Between plastic pollution, global pandemics and deadly wildfires, the narrative around lending a hand to those seemingly less fortunate has never been stronger. Who could *possibly* save us from this scorched planet? Perhaps it’s the 18-year-olds teaching English in Kenya, career folk taking ‘grown-up gap years’ or glossy mags promoting ‘voluntourism’ as the new safari. Ultimately, wanting to help is a good thing and volunteering and charity aren’t a sin. But centuries of subtle conditioning have created a ‘white saviour complex’ that’s ingrained, hard to spot, and, quite literally, complex. Why is it so dirty, though?
It’s when the narrative becomes skewed towards a privileged Westerner seeking recognition for ‘helping’ that we start to entwine white saviourism with white supremacy; the very essence of colonialism, slavery and Empire. Hollywood actor Gerard Butler recently found this out when he posted Instagram photos of his trip to Ethiopia, in which he appeared to be feeding local children from the goodness of his heart (curiously, from what looked like a dog bowl). In fact, he was promoting his latest film along the same lines. So, let’s unpack this.
It boils down to ignorance of the structures that created these situations. Teju Cole—who first theorised the ‘white saviour industrial complex’ in 2012—observed that white saviours place themselves at the centre and expect a ‘reward’ for their deeds, without acknowledging that they might have supported policies which caused the situation (poverty, dictatorships, oppression, famine etc.) And the cold, hard reality is that ‘rich’ countries still benefit financially from these structures; via raw materials, energy, human labour and so forth. So, we need to weigh the intention versus the impact. Sometimes, it smacks of religious colonialism. Missionaries used to—in some places, still do—take from historically poor and vulnerable communities in exchange for their conversion to Christianity and in recent years, we’ve noted the exposure of corrupt Western charities who just exacerbate these problems. It’s God, Queen and Cricket.
Media portrayal of these developing countries doesn’t help—because often, only half the story is told. The starving child from [insert African nation] is pictured, but there’s no mention of how that country got to where it is. For example, Haiti is still paying off a debt of independence to its former coloniser, France—which has almost entirely decimated their economy. If we want to highlight their plight, let’s focus on the people; don’t centre the white (wo)man who has gone to help. Highlight the policies that have led to this and continue to disadvantage them. Give readers the knowledge to fight against structures and challenge our politicians to rectify wrongs. This might bring lasting change—encouraging those who promote their short-lived good deeds won't.
Of course, when we take pictures of underprivileged people—as we would statues in a museum—we objectify them. We also perpetuate a dangerous web of ‘poverty porn’ which turns suffering—the pillaging of raw products, national debt, the price of emancipation etc. that’s still ongoing—into ‘likes’. The symbolism behind voyeuristic photos of brown and Black children in developing countries also speaks to a skewed balance of power. Would you visit your local primary school and post pictures of you feeding its students on social media? Probably not.
Firstly, taking photographs of minors without parents’ consent is illegal. Secondly, if you were visiting a school, you probably had good reason to; perhaps you were invited in a professional capacity or reporting on the work of their staff. So why does this logic go out the window when it comes to African, Asian or Central American countries? When did we start thinking it was helpful for a school-leaver to build homes in Botswana (often then rebuilt by actual builders) or a holidaymaker rocking up for a tour without considering what that enterprise really needs e.g. marketing skills or trained medical staff.
‘No White Saviors’—the Instagram account and social enterprise, led by women in Kampala, Uganda—recommends that people confront their unearned power and access when entering low-income communities and name who they meet. No more ‘a local woman’ in copy and captions. This helps amplify marginalised voices and success stories, whether teachers, non-profit workers, scientists or aspiring politicians—and it gives the power back.
While ethical storytelling is constantly evolving, perhaps we can permanently ditch the assumption that we’re ‘giving’ people a voice; they already have one and it’s more likely that we’ve not been listening. We’re in the business of putting others in the spotlight, so maybe it's time we examine who and what belongs there.
Shivani and Meera
P.S. If you missed the first two issues of our newsletter, you can read them here.