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…