Summer — when my social media feed is filled up with pictures of volunteers in developing countries talking about how their “perceptions have been altered” and how much “more aware” they are now. Looking closer, I might notice how the work they took part in didn’t really have that much of an impact. Even more, their work certainly could have been done by someone already living in that community. This is an example of what many consider to be the “white savior complex.”
Also known as “white saviorism,” this term refers to a Western person who attempts to “fix” the problems of residents in developing nations. It is often done without the consultation of the local community, acting in a manner that has little impact or does not provide a long-term solution, and it is administered in a way that either is or can be interpreted as done in a self-serving manner. This has been an issue for many years in films such as “The Blind Side” in which an upper-class white woman takes in a Black orphan and seemingly turns his whole life around for the better.
White saviorism also manifests in the actions of celebrities such as the English television presenter Stacey Dooley. Amid working with the British charity Comic Relief in 2019, Dooley posted a picture of herself holding a Ugandan child with the caption “OBSESSSSSSSSSSED.” This picture was widely criticized, and many accused her of using the child as an “accessory.”
This is not the first time this well-known charity has been accused of perpetuating the white savior trope. Their 2017 video featuring singer Ed Sheeran was dubbed by many as “poverty porn,” which is a strategy some non-profits use to garner sympathy and donations. The video largely focuses on Sheeran as the protagonist of the story. He is seen interacting with children in a Liberian community, seemingly presented as the only person who can give them hope for a better life. The children are depicted as waiting around for a hero like Sheeran who will change their lives forever. Equally problematic, the video also exhibits nameless, sick and starving children sleeping outside; these images do nothing but disrespect them by taking away their right to live with dignity.
This is not to say that all work being done by charities overseas is devoid of value, but merely that — even when a Western charity is well-intentioned and conducts high-impact work around the world — the majority of the attention should focus on the work done by local organizations with ties to that community. Overt racism is easy to spot, but it is still important that we remember to stomp out the casual racism that still exists.
The main difference between potentially meaningful work and a patronizing white savior is that the latter overlooks the traditions of the local people. White saviors often assume that their work gives locals a “voice” when perhaps they are the ones who have stolen local voices in the first place. They often unknowingly or innocently force their aid and expect overwhelming praise and gratitude in return. We must avoid assuming that those being helped are incapable of helping themselves and are dependent on non-profit organizations to dictate their lives. Ultimately, it is imperative we remember that the sole purpose of our work should be for the benefit of others and not ourselves.
People participating in white savior behavior may also presume that they know better and hold all the solutions because their higher education makes them intellectually superior. However, it is more complicated than that. The issues the residents have been dealing with are not ones that can be fixed in a three-week getaway because they are the consequences of much more intricate problems such as corruption, persistent violent conflicts or unsteady agricultural infrastructure, caused by longstanding and continuous white supremacist colonial powers.
One form of white saviorism, referred to as “voluntourism,” are short-term visits of Westerners that tend to shift the resources away from the local community and towards providing food and accommodation for the volunteers. Voluntourism is not inherently bad but most times it causes more harm than good when they are untrained and incapable of contributing to the project and are the ones centered in thinking of solutions. Pippa Biddle, a Huffpost columnist, recalls her high school trip to Tanzania in which their construction work was so poorly done that local workers had to take down the bricks they had laid down and rebuild the structure every night. She later traveled to the Dominican Republic to work at a summer camp for HIV+ children. Once again she realized how meaningless her work was in comparison to the local staff because her lack of Spanish proficiency prevented her from effectively treating the children. She writes, “Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work.”
On the surface, the white savior complex may seem beneficial, but the reality is that not all charity is good and neither are all methods of raising awareness. In fact, many even serve as a way for the rich to pay lower taxes and simply serve to make those with institutional privilege feel good while contributing no real systemic alleviation.
White saviorism subtly reinforces deeply-rooted hierarchies, stereotypes and oppression as a result of colonialism and imperialism. The media has ingrained into many that developing nations, especially African ones, are war-torn, disease-ridden and impoverished. In reality, any truth to these exaggerated claims is as a result of a deep-rooted history of colonization and white supremacy. At its best, white saviorism is an extension of the privilege of being raised in an environment that is removed from the realities of inequity and oppression. At its worst, through directly or indirectly trying to lead aid efforts and assuming superiority, white savior volunteers promote a form of neo-colonialism in which colonial structures continue to intrude on the political, social and economic affairs of formerly colonized nations. Yet, due to the inconspicuous and seemingly beneficial nature of white savior charity work, most of us don’t even realize that we ourselves –– including non-white people –– might be acting as white saviors.
The bottom line is solutions to education shortages or a lack of access to resources or any other issue for that matter cannot be copied and pasted from one country to another. Non-governmental organizations that use region-specific assistance in conjunction with local advisory groups and professionals are much better placed to achieve significant results because they have a better grasp of the community’s individual needs and an understanding of what solutions have the highest probability of success.
One organization doing such work is the Network for Empowered Aid Response (NEAR), a coalition of local and national civil society organizations in the Global South that promote local participation and organizing in finding solutions for a variety of causes. They emphasize that communication with those who intimately understand these challenges is vital to ensuring effective aid. NGOs with similar missions to center community and local organizers include the Chiedza Child Care Center in Zimbabwe and Children in Families in Cambodia. If you really want to do good, it is important to research and understand the methods of various organizations, while keeping in mind that you are not the protagonist of the story. The Ugandan organization No White Saviors sums it best: “We never said no white people. We just know you shouldn’t be the hero of the story.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.