Confronting my White Saviour Complex

This is something I’ve wanted to write for a long time now. Reading it might make you feel uncomfortable. I sure as hell felt uncomfortable while writing it. And that’s a good thing. That’s the whole point actually. If I was doing what I do (working in development as a white woman in countries with a complex colonial history) and I didn’t feel uncomfortable, something would be very, very wrong. A friend of mine, a down-right spectacular woman who I respect very much put it this way, “be uncomfortable and understand why.”

I want to have a very frank conversation about race and privilege in development because I know I’m complicit in the white saviour narrative — even though I like to think I’m not. Me being in Nigeria is, as I’ve come to realize, pretty ethically shady and it’s a conversation/argument that I’ve had with myself more times than I can count. At this point though, it feels irresponsible not to talk about it candidly with you all. So, I want to discuss this, the ways I justify my work — and whether those justifications are valid — and how we can all do better.

Now, I recognize that there’s some pretty hefty concepts that need to be discussed here and that they might not be familiar to everyone. So here’s a quick rundown of some things I want to talk about, for the sake of accessibility. For example, what do I mean when I say “development work”? 

In a (very small) nutshell, international development generally refers to the work that organizations do to reduce global inequality and poverty around the world. Working in development means that you’re usually attached to one of these organizations, either in your home country or on the ground in what’s referred to as “developing countries” (formerly known as third world countries and sometimes currently referred to as the Global South). For me, working in development has been three different placements (in Malawi, Nepal, and now Nigeria) as a communications and media advisor for local organizations. 

Now here’s where things are going to start getting a little uncomfortable. What is the white saviour complex and what does it look like in practice? 

The white saviour complex, as Janine Guarino put it in this article for Medium, is “the self-serving assumption among white people from developed nations that they should be saving poor people in Africa.” So what does that actually look like? It looks like me, a white lady, being paid to work in developing countries where there are definitely skilled locals who could do the job. It looks like me, as a young traveller, snapping photos of people just trying to live their lives (without permission) and then posting some bullshit generalization as a caption on my Instagram. It’s people taking selfies with black and brown babies and posting it on social media for likes and a quick ego boost. It’s people who would never be hired on a construction site in their home countries going to build houses/schools/libraries/wells in another country. It’s that spring break “voluntourism” gig where you get to experience somewhere exotic but also like, help the poor orphans, you know? 

The white saviour complex is incredibly harmful in so many ways. The attitude of the white saviour is patronizing and demeaning to locals (who know more about their challenges and also successes than you ever could) and completely ignores an incredibly damaging history of colonialism and slavery. So often white people come into a country they know nothing about and insist they know how to solve challenges that locals, who are far more qualified than they are, have been studying for years. People assume that West knows best and that is just an incredibly flawed and harmful notion in every way. 

In fact, white saviours often end up doing more harm than good in the communities they visit. The projects are unsustainable, don’t meet the community’s real needs or completely fail to include local leadership in the planning and implementation phases. But that doesn’t matter to the volunteer who heads back to their suburban homes in the “developed world” to brag about that time they volunteered in Africa and how it was really hard but they just learned so much about themselves. The community they left behind, meanwhile, is dealing with another white person coming to their home and fucking shit up for them. Again. 

So, theory and rhetoric aside. Let’s talk about how I don’t want to think I’m really doing those things but how I actually, kind of, sort of, am. 

For starters, am I taking a job away from a qualified Nigerian? Yes, but it’s also not quite that simple. 

On paper, I’m 100% qualified to be doing the job I was hired for. I have years of experience and a degree to back it up. I even have all the expensive camera equipment and editing software that comes with the job. But do I have intimate knowledge of the media landscape in Nigeria? Hell nah. Will I acquire that knowledge during my six-month mandate? Probably not. So why doesn’t GPI hire a local Nigerian who has both the background knowledge and the qualifications for the job? 

Well as far as I can figure it… it’s because GPI gets me and my fancy equipment mostly for free. Cuso International, the volunteer sending organization that I was hired by, paid for me to get to Nigeria (the travel visa, the vaccinations, the plane tickets, everything) and they pay my monthly stipend while I’m here. Cuso International is funded almost entirely by Global Affairs Canada. So in a roundabout way, the Canadian government is paying for me so that GPI doesn’t have to. So that their funding can go to more important things like their programs that positively impact thousands of people in Nigeria every year. 

I could just leave it at that. I could say, well GPI says that they need better communications but they can’t justify shifting funds away from important programs for an advisor so the benevolent Canadian government has stepped in and is sending one their way and la-di-da Bob’s your uncle. But when you’re a white person working in development, you have a responsibility to look more critically at the situation. 

Why not take the money it costs to send one single Canadian and instead put it towards GPI’s programming where they could no doubt impact the lives of hundreds of Nigerians? If funding is such an issue, wouldn’t the money be better spent that way? Will six months of taking photos, producing videos and writing media policies really impact as many people as a bout of good funding would? Personally, I don’t think so. Here’s the thing though, that’s not how funding from the Canadian government works. GPI isn’t going to get that funding from the Canadian government, whether I’m here or not. In an article for Bright, Mary Ann Clements writes “I’ve come to believe that the sector replicates the very structures of injustice we claim to be tackling,” and I have to say I agree. So, I find myself working within a system that I know is broken and that actively feeds into the white saviour narrative but not leaving because, at least GPI is getting something out of me being here. 

But let’s take this a step further. Why did I want to be here in the first place? What were my motivations for coming to Nigeria and taking this job? 

Well, I’ll tell you this much. It had nothing to do with Nigeria. I wanted to work for a women’s empowerment organization and I wanted to be paid to do it. My end goal for years now has been working in feminist activism in Canada (and eventually getting paid to do it) but my experience for the last few years has been in international development and planting trees. So it’s not so much that I wanted to be here, as it is that I wanted to be doing this and wasn’t sure I could do it successfully in Canada. At least not without some paid experience under my belt. 

So yeah, does using Nigeria as a training ground for my activism work in Canada seem like a shitty thing to do? Yes. And is it a shitty thing to do? Also yes. 

Am I torn up about it because it’s ethically pretty shady but also every day people at GPI tell me they are glad I’m here to offer my expertise (and fancy equipment)? Yes, yes, yes. 

A friend pointed me towards this excellent Afropunk article in which the author begs white people to ask themselves a whole slew of important questions before packing their bags and heading off to volunteer. I’m going to do my best to answer some of them now. 

 “Are you well equipped to help this community?” (In some ways yes, in others, not at all). 

“Have you done your due diligence and extensively researched both the present day and historical environment of the community?” (A bit, but not even close to as much as I should have). 

“Do you hold the tools for developing Africa?” (Straight up no.) 

“Are you aiming to empower women who will be able to contribute to the economy after you leave?” (Yes, that’s exactly why I picked GPI).  

Are your efforts sustainable? (I’m training people who already do communications work at GPI to be more effective in their storytelling so hopefully, yes). 

Answering “yes” and “sort of” and “hopefully” to at least some of those questions isn’t really enough though. And here’s why.

I came to Nigeria with a huge amount of privilege and I have been remiss in not acknowledging that. The fact that I’m here at all is evidence of this privilege. I come from a country that can afford to send (mostly) white people to volunteer in places that are hotbeds of historical colonialism, while refusing to see the deeply disturbing irony of that or the implications it has on the work being done. I come face to face with the effects of white privilege far more often living here than living in Canada. As part of the visible majority in Canada, I don’t have to think about these things as often and that is the definition of privilege right there folks.

The other day my colleague from Sierra Leone was telling me about how all the best development jobs in his country were reserved for foreigners and how sometimes he didn’t even bother applying (despite his Masters Degree and years of experience working in development in Sierra Leone and other parts of Africa) because he’s watched time and time again as those jobs go to foreigners (read: white people). 

Another example of my privilege and white saviour status? Being able to blog about my experiences to people back home and get messages about how “inspiring” I am for going to Nigeria to help women. 

After taking a long hard look at my last blog post, I have to say it’s something I’m not entirely proud of. I mean, my intentions were good (the motto of all white saviours) but the execution came across as self-serving and playing into the single story of Africa that we’ve come to expect in a lot of ways. Reading the comments and messages I get after posting on my blog always makes me feel uncomfortable. And let me say this once again, that’s a good thing! 

We, as white people, need to feel uncomfortable and to be challenged and to take our initial gut reactions of life being “so unfair” and shove them to the back of our brain. We, and by that I include myself, need to shut the hell up and listen. We need to create space for marginalized voices and we need to be constantly checking ourselves and our privilege and actively fighting to dismantle our harmful habits. What’s more, we need to be championing people of colour who are already doing great activism but don’t necessarily have the privilege of being heard as readily as we do. 

What I’m trying to do with this blog post is confront these issues head-on. I know that I’ve fed into the white saviour narrative before and I know that despite my best efforts, it might happen again. I know that sometimes I completely fail in recognizing my white privilege. I know that my being in Nigeria and working in development in general is morally grey at the very best. I know that acknowledging this and then continuing to stay here for the next few months (even if I don’t intend to continue in development work after this contract ends) kind of makes the whole thing worse. I don’t have the answers. 

There it is again. That pervasive and disturbing sense of unease. Do you feel it? I still do. And thank fuck for that.


I highly recommend checking out some of these articles for more information on the White Saviour Complex, white people working in development, the harmful nature of voluntourism, etc. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves. 

“WHITE SAVIOR,” YOUR VOLUNTEER TRIP TO “AFRICA” WAS MORE BENEFICIAL TO YOU THAN TO “AFRICA” – Afropunk

The White-Savior Industrial Complex – The Atlantic

YOUR WHITE SAVIOR COMPLEX IS DETRIMENTAL TO MY DEVELOPMENT – TMS Ruge

NO WHITE SAVIOURS  (this is an amazing Instagram account that I recommend following but since Instagram has been censoring them lately, I’m posting the website here)

HILARIOUS ‘BARBIE SAVIOR’ PARODIES SAVIOR COMPLEX OF SOME WHITE NGO VOLUNTEERS IN AFRICA – Afropunk 

Holding up the Mirror: Recognizing and Dismantling the “White Savior Complex” – Medium

The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems – Bright 

What Role Can Privileged White People Play in International Development? – Bright

Also including this because it’s just hilariously wrong: Humanitarians of Tinder

One Comment Add yours

  1. herewith4 says:

    Oh my Paige. So insightful and accountable. Thank you.

    We could have a feast and discuss white privilege from an African adoption perspective. White Saviour. Yuck.

    The adoption world is full of it. Especially Christian White Saviours which add a whole new surface to the already complex prism.

    Grateful for your candor
    Heather

    Like

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