Confronting my “White Saviour” complex

We all need to be open and honest about the history of the Development sector, the white saviour complex, and our roles in it, if we want to be actively anti-racist in our work, says Jenny Bowie.

I am one of many white people working in International Development. 

Addressing race is uncomfortable in International Development because it reminds us of the colonial past from which our sector originated,not to mention the neocolonial realities of the present. How many International Development organisations were founded during European colonisation? How many projects are attempting to “fix” problems created by our colonial ancestors? How is the ‘white saviour industrial complex’, coined by writer Teju Cole, masking neo-colonial practices as worthy development activities? 

It may be uncomfortable but it’s crucial to unpack our whiteness, as both individuals and as a sector, so that we can be better allies to black communities. We have a problem, and the first step to making things better is admitting that. 

Recognising my complicity

I first travelled to Africa when I was 17 to stay with family, who were British expats, living in Malawi. At 21 I moved to Tanzania, then Uganda, and pretty much hopped around East Africa throughout my 20s. I taught English, helped run a music festival, ran workshops, wrote proposals and budgets and advised other NGOs and governance agencies on youth engagement. Since returning to London I have been that NGO worker who travels every few months to deliver a workshop or attend a conference. 

During all of this I saw the problematic, and cringe-worthy, actions of other white volunteers and aid workers. I thought I was better than them. I thought growing up in South London, being a keen member of Black History Club at school, growing up around family and friends of African origin, meant that I could not be a White Saviour, that I could not be racist.

But I was raised in a society that is institutionally racist. I know that my activities in Africa, however well meaning, have contributed to the “white saviour complex.” here will have been actions I have made, decisions I have taken, and mindsets I have held which will have been racist, and for that I apologise. 

Acknowledging my privilege

I work hard, I have pushed myself beyond my limits, and I have had to make personal sacrifices to get where I am. As a woman and a member of the LGBT community there are extra challenges I have faced along the way. But this does not mean that I have not benefited from white privilege. 

Why was I able to take my “field experience” and turn that into a career? When there are thousands of people with the same experience, but who are not white. Why was I trusted at 21 with a class of 100 Tanzanian students with zero training? Because I was white. Why was I able to walk straight into the offices of government officials? Because I was white. Why was I able to walk straight into hotels to use their WiFi and swimming pools on my weekends? Because I was white. 

This doesn’t even start to account for the privilege I had with access to education, housing and healthcare that enabled me to go to University and take up international opportunities in the first place. 

Moving forward

I know that the work I do is good, I believe in the values and the approach of Restless Development. I know that we are pushing the boundaries in many ways against the development sector to help shift power and to ensure our work is led by young people in true partnership with the communities in which they work.  

However, for us to really rebalance power, white people working in this sector need to acknowledge our whiteness and understand the impact this has on our actions and those we seek to support.

Recognising and acknowledging the systems in place, and our own position within them is an important first step. It cannot be the last step. We must continue to educate ourselves and make space to listen and learn from colleagues of colour and make changes. 

For my part. I will call out conversations I hear in “expat” bars talking about “locals”, take down those photos of smiling Malawian children from 2007, consistently question my decisions and assumptions and sit in uncomfortable spaces open to learn. 

Tackling the racism embedded within the International Development sector, and within myself, is a struggle that will continue throughout and beyond my career. Facing it head on is how we become allies and partners, not ‘saviours.’

For more information on the white saviour complex and racism in the International Development sector, please do check out and consider supporting @nowhitesaviours and @charitysowhite. A massive thank you to these activists for educating me, and for their dedication to this important conversation. 

More voices on racism in the International Development sector.

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Confronting my “White Saviour” complex

by Jenny Bowie Reading time: 3 min