DEVELOPMENT: Secret aid worker: who will save the white saviours from themselves?

May 14, 2016

I see subtle forms of racism all around me. Others call it charity

‘This is Africa’ has become an excuse to do what we damn well please. Photograph: Matthew Simmons/WireImage

When one lives surrounded by well-intentioned, yet gravely mistaken colonialists, missionaries and aid workers, you settle into a jaded state fairly quickly. I live in a town full of westerners who don’t integrate. Fraternising with the natives is next to unheard of – unless, of course, you are sleeping with them. There are western restaurants, and local ones. The signs outside don’t say “no blacks allowed” but the prices do.

Many westerners come to my town to adopt an African child, yet hate Africa. They complain about the circumstances and culture for as long the adoption takes before they whisk their new child off to the land of the free and the brave.

I have seen this interaction labeled as a form of the modern day slave trade. It seems extreme to parallel the two. Adoption can be healing for so many children. However, more often than not westerners are coming and buying children at an exorbitant price. Children that are adopted internationally are often not the ones that truly need it, and more importantly they are not given a choice in the trauma that comes from uprooting one’s entire culture and identity. Instead, through their new parents’ actions and attitudes, they are told that Africa is a bad place and in need of saving. Some even grow to resent their own roots, thinking their biological family and country of origin failed them.

The evidence is right in front of us. It is racism. Yet we call it charity. We tie it with a big, red “Jesus loves you and so do I” bow and pat ourselves on the back. Our actions are reckless. Most give little thought to those we are “helping”, “serving” or, worse of all, “saving”. We are set on our own agenda of self-gratification.

We post on social media about the gallant acts of saving Africa – one child at a time. We post victims of rape, child abuse, and worse, all in the name of “sharing the heartache and heartbreak of Africa”. Because Jesus wants you to know about this broken place.

I worry that in Christian aid worker circles the lack of regulations and the exaltation of the white saviour complex is the perfect storm for a development disaster. Standards that most aid organisations hold themselves to do not apply to missionaries, simply because they believe they have been sent by God. Who needs degrees when one has been called and commissioned? This belief drives those who are ill-equipped to travel here to “save” others, an act applauded back home, but those living in poverty deserve better.

We know how large Africa is, yet we know that our admirers in our home countries don’t. We spoon feed them the story of a broken, yet beautiful, continent (or country depending on your cultural intelligence) knowing they will hang on our every ostentatious word.

While this is racism, in this form it is harder to detect. There are no sit-ins, protests or rallies. We have made it seductive, sexy even, through victimising those we are helping.

Instead, our white guilt has fashioned this new face of racism, equally as dangerous and scarily subtle. Often the beneficiaries of our aid and mission sit idly by because they know speaking out could cost them their job, their support, their stability. To brush aside this as an issue is the epitome of what racism is.

In this town of more than 100 NGOs I know of only a handful who are respectful to local staff. If we are truly here to help we should support our local staff to be leaders, who can stand up to foreigners without fear that they might lose their income or supportive services.

The day I knew I had succeeded was the day my staff told me I was wrong. I had the humility that day to listen – I hope this is something other aid workers can do.

This article was amended on 26 April 2016 to remove personal details.

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