#NoWhiteSaviours : The Case Against The White Saviour Complex and Voluntourism

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Article by: Peter Gatuna

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We welcome the aid for so long as it is needed, but we are not willing to trade our dignity for it.

In 2001, Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie visited “Africa” (Tanzania and Sierra Leone) as part of a global UNHCR tour. The purpose of this trip was to bring awareness about refugees to an oblivious public.  She was not the first celebrity to do this. Neither was she the last. 

There is a long-standing tradition of (mostly American) white celebrities coming to Africa specifically to engage in humanitarian work. These visits are always postmarked with pictures posed with recipients of the celebrities’ philanthropy. 

And that is where the problem lies.

You see, all the photo ops have always had a few things in common; (i) impoverished children cradled on the shoulders of white celebs and (ii) lots of publicity. As well-meaning as most of these celebrities are, the end result of their actions is that they perpetuate an image of Africa as a continent mired in poverty, hunger, and disease crying out for salvation from the west. 

The white saviour complex syndrome 

It is frustrating to read comments online about how it is not really a big deal. About how we must not let our fragile egos stand in the way of well-meaning and quite honestly much-needed support just because the givers have a different skin colour. 

So let us talk about this whole white saviour complex thingy sensibly, shall we? Maybe you will get it if we explain really slowly. 

First off, there is little impact from these visits. With a mission to ‘sensitise’ and ‘build awareness’, these trips leave the victims in the same situation as before. Even Angelina Jolie’s highly publicised mission in 2001 was just that – a sensitisation mission. 

Any donations of food or clothing will soon be exhausted. And even between Madonna and Angelina Jolie, these celebrities have not adopted 0.00001% of the suffering children they visit. 

I guess that is what you get when the main target of these antics are not even African. And therein lies the main problem, which is perpetuated on two sides; the Africans who do nothing about suffering at home and the foreigners who come here and wind up doing it wrong. 

The optics – the 1% of the 1st world contrasted against those who fair the worst in the 3rd – always end up being nauseatingly degrading. 

It does not help matters that these visits – and the subsequent photo ops – are always located in refugee camps and starving communities. Hardly the image of Africa most of us know, but the images that are blasted to screens all over the world from the visits nonetheless. 

The voluntourism industry

Recognising a niche industry, tourism agencies have cropped up that offer anyone who can afford it the chance to go on volunteer tours of Africa’s poorest. This has given rise to the coining of the term voluntourism whereby tourists combine conventional tourism with volunteer work in their visits. The voluntourism industry is unregulated but probably worth billions back in the USA, UK, Canada, and other first world countries.

It gives tens of thousands of common folk the opportunity to “make a mark” on the impoverished of Africa. 

And yet these agencies are very clearly mere business ventures. Their owners don’t care much for the impoverished people they use as a business commodity. The more miserable these communities are the better. So they list the problems ravaging every destination and implore young volunteers to flock there. But at a fat fee to them, of course. 

This is infuriating because it reduces Africans to mere props in the larger aid industry. From the helpless children who suffer this fate to the aid workers who have to facilitate the photo-ops, it is denigrating for everyone on this side of the race line. 

Worse than placing greater emphasis on the aid than the aided, voluntourism never gives a way of knowing how the efforts panned out. And, in any event, the money raised by these donations drives flows back to the same people – celebrities, NGO’s. 

But perhaps more infuriating is how far back these incidences set Africa. For decades, we have been bundled together and branded as the continent of the world poorest, most starvingest people. These images garner a lot of publicity. They are used in TV ads and shared widely on social media. No wonder many in America still think that Africa is a country and most of us are starving out here.    

Everything about voluntourism and the white saviour complex that goes with it is bad for Africa. Even from the most well-meaning visitors, the whole idea of coming to Africa to “make a difference” smacks of the same brand of white superiority that uprooted our forebears from their land to make room for proper farming techniques. 

Perhaps that might seem an extreme accusation, but the world of today is a digital world. When a majority of images of Africa on the net come not from Africans but from white visitors, this is effectively a usurpation of Africa’s identity. And that is what you get when tens of thousands of eager youths come flocking to Africa eager to help – and take pictures of it for their Facebook timelines. 

Is there a solution?

So what can we do about all this? 

Can we really expect the impoverished who receive the attentions of the voluntourism industry to turn their noses at the aid? I think not. It is not realistic. For these people, it does not matter that their pictures are being used for self-soothing social media posts. 

As long as there is tangible aid along with the photo op – and there usually is – posing for these photos must be a spot of bother and not much more. Even if the aid that follows comes in a trickle, it is better than nothing. 

So as much as we get outraged with the visitors for using our brothers and sisters in less fortunate conditions, we must not make the same mistake they do. We must not forget the real people behind the strained smiles and perfunctory hugs. 

One such effort was the #KenyansForKenya campaign a few years ago when the entire country pitched in to rescue millions of families ravaged by famine. There will be no compromise in our refusal to become props for the social media timelines of overeager visitors from wherever. We welcome the aid for so long as it is needed, but we are not willing to trade our dignity for it. 

And, God help us, we must rise up to the challenge and be better at helping out the less fortunate among us. It is a shame, really, that these white “saviours” are ever needed in the first place. 

In the olden times, we used to be so much better at taking care of the needy. So let’s go back to that. 

And as we do it, we must look to stories like these and remember; less aid, more empowerment. 

Also read: Mwangi Kirubi on Finding the Beauty in Everyday Life