The Deadly Consequences of White Saviourism

Every development student has at least to some degree been exposed to the concept of the “White Saviour Complex” – “the self-serving assumption among white people from developed nations that they should be saving poor people in Africa.” As IDS students we are warned about the white voluntourists and NGO workers who fly to African countries with paternalistic attitudes and exploit local people and are told very clearly that these are examples of “things not to do”. However, the parody items such as the “How to Save Africa – Gone Wrong”  video and Binyavanga Wainaina’s article “How to Write About Africa” shown during the first lecture of every development course make it easy for IDS students to distance themselves from the white saviour complex and negative stereotypes perpetuated in a lot of development work.

The reality is that white saviourism is very much present in development work today. White saviourism is based on a legacy of colonialism, slavery and unequal power structures that are deeply embedded in work done in former colonies in the name of “development”. In class we generally discuss saviourism within the context of discourse, however I want to highlight the very real and deadly consequences that exist.

Celebrity photo-ops in developing countries have normalized and promoted the white saviour discourse and voluntourism. For an excellent satirical piece on Madonna’s presence in Africa, check out Binyavanga Wainaina’s “Open Letter to Madonna”.

No White Saviours (NWS) – a Ugandan-based NGO that works to challenge the behaviour of foreign nationals who come to work in Ugandan communities by changing power dynamics and encouraging workers from abroad to listen, learn, and partner instead of lead – works to highlight the more violent and destructive aspects of white saviourism in Uganda. Through their popular Instagram account, @nowhitesaviours, NWS has highlighted the role of white saviourism in NGO work, transnational adoption, and most shockingly, with the case of Renee Bach – an American missionary who provides medical care to children in Uganda despite never having received any medical training.

Pictured is just one of many photos of Renee Bach practicing medicine on a critically ill child. Bach was homeschooled and received no training as a doctor, nurse, or as any other kind of medical professional.

Bach founded Serving His Children, a “God-breathed and directed ministry working to end malnutrition in families and communities” that provides medical care to malnourished Ugandans. The presence of missionary doctors in Africa is far from unproblematic – the idea of doing “God’s work” in the Global South is inextricably linked to the white saviour complex – however, SHC proved to be not only discursively problematic, but deadly.

Despite not being properly licensed as a medical facility, SHC took in critically ill and malnourished children and Bach, an untrained civilian, performed medical procedures that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of children. One particular haunting passage from Bach’s blog – which has now been deleted, however not before some quotes were documented by journalists – documents how Bach simultaneously drove a vehicle and administered emergency oxygen to a baby who later died.

This is not a one-time thing or an isolated incident – the fact that Renee Bach has been operating in Uganda for years is part of large structures of power and oppression. This woman, her team, and all of their supporters (financial and otherwise) genuinely believe that despite her lack of medical training, Bach is a better alternative to Ugandan doctors and nurses. And it is because of white saviourism. If you don’t find this argument convincing, consider this, would a Ugandan doctor ever be allowed to operate on a Canadian baby without medical training?

Unsurprisingly, the shocking and violent behaviour of Renee Bach has gone unpunished- but hopefully not for long. NWS filed human rights charges against Renee Bach and Serving His Children in the High Court of Jinja on behalf of the families of children who died in Bach’s care. It will be interesting to see how this case unfolds and whether Bach will have to pay for her crimes or if she will be protected by her whiteness.

Evidently this case is an extreme one but before you dismiss it as an isolated incident – remember that this comes from the same place as 18 years old taking a gap year to teach in Africa (despite the fact that the children would be much better served by trained African teachers). As part of their NBS Investigates series, Next Media Uganda published The Messiahs That Were Not, a video documenting untrained and incompetent white saviours that have operated in Uganda with sometimes disastrous efforts – demonstrating a pattern of this behaviour.

It is also not my intention to position myself as superior to this or to have never perpetuated this system myself. When I graduated from high school, I went to Kenya to volunteer at orphanages. I wanted to ‘do good’ and thought that I, a 17-year-old recent high school student, could ‘make a difference’. I took photos with children, posted photos of broken-down shacks and dirt roads on Facebook captioned “Africa” and relished in the positive comments from friends and family about the “amazing work I was doing”. At 17, I was unaware of the power structures and stereotypes that I was perpetuating – but I should have been.

I am not the only international development student who is guilty of taking on this saviour role and perpetuating this narrative that some people need help and others are the ones that need to do the helping. This is a reminder that good intentions are not only insufficient, but irrelevant. Renee Bach probably didn’t intend to into Jinja and cause harm, but the disastrous impacts of her actions render her intentions completely irrelevant.

I would like to finish this article by encouraging you all to follow @nowhitesaviours – my main source for this account (yes, we live in a day and age where Instagram and twitter are now being used as article sources). Follow updates on the legal case against Renee Bach, donate (if you can) to support their work, and most importantly, educate yourself and do better.

And if this case outrages you, @nowhitesaviours has outlined tangible steps that you can take to help their case – including calling/emailing senators, ambassadors and other critical personnel. The steps can be found on their Instagram page under the story highlight “Legal Case”.

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