The White Saviour Complex In The Aid Industry Needs To End

I’m an aid worker, having worked in international aid and development for the better half of a decade. This industry is all I know, yet working within it as a 1st generation Sri Lankan-Australian has presented a unique challenge that I continue to struggle with.

I’ve often had friends suggest that the aid industry seems to be over represented by white women of a certain socio-economic background - usually more well off. They have asked me why I continue to operate in such a space and more critically why I persist in such a white washed domain. It took me a while to understand it all myself.

I guess the reason I have stayed within this industry is because I believe in working towards poverty reduction and inclusivity, but I also actively challenge the predominant ‘white saviour complex’ approach to international aid and development.

I feel that reminding those around me that not all brown faces are in need of saving, is one of my core responsibilities. That we existed years before the white man stumbled upon us; that we have and have always had inherent agency and capacity which existed prior to them, and that even if we were struggling, we still had dignity and self-autonomy outside of who we were to those who came along to ‘save us’.

Daily, I remind people that those who look like me are not to be consistently depicted as victims and placed in fundraising campaigns to simply elicit sob story related donations. We are not victims of our traditions or culture. Our religious beliefs, our ways of life are not to be illustrated as primitive or somehow lacking. The emphasis should not be placed on the rhetoric that all it took was a white man swooping in and saving us in order for the greater good to occur. That we don’t need that ‘altruistic’ white hand lifting us up out of the so-called misery we were in before.

The recent Stacey Dooley comic relief faux pas is a poignant example of how white saviour imagery has been normalised and accepted. She was carrying a small unsuspecting Ugandan child in more than one image with a smile on her face during a ‘mission to Africa’. David Lammy - who labelled it as reinforcing tired narratives about Africa associated with purported helplessness and despair - quite rightly called out the image. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that if a person of colour is calling you out on your unconscious bias in this way, then you should listen to them. 

What was even more rage inducing within this whole circumstance was Dooley’s response to the matter. Instead of listening and aiming to challenge herself and understand the basis behind the comments, she unleashed her white privilege in a way that displayed just how tone deaf she truly is. And she was able to as a white woman, temporarily dropping in on an African nation and depicting herself carrying around small brown children.

The entire incident displays one of the biggest challenges faced within the international aid and development sector. This is how to depict people with dignity, whilst still trying to fundraise for projects and programs. Portraying all beneficiaries of aid with a skewed victim mentality is not the answer. It robs them of their inherent agency as human beings and looks over their pre-existing capabilities.

The current superiority complex involved with traditional giving is something that needs to be radically changed.

For me, I do what I do in order to carve out a space for more diversified voices and experiences to come to the forefront within the sector. I see myself as acting as an accountability checkpoint asking the constant question of ‘are you portraying that person with the dignity they deserve and were born with?’ and ‘are you reinforcing the white saviour complex in which taming the “savages” is simply paramount’? My role as I see it is about raising people’s awareness towards not inadvertently whitewashing cultures and simplifying complex poverty scenarios down to ‘that poor brown person, from that poor, corrupt 3rd world country that needs us to save them’.

In this instance we must all do better at attempting to ensure that aid and development doesn’t continue to be delivered as a neo-colonialist function in which the souls of the savages are being saved. We need to do better to not blame development challenges on ‘primitive’ practices of those who sit outside of things that we understand in the so called ‘1st world’.

More poignantly, we need to call out circumstances of white saviourism wherever we see them and remind those who are perpetuating this complex that they are acting inappropriately.

They need to understand that defensively proclaiming their innocence is not the answer and that they are fuelling the type of global injustice that they claim to be championing.