Written by Raz Benson, Go Global participant (July 2015). Raz is volunteering with THUHDEG.
“When they see you, a white man, they think Jesus Christ has come!”
These amusing but rather disturbing words came from Mr Kenneth Addae, the wonderful and hard-working CEO of The Human Help and Development Group (THUHDEG), where I have been volunteering for the past 3 weeks. He was explaining the reasoning behind sending me, over one of the several community-based volunteers, to interview THUHDEG’s beneficiaries about their needs: seeing that a white person has come all the way from London will prove that people care, giving ‘hope to the hopeless’ and encouraging a more productive discourse.
Several articles I have read recently bring up the issue of ‘white saviourism’. This un-PC term generally refers to an idea (and apparent misconception) held by some in the developed world that it is a noble act, or even a fulfilment of duty, to exploit our wealth and high socioeconomic status to help those in need to live more like us. Those of us on Go Global 2015 have generally expressed dislike towards this attitude – we assume that the so called white saviour, or western saviour, fails to consider the true consequences of their actions, to see the poor as real people with self-respect, to understand the value of sustainable development.
I have to ask myself whether I have fallen into this trap. I can be content in knowing that the work I’m doing will have real benefit and is not taking paid work away from any locals. But could it be possible, in the long term, that I am doing more harm than good? I may not consider myself a white saviour, but if the people I am working for do, what does that imply about the value of the work? The short answer is that, based on my own observations, the problem doesn’t seem to be that serious; THUHDEG, like Tzedek, have a specific focus on sustainability, and I am often engaged in discussions about how the benefits of a project can be continued once THUHDEG has ceased intervention. The women I am interviewing might appreciate that I am here, but thankfully don’t seem to treat me in any such way that would imply they expect something material from me. Besides my work extends beyond just the interviews – I am also expected to submit a report summarising the answers given to the questionnaire, and simply having English as my first language will put me in a better position to do that than my colleagues.
As I see it, the biggest potential danger is instilling an image of the white saviour in the minds of the poor. Unfortunately, I can’t promise to totally avoid that. But a successful effort over many years to enable certain communities to develop, improve their levels of education and decrease dependence on non-local charity, can hopefully dispel the myth of the white saviour altogether in those communities.
Now, that last sentence sounds like a conclusion, but it is important not to leave it there – I can’t possibly rely on some baseless fantasy to claim my being here is justified. For now though it will just have to be enough to try my best to play my part in making it come true.