Western savior complex as modern imperialism
Thousands of college students go abroad each year with the hopes of making a difference in underdeveloped countries. They volunteer in schools, orphanages and health centers, working within foreign communities to try to better societal conditions. But what happens once they leave? What does it really mean to be a Westerner abroad?
The Western savior complex follows the assumption that the Western world knows how to best solve the problems of developing nations, or “third world countries,” Kathryn Mathers, a visiting assistant professor of global development at Duke University, said in her article “Why Won’t White Savior Complex Go Away” published on akepart.com.
The most intrinsic quality of the western savior complex, Mathers said, is the concept that Westerners are the solution to foreign problems, portraying the developing world as helpless.
Naeem Inayatullah, Department of Politics chair and professor at Ithaca College, specializes in international relations theory and global political economy/development studies. Inayatullah said the use of Western aid abroad is less of a solution than a fundamental flaw in the way Westerners perceive their own accountability.
“Providing international aid inherently assumes that you are not part of the problem,” Inayatullah said. “However, usually the Western world is part of the developing world’s problems; it’s contradictory.”
This damaging relationship between the Western world and developing nations is not new. It dates back to colonialism in the 15th century, Inayatullah said. Systematic oppression can be traced throughout history, as the Western world, the white world and the Christian world have forced other cultures to assimilate to their belief systems and values.
Inayatullah said he believes the way Western society structures its language regarding the international community has come to frame the Western world as superior. “Developed” versus “developing” or “underdeveloped;” “third world” versus “first world.” This terminology suggests dominance: That places such as the United States and Europe are doing development “right,” while much of the rest of the world is doing it “wrong.”
Allison Irby is the founder of Globally Grounded. Irby has also worked with the U.S. Department of State for the past six years on professional development projects. Western society has decided how the developing world should prosper, Irby said, without much regard to what a community might truly need.
“There has been a strong presence of us going in saying that we have the answers. The white man is coming on a white horse to save the day and our way is the right way. The way to financial success,” Irby said. “We have decided that it’s an accurate assumption that for other countries to move forward, they need to be doing what we’ve been doing.”
History implies that what is now referred to as the “developing world” was once a prospering society, thrown into poverty through colonialist rule, Inayatullah said.
“The third world didn’t always exist,” he said. “Prior to the British invasion of India, it was a very capable society. However, over the next 200 to 300 years after the invasion, India turned into this underdeveloped society due to the social, economical and political policies put in place by the British.”
However, Inayatullah said he believes Western society has created a narrative that allows for portrayal not as the victim, but rather as the hero.
“This history of the harm of colonization is available to people in the West,” Inayatullah said, “but it’s not a history that they are happy about reading because it suggests that these attitudes of superiority and inferiority are actually constructed, that they are the functions of political economy.”
This privileged shaping of history has continued, according to the findings of Irby. In 2007, Irby conducted research, including interviewing 100 people throughout the U.S., regarding why people from the U.S. don’t travel to Sub-Saharan Africa.
“I asked people what the first word was that came to mind when they thought of Africa. The most positive word was probably ‘safari,’” Irby said. “More common were words like death, AIDS, dirty and other words with negative connotations.”
Irby said this image of impoverished Africa is largely tied to Western media’s portrayal of the continent. She said she hopes to counteract this perception through her company Globally Grounded, an organization whose mission is to diversify global citizenship by engaging underrepresented young adults and mentors in cross-cultural living opportunities, and by exploring countries that are less commonly visited by Westerners.
“The media is still showing commercials with children from Africa asking for 20 cents to support them a day, that they need handouts or they won’t be successful,” Irby said. “They don’t show what is beautiful about Africa. There are very few countries in Africa that are celebrated that aren’t stereotypes.”
Inayatullah said he thinks this misrepresentation of different societies allows for Western civilization to separate themselves from the developing world, further allowing Western culture and practices to be seen as better than the rest of the international community.
“Framing allows us to think of ourselves as almost a superior species. It allows us to ‘other’ them, and to not understand the process in which we are ‘othering,’” Inayatullah said. “This new age colonization is the first form of colonization based on helping others. In a way we are saying ‘We are going to take everything that you have, but this is for your own good; we are going to teach you to be civilized.’”
This framing can be seen in how American media continually bombards viewers with images of the developing world characterized by malnourished children, disease-ridden communities and war-ravaged villages. Often, these images of desolation include a white savior playing as the lead role. This savior character can be found in acclaimed books, such as Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, and even in fictional movies, such as Avatar, where main character Jake Sully saves the Na’vi people.
Today, critics of Western development strategy believe that nonprofits, government agencies, politicians, celebrities and now even college students are all continuing to play the role of white savior to the international community.
Pippa Biddle is one such critic of development practices. Last year Biddle wrote “The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Volunteerism,” a Huffington Post blog that went viral across online international development forums. Biddle traveled extensively as a Youth Leadership Fellow for the Jane Goodall Institute.
Biddle talked about her own experiences as a voluntourist — a term commonly used to describe an international volunteer — including her first trip to Tanzania, where she and her classmates attempted to build a schoolhouse. However, the infrastructure of the school was built so poorly that each night local men had to take it down and rebuild it.
“There are two motivations that are mixed together in aid work,” Inayatullah said. “On the one hand you have the desire to help and the other hand the desire to know. These motives often are together, while they should be separate.”
Inayatullah has formed his own theory on what he refers to as “helper’s superiority assumptions.” This frame of mind assumes Westerners can help, that their experiences are of greater knowledge, greater wisdom or greater “something,” than that of those they are trying to help in the developing world.
“This is the belief that Westerners are not part of the problems of people abroad,” Inayatullah said. “It allows voluntourists and aid workers to feel like they know what’s best for others and that they are not part of the problem, but part of the solution.”
However, there is a second part to the theory, a travel hypothesis stating that young people travel because they feel small in the world. They travel because they don’t know how they fit in the world as a whole. Travel theory is positive, an attempt to locate oneself. It’s about one’s own humility.
However, the two parts are contradictory. How do we travel because we don’t know and volunteer because we do? How does our lack of knowledge entice us to explore, while our assumed knowledge tells us to help? Though travelers may not know much about the countries they are going to, professionals like Irby and Inyatalluah believe that Westerners have been bred through media messages and political policy to think that the privileged education and resources the western world holds has given the West a responsibility to “save” the rest of the world.
Robin Pendoley is the founder and CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders, a global gap year program that takes students to the developing world, while studying issues of social injustice.
Pendoley said he believes that Western new-age colonialism might not imply bad intent on behalf of American and European society and that, often, foreign aid is spurred by good intentions. However, Pendoley said a lack of understanding of culture and what a society actually needs may often make aid less effective.
“If colonialism implies malicious intent, the picture becomes murky,” Pendoley said. “My belief is that the industries and trade practices that result in such systems often include those with positive social intent and those who participate in the system without truly understanding how it works or the impact they are having.”
With Thinking Beyond Borders, Pendoley said he hopes to create a powerful space for learning and growth that challenges and supports students while asking them to move beyond good intentions towards truly humanizing work.
“The development community is largely governed by a culture assuming good intentions are needed to create good outcomes. History has proven this wrong many times,” Pendoley said. “Good intentions and technical skills must be matched with highly developed capacities for empathy, humble learning and critical consciousness of self if we expect development professionals to succeed.”
Good intentions, however, do not always lead to a positive impact in the developing world. American aid work and voluntourism are often criticized for their inability to involve people from the receiving community.
Biddle said she believed it would have been more economically efficient and more timely if the volunteer group she was working with had employed local people to construct the school.
“When the U.S. sends food abroad, it doesn’t teach people abroad necessary agricultural skills. It’s like the quote ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,’” Irby said. “When voluntourists help at schools abroad for a month, they often hope that there will be somebody to pick up where they left off; it is inconsistent and unsustainable.”
These short-term commitments by foreign volunteers are what Irby said she believes to be the major problem facing international development.
“A few months is not enough to engage a community or to form relationships in a way where a community will trust you or believe you,” Irby said. “There’s a reciprocity piece missing with voluntourism.”
It’s this reciprocity that seems to be so often ignored in Western interactions with the developing world. Though voluntourists and international aid organizations create a narrative of giving, the embodiment of the Western savior complex begs the questions, “What is the West truly giving?” and, perhaps more importantly, “Who is actually receiving?”
Charlotte Robertson is a freshman integrated marketing communications major who can be regularly found crashing globalization classes in the politics department. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial note: The writer of this piece, Charlotte Robertson, participated in a 2013-2014 Thinking Beyond Borders Global Gap Year program in Inda, South Africa, Thailand, Cambodia, Ecuador and Peru.