Last week, I got an email question from a colleague (we’ll call her ‘Amy’). I’ve known for a while. I asked Amy for permission to answer her question in a more public forum, because this is a question I get quite often. And it is a question that is difficult to answer without trampling on the genuine—albeit, often naive—spirit of your everyday do gooder. The answer has to be honest. It has to be blunt. And it has to convey a truth to an industry insufferably full of self-righteous entitlement. That industry is the international aid and development complex that has come to be known as the White Savior Complex. The question, is presented thusly:
Hi Teddy I hope this finds you well. I’ve followed with interest your work and views on white saviour complex and it has really resonated with me. My work in Uganda is very important to me and I need to be seen in certain photos by my sponsors to show I am actually there doing the work I say I am rather than getting others to do it. Previously I was pulled up for NOT being in certain photos by a sponsor so how could he know for sure I was def there!!?? However I am extremely conscious that I don’t want to look like the white saviour. But I do want people to see what I am doing, to raise awareness and generate more income especially to my [redacted] Uganda project which is micro financing women to start businesses. So I find that I need to be seen, but where is the line towards what is acceptable to raise awareness and generate funds and when you have crossed into white saviour. I REALLY do not want to be seen as a white saviour and would appreciate your thoughts on how I can ensure this never happens. Hope all good with you!
But before I proceed I do have to mention that much of what I have to address has been discussed in three previously-written pieces that are absolute must-reads for anyone grappling with what their role should be in international development:
- The white tourist’s burden by Rafia Zakaria
- The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems by Courtney Martin
- The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys): Why I Stopped being a Voluntourist by Pippa Biddle
As a Ugandan in the development field, it is hard not to feel like a raisin in a sea of entitled walnuts. I admit that the Educated Angry African nickname my cofounders jokingly gave me at JadedAid is well-deserved. It is hard not to walk around your own community with a sense of resignation and defeat (and quite too often, anger) at the elevated roles outsiders hold in my community. Reading this shit can be infuriating.
I can’t answer Amy’s question without bumping up against the various imbalances created by white privilege. Geopolitically, Western countries enjoy more privilege on our own continent than we do. An American or Englishman’s passport can breeze through any customs on the continent, but I need to apply for a visa to enter Ethiopia or South Africa. Socially, white skin is as good as a visa to do whatever your heart desires in much of the Global South. White skin is the MasterCard of global development, and membership has its privileges.
This excellent piece of privilege naval-gazing, The Color of My Skin, by Kezia Brinson spells it out:
White person means rich. White person means any and every Ugandan man, or boy, will ask you to marry him, then and there, because he wants what’s in your pocket. White person means you are lazy; you don’t work, life is easy, and everyone works for you. White person means you have the power to give as much money as you want to anyone and everyone because you are so filthy rich. White person means you can fly to and from anywhere in the world, and you can bring anyone who asks; including the boda man who just drove you for two minutes and doesn’t even know your name.
Kezia, a Canadian, is the poster child of White Savior hubris. She flew thousands of miles to teach kids in #Africa (with no teaching training to speak of). Meanwhile, Canada’s First Nations wallow in abject poverty right under her nose.
Amy, I could say that it isn’t your fault, that you were just born into a system. But the unfortunate truth is that it is your fault because you are an active agent of that system. The only options on the table are you either educate your funders to understand that your very presence is detrimental to what you are attempting to achieve, or you quit altogether. Either way, you don’t have to play along the same rules that have you at an existential crossroads. True change, often, requires that we do those things that scare us and seem almost insurmountable.
You need to ask yourself some hard questions: What is your primary objective here? Are you doing this because you want to feel like you have done some good in this world? And the easiest, sexiest, most fundable way to do that is to bring change over there? If the problem you are trying to fix over there isn’t fixed right where you are, what gives you the qualifying authority to go there? And by leap-frogging the issues in your backyard, are you really solving the problem or just moving sand grains around on a beachhead? Why are problems over there yours to fix?
And while we are asking the tough questions, let’s dig a bit deeper into that geopolitical imbalance. If the “reductive seduction” that led you to try and empower women in Uganda, left the women in your community without access, how difficult would it be for a concerned Ugandan bitten with the very same “reductive seduction” to try to go to your country and solve the issue?
It’s a trick question.
For those of us in the Global South, we think of going there, not to solve your problems, but in search of better lives. Our “seduction” is selfish and primal. And of absolute necessity. It’s why we fake passports. It’s why we cross deserts. It’s why we submit to human traffickers. It’s why the ‘A sinking boat full brown people‘ white card exists in the JadedAid game. That primal need to migrate at all cost is why we, in the middle of an unforgiving ocean, drown short of thepromised land.
It is important to ask yourself, “can a Ugandan do in my village what I am freely able to do in theirvillage?” If the answer is “no”, then what you are attempting to do will never be solved because there’s a much bigger imbalance preventing your efforts from ever being sustainable.
My dear Amy, it hurts me to have to say these things to you, because I know you to be a good and caring person who wants to contribute to the betterment of humanity. But the truth is, whereyou are trying to bring change matters as much as what kind of change you are trying to bring. You are raising funds to empower women but not raising funds to strengthen the social infrastructure that left these women disenfranchised. The skin you are in, allows you to simply inject short cut solutions to “other people’s problems.”
Fundamentally, social infrastructures in your village made you a strong, independent woman with enough access to be able to think ‘why don’t these women over there have the same privilege that I do?’. You identified the illness, but opted for a corrosive bandaid instead of a difficult, but necessary surgical procedure. There are many people in Uganda, like me, working to fix our broken social systems by incessantly petitioning our government to address them. After all, they have one job!
Is what you are doing helping us strengthen our case against the government or weakening our agency by endorsing the government’s abdication of its duties?
Doing good is arduous, slow, and often thankless. It requires years of dedication to a singular focus. It’s not a summer here, a week there. It is not a GoFundMe, or bake sale. It is not a paper bead necklace intervention. And as hard as it is for me to tell you, it’s not about the job here and there that you were able to create. It’s about that social system improvement you were able to influence which created an environment where all the women in Uganda have the same level of economic emancipation that you have, not just the women you choose to help. And changing that, might be the tree you plant but whose shade you’ll never live long enough to stand under.