Inside the White Saviour Industrial Complex

Inside the White Saviour Industrial Complex
  • PublishedJanuary 6, 2015

In late 2014, Band Aid, a fundraising effort in which dozens of Western musicians come together to sing the charity single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ was relaunched.

When the concept was first envisioned in 1984, its goal was to raise money for the Ethiopian famine in “Africa”. The goal of Band Aid 30 was to fundraise for efforts against Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Those involved in the song may well have had good intentions, but the whole initiative presented an offensive image of Africa and Africans. It denied African agency by suggesting all the continent needed was for the West to save it. And it crowded out better homegrown actions such as the work of Tiken Jah Fakoly and Salif Keita’s own song, “Africa Stop Ebola”. Band Aid 30 was questionable in many ways, which ought to be examined, highlighted and criticised.

However, for all its sins, the song and the narratives which it peddled were really just symptoms of a much bigger problem: the White Saviour Industrial Complex.

In March 2012, Nigerian-American author Teju Cole coined the term to describe the power relations that privileged outsiders and their African agents try to enforce on the continent. The phrase, invented in response to Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign, points to the nexus of power lurking behind supposed Western do-gooding.

Have you ever felt a campaign “to help Africa” was stupid, offensive and more about the wellbeing of non-Africans than Africans? Are you bored of the notion that Africa is a charity case, when it feels like the continent is making so many wealthy? Are you tired of seeing authentic attempts at emancipation torn down and replaced with a politics of gratitude? Has the foreign-funded NGO workshop you are attending ever appeared to have another agenda that you can’t quite put your finger on? Have you ever thought that it is easier to look outside, rather than inside the African continent, for best practices, technology, and innovation?

If so, you’ve seen the White Saviour Industrial Complex at work.

Over the coming pages, New African will take on Band Aid 30 and move well beyond it by analysing and critiquing this broader Complex: its politics, economics, development agendas, ideology, psychology and stereotypes.

The purpose of this cover story is by no means to attack those who are not of the continent. Many non-Africans do excellent work on the continent, as do many Africans outside the continent. Moreover, the “white” in White Saviour Industrial Complex is not about pigmentation. It is certainly not “reverse racism”.

Rather, we want to point out the privilege and power dynamics that underlie the Complex in order that we can emancipate ourselves from it and forge a new relationship. So much good can come from cooperation across borders and the coming together of struggles, but we believe that those on the outside should be amplifying and supporting, not overpowering, patronising and warping. 

Africa is now, and has been for at least 250 years, struggling against different forms of white saviourism. And one reason the Complex has proved so powerful, is that these struggles, these alternative narratives, are never told. In the following pages therefore, we will tell some of these stories and optimistically point to current dynamics, which look much more positive than they have for many years.

Everywhere in the world, people must increase their efforts to dismantle the White Saviour Industrial Complex, and build a new politics based on justice, solidarity and equality in its place.

Written By
New African

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