Go home, you’re not saving anybody.
Why you should resist white saviour complex and strive for change in your own backyard.
In the midst of anti-apartheid protests in the late 80s, my primary school ruler was emblazoned with the words “BOYCOTT SOUTH AFRICA”. This bold political statement (to, er, my 6-year-old classmates?!) must have been my older brothers’ influence. I would have had no idea what it meant. I remember the fall of apartheid in 1990: my family crowded round the telly to watch Nelson Mandela get released from prison, borrowing Winnie’s glasses to read his speech. My just-about-millennial generation was brought up on Comic Relief films that told of a desperate continent crying out for help. When I left school I, like thousands of other 18 year olds, took a gap year volunteering overseas. I taught English in South Africa.
With this backdrop, it perhaps wasn’t surprising that I ended up pursuing a career in international development in an attempt to make poverty history.
I moved to Zambia in 2008 to take up a secondment with a grassroots HIV/AIDS charity that trained up volunteers to become peer educators in rural parts of the country. I believed in the work and I was eager to help grow the model to make a serious dent in infection rates in Zambia.
I pursued that objective with fervour, working incredibly long hours. My workaholism was enabled by the fact that the office building was also my living quarters. Our accountant (and my housemate) Joyce and I regularly worked into the early hours, occasionally rewarding ourselves with bottles of cold beer.
But my optimistic energy was soon challenged.
Dancing to the different tunes of international donors was a maddening waste of energy. We were in the Bush era and some US donors wouldn’t support programmes that advocated condom use. I came to see the whole system we were operating in as broken and I started having serious questions about international development, as I’ve written about before.
The big picture wasn’t rosy. Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite economic growth over the last two decades, per capita income in Zambia is lower today than when it gained independence in the 60s and three quarters of rural Zambians live in poverty.
No matter how well thought-through our model was, people would keep living in abject poverty and people would keep dying of AIDS. The impact of our efforts was utterly dwarfed by the IMF’s demands for ‘structural adjustment’, the decline of locally-owned industry, widespread corruption and the perverse incentives created by paternalistic aid flows.
The eager beaver in me died.
Lost in translation
But it was not the many systemic failings of development that perplexed me most. Instead, it was certain personal interactions that left me confused and frustrated — and ultimately humbled.
For example, I secured a grant from a UK Foundation and, with self-satisfied delight, told one of our Programme Officers that he would be promoted to a management position and get a pay rise. He looked downcast and told me “I don’t want a promotion, Jack. I like my work in the field”. I was taken aback. Why would he not want to progress? To earn more money? I was, without much thought, clumsily applying my own values to my colleagues’ actions.
These moments of confusion might have been explained (or even avoided) had I been patient enough to acknowledge the cultural differences and power dynamics at play.
In my determination to drive the organisation forward, I had neglected to do the deep listening and learning required.
When you work hard, good things happen
I grew up in a safe and loving home, I did well at school and avoided any major personal injustices. I’d built my career in a broadly well-functioning society. By and large, I had worked hard and good things had happened.
My belief that I could achieve amazing progress if I worked hard enough was the foundation of all my efforts in Zambia. When we were knocked back, I worked harder. But after months of hard graft with little to show for it, I realised it was always one step forward, two steps back. By the end of my time there, I no longer felt that good things reliably followed hard work.
I felt helpless and hopeless. And I realised that my faith in the dependability of the effort-reward relationship was just a product of my own privilege.
I realised that these feelings of helplessness and hopelessness were perhaps felt most acutely by Zambians whose entire lives played out in this bewildering and unfair system. This tardy realisation about the Zambian national psyche might have been a starting point for real work but, like so many other putatively do-gooding Westerners, I didn’t stick around to build on it. Instead, I returned home with my tail between my legs.
I was embarrassed. I was a young man aiming to change the world whose most important lesson was essentially about his own privilege. ‘On whose time have I learnt this lesson?’ I thought to myself, shamefully.
Enter the white saviour
Months after returning, I began questioning my motivations for going to Zambia in the first place. I had made big personal sacrifices to work there. I’m gay and same sex sexual activity is illegal there. Going out for a drink with friends meant frequenting bars where, it seemed, the only women were local sex workers and the only men were leering sugar plantation workers from wealthier African countries. A group of us spent a night in the local police station because we were more than 100 metres away from a licensed establishment after midnight, which was illegal. Plain-clothed policemen armed with iron bars explained this curious aspect of martial law as they marched us to the station. It was not always a fun place to live. I don’t share this to paint myself as a martyr (for that would be true white saviour behaviour) or to paint Zambia as a hellish country (it’s also beautiful, warm and awe-inspiring). But it does beg the question: what kept me motivated to stay despite all the bad stuff?
I cringe when I think back to my mid-20s psyche. Had I fallen for the naive notion that another country’s problems might be readily solvable? Did I have the hubris to believe that maybe I could solve them?
The white saviour complex neglects the true complexity of social problems in the Global South in favour of a simpler story where only the Westerner has the smarts to identify the solution and the enthusiasm to solve it. Local people are deprived of agency in this story. In fact, they only exist to satisfy the sentimental needs of white people.
At this point, I feel the urge to say that a cute African child has never served as a prop on my tinder profile; I have never, like Louise Linton, invented a stereotype-laden fantasy portraying myself as an ‘angel-haired’ victim; and I have never reduced a complex, violent situation to a simple battle between good (handsome white humanitarian guy!) and evil (dark-skinned warlord!) and told the story to hundreds of millions. Remember Kony 2012?
I may not be one of the worst offenders but the white saviour complex I grew up surrounded by had undeniably rubbed off on me.
When we’re talking about desperately poor or sick people, war or broken societies, it’s problematic to try to drive change fuelled by the self-serving motivations so common to the white saviour’s mindset. The motivations may go uninterrogated but our actions have real human consequences.
Thankfully, today, we are more conscious of the dangers of saviourism and critical of those who don’t address it when it’s called out.
OK, you don’t *have* to go home (a caveat)
Despite this post’s provocative title, I don’t think it’s impossible for Westerners to do international development well.
Development work, especially when led by Westerners, demands extraordinary humility, patience and resolve. This is even harder than it sounds because we’ve been inculcated with messages about poverty (particularly African poverty) that tell us that a) it’s easily solvable and b) we, as Westerners, are well placed to solve it.
In reality, the knotty nature of developing world problems easily match that of the UK’s housing crisis or mass incarceration in the States. The depth of human insight and systemic understanding required to design solutions that genuinely work is tremendous.
We are perhaps better placed to influence our own governments to adopt policies that don’t exploit or pillage the Global South but instead encourage trade and good governance. If we do take action on the ground, it must come with a humble awareness of power and privilege.
Charity starts at home?
To counteract my legitimacy crisis upon my return to London I decided I should work on something that affected me personally. I started a job at an LGBT charity. Sadly, the leadership turned out to be racist, sexist and unethical (they hacked into my personal email account among other things). I was burnt by that experience but I also realised that the pendulum didn’t have to swing all the way to the other side. I needn’t restrict myself to only working on issues that I had personal experience of.
I didn’t grow up in care. I haven’t spent time in prison. I’ve never slept rough. But the UK is home. Here is where I’m most likely to stay and keep building my life. I care about the wellbeing of my neighbours and I care about justice and equality in my own backyard. I knew I wanted to keep my focus on social issues at home.
I founded Year Here to encourage a generation of aspiring social entrepreneurs to embrace the complexity of social issues at home — the misery of loneliness among our older people, the housing crisis, and the nagging persistence of educational inequality that means parental wealth is still one of the best predictors of educational success. Domestic problems are perhaps less glamorous and exotic than global poverty or the HIV epidemic but they’re real and they matter.
Of course, the need to be conscious of your motivations and aware of your privilege doesn’t evaporate at home. All sorts of power dynamics exist in the UK social impact field. Gender, race and class inequalities regularly rear their ugly heads in our work. Saviourism can exist here too. It’s imperative that we remember that meaningful change means working with people — not to them, for them or at them. Listening and learning is always where you start.
We need you here. More than ever.
Brexit has revealed deep divisions between us. We have different views, different values, different fears, different dreams. Part of the leave vote was made up of people who felt neglected and sidelined by globalisation and stagnant social mobility. It was, among other things, a cry for something else. The metropolitan elite asks, patronisingly, ‘do you understand that leaving the EU will actually make the situation worse, make you poorer?’. The dispossessed citizen responds, “What have I got to lose?”.
Now, more than ever, we need to understand each other and build bridges across class, cultural and generational divides. These unlikely bonds are enriching for everyone involved and they mean that injustices are less likely to go unnoticed. To be rooted in the society you call home means getting angry when you witness an older person slide into depression because the TV is their only form of company, or feeling the pain personally when you learn that a child became a drug runner because gangs targeted Pupil Referral Units to recruit vulnerable kids.
In these turbulent times, it can be really tiring to empathise. It’s not easy to work towards a broader objective than protecting yourself, your family and your own interests. But empathise we must. Not as an outside saviour but as people investing themselves for the long-term. Now more than ever and here more than ever.