it your individual contribution, a single (usually famous) interlocutor, ala Nicholas Kristof or Angelina Jolie, or individual beneficiaries. People want to feel connected. I'm a regular donor to the International Rescue Committee, and was touched earlier this year to receive a hand-written card from an Iraqi refugee who the IRC had resettled in the Bronx -- even if most of my support goes to the group's operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Pakistan.

Every Beat Matters is slick, well-thought-out, and it puts the emphasis where it should be: On the local people who work every day to make their communities healthier and safer places to live. I don't know if the campaign is raising the money or awareness Save the Children hoped it would. But it looks and feels right: No foreign saviors, no righteous explosions -- just normal people, doing the needful under difficult circumstances, day in and out.

endit

Dan Morrison is a journalist and author of The Black Nile.