21 March 2019

Africa: #NoWhiteSaviours - the White Saviour Complex

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Kelsey Nielsen and Ugandan Olivia Alaso have launched the "No White Saviours" campaign to challenge the way in which development and evangelical work is being done on the African continent. They aim to highlight the underlying discrimination in development narratives and the relationship between races.

The conversation about the "white saviour complex" was revived earlier this year after the English television presenter and documentary film maker Stacey Dooley posted pictures on Instagram of local women dancing and the children she had met while filming a series of documentaries about neonatal clinics and malaria with the charity Comic Relief.

This was after Comic Relief had pledged to cease using celebrities for "poverty porn" appeals that reinforce white saviour stereotypes. The CEO of Comic Relief, Liz Warner, said in a statement that the organisation had taken steps towards changing this after David Lammy MP, a British Labour Party politician, criticised them for portraying Africa as a continent of poverty-stricken victims and other stereotypes. "The world does not need any more white saviours."

The No White Saviours (NWS) campaign was started by two Uganda-based social workers, Kelsey Nielsen and Olivia Alaso, and seeks to rectify instances like that of Dooley and her ilk. The NWS website explains that the largely female East African group is shining the spotlight on the problematic ways in which the white saviour complex manifests on the continent.

"We see it in restaurants, when a white person is served first while a black person receives crappy service. We see it in the way organisations pay black workers less. There was one incident when black workers at an organisation in Jinja got into an accident and their white boss called just to ask how the car was. It is as if the workers - the black workers - do not matter," Alaso told The Observer newspaper.

Nielsen comes from an evangelical family and arrived in Uganda with the same mentality as every other white development worker. The irony of her being a part of NWS is obvious but an indication that change is possible.

"White people need to know that 'young and passionate' is not a qualification. Africa is a playground and experimental ground for so many. Because of our white privilege, we get away with so much. I have been part of the problem. I am still part of the problem. But how do you work through this?" Nielsen said.

NWS works with organisations to educate and bridge the knowledge gap that exists when it comes to responsible aid work and unjust treatment and stereotypes in the development space.

"We are trying to give our children a better education. We are developing our countries. We need aid... We are saying that if you do want to help, first listen to us and provide what we need, not what you think we need," Alaso added.

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