White Saviorism in International development. Theories, Practices and Lived Experiences

March 9, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Themrise Khan, Kanakulya Dickson and Maika Sondarjee introducing their new book

Since the racial uprising following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the world has been faced with the reality of racism in most of what is known as the progressive, Western world. Movements like Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall have brought to the forefront the ingrained legacy of colonialism and racism between those who colonized and those who were colonized. The past has come back to haunt the former, while for many in the latter the past is still very much the present.

The global aid and development sector has not been able to avoid this reality either. Primarily because the sector itself was the creation of the end of formal colonization in many countries of the Global South, following World War 2. And because the sector itself often mimics colonialism via rich Western countries holding political and financial power over lessor privileged nations, who through aid programming, are still subservient to their former colonizers.

Via this “reckoning”, hollering cries to “decolonize” aid are rampant. When used in the West, this concept often becomes arbitrary and historically disconnected. Calls to decolonize aid do not actually address the actual elephant in the room – the age-old concept of white saviorism, i.e., the white man (quite literally) coming to save and tame the “savages”. As inappropriate as this sounds today, it still lingers within current development practices. White saviorism is ingrained in the systems, modalities, practices and attitudes of the global North development sector towards those it claims to work with. And it has led to devastating consequences for the sector and those who it claims to work for.

This is what our new book, “White Saviorism in International development. Theories, Practices and Lived Experiences”, attempts to capture. We define white saviorism as both a state of mind and a tangible power structure founded on the benevolence of whiteness, which elevates people of white European descent as more capable, more intelligent, thus more ‘developed,’ which directs their actions in communities of the global South.  

Over 18 Chapters, a range of academics, development practitioners and activists from across the Global South, voice exactly how this white benevolence has affected their national and personal histories, cultures and economies. They all invoke colonialism and racism as the catalyst for the ineffectiveness and Eurocentric approach international development aid has taken over the decades in countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

This stretches as far back as Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the Americas and the subsequent annihilation of native Indigenous people of the continent, to white women saviors as ignorant and arrogant as their white male counterparts, to how the concept of saviorism has bled into Brown and Black peoples as a way to exert power over their own peoples.

The book relies heavily on African-American writer Teju Cole’s detailing of white saviorism, based on his well-known article in The Atlantic, in which he coined the term, ‘White-Savior Industrial Complex’, to point at a larger web of intricate North/South relations rather than a few bad apples in the development ecosystem. The development aid industry has its foundations in the need to “help the poor” of the “developing” world, concepts the book challenges. And it is only the great white saviors of the North who can do so. However, in the process, these white saviors have set off a chain of events that have led to undermining, undervaluing and disrespecting the citizens of independent nations around the world.

From the proliferation of American aid to Afghanistan to “save brown women from brown men”, to how Haiti’s colonial history has influenced its aid providers, to how voices of non-white nationals are silenced in the industry by white (or brown) managers, our contributors speak from personal experience as Black and Brown academics, aid practitioners and activists. They speak of how the white saviors in the guise of aid donors, international NGO workers, consultants and charity workers, have consistently put their own views and perceptions of development over that of their “beneficiaries”, a heavily contested and misaligned term in itself.

In a time when international aid is at a crossroads – post-pandemic and climate crisis-fraught, the perceptions of the white savior are not just arrogant, but also ignorant. Our book ends with one key recommendation – listen to the voices of those who you claim to work with. Listen to how they perceive their own development. Listen to how much you have harmed their way of life by imposing your own ways on them. Only then will international development be based on justice rather than condescension.

The issue today is not how much aid people need, it is why they need it and how much decision-making power they have over the use of it. White saviorism is still alive and well in the international aid industry. It is time to end it and reclaim our independence back from our white colonizers in aid.

The book will be formally launched in Uganda on March 25 at Makerere University and in the UK on March 28 at the IDS, University of Sussex, Brighton and March 30 at the Overseas Development Institute, London, respectively. It is available from the publisher’s website.

March 9, 2023
Duncan Green