Why Aid Agencies Should Change the Perspective of Storytelling to Avoid White Saviorism
“Join me in finding a way to give back, whether it’s with your time, your words or a small donation. I think it will bring you some peace”. This is part of the description of three images Hollywood actor Gerard Butler published on his Instagram account on September 5th 2020. They show him visiting local communities in Liberia and Haiti, accompanied by a film crew, shooting the short film Love reaches everywhere on behalf of the charity organization Mary’s Meals.1 By analysing the above image and the narrative of the short movie I will demonstrate the problem of the White Savior Complex and the generated presentation of people from the Global South by western aid organizations.
The focus of the image is on a white, middle-aged man squatting on a ground of soil while holding a red plastic bowl. He wears a casual outfit with a half opened blue shirt, a brown pearl bracelet on his left hand and a golden ring on his right. He is looking at a slightly blurred girl in the right corner of the image, the viewer is only able to see her backside.
The focus and the center of the image composition already makes clear who the main character is in this scene. The hollywood actor Gerard Butler, who is usually seen as the hero in various action movies, appears as a generous person who helps to feed poor children. The image is a behind the scenes-picture of the 30-minute documentary Love reaches everywhere, produced by the charity organization Mary’s Meals², where the same narrative is reflected. The film is about the organization’s work, which is to finance school meals across 19 Global South countries. Gerard Butler’s appearance in the documentary is one of its most significant features, depicting him as a White Savior.
The concept of the White Savior has been shaped by a repetitive storyline in Hollywood movies. “People of Color can escape their predicament of marginalization through the guidance and agency of a lone white actor,” as author Julio Cammarota describes.4 This concept is depicted in movies such as The Blind Sight or The Help.5 Hollywood movie Machine Gun Preacher, also featuring Gerard Butler as the protagonist, was nominated as one of the 10 Lamest White Savior Movies by the magazine Complex in 2011. The movie is about an ex-biker who travels to Africa to rebuild homes after a civil war. In the current documentary, Gerard Butler appears not as a fictional character, but as a real world hero whilst visiting the sponsored schools.
Celebrities travelling to the Global South to support aid agencies is not a new phenomenon, as they use their visibility to bring attention to their charity work and encourage others to take part.6 But how does this message affect the perception of people from the Global South, especially from African countries? The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains this in her book The Danger of a single story and also in her 2009 TED Talk. She describes her former roommate’s conception about Africans as follows: “There was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.”7 This could result in a similar audience impression regarding the above image, interpreting Butler’s smile whilst watching the girl to be one of pity. In 1995, Stuart Hall described this inequality of power as the white gaze:
“The white gaze always evaluates its exotic Other while retaining whiteness at the top of the hierarchy.“ 8
The idea of requiring a White person to rescue Black and People of Color out of their situation has its roots in colonialism. The White Colonizer sees themselves in the position of a wider and superior knowledge and wants to “civilize” the counterpart.9 Similar assumptions can be seen in the documentary repeatedly emphasizing that the well-being of the inhabitants depends on whether they receive help from the aid organization. Thereby they portray the residents as passive and needy victims, unable to speak for themselves and not equal to the superior donor. Butler assessing the appearance and behavior of the locals is a common thread throughout the storyline despite his visit lasting only a few days. He describes the children as the most beautiful children he had ever seen, “gentle and quiet, and just smiling.” Later he adds that he was impressed by “their ingenuity of how they have to make the most of what little they have.”10
The portrayal of the poor and passive victim is a frequently used motive in advertising campaigns by aid organizations. Posters showing emaciated children with big eyes are supposed to spur as many donations as possible. Often they include the promise that even the smallest of donations can change the world.11Mary’s Meals uses the phrase: A simple solution to world hunger on their website12 as a supposed means to give donors a good feeling about giving. Similarly seen in Butler’s words of “bring you some peace” offering an easy solution like donating money to be an adequate replacement for engaging with underlying structural and political issues like white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism.13 The American fundraiser Jeremy Courtney, who works in Iraq, describes this dilemma as follows:
“No one just arrives at failed state status. No one just arrives at genocide. No one just arrives at poverty. And so we’ve worked to take kind of a systemic approach to how we communicate things, which is a—it’s a long slog, sometimes. It’s easier to just say “People are poor, give money.”14
A question to be considered is: Are there better and therefore more equalizing ways of approaching? One example is the Kenyan activist Sophie Otiende who recently partnered with other organizations for a project. She works with young people from the Global South who take photos of motifs they consider important, thus representing their own identity and reality.15 Perhaps such projects can change the ethical narratives industry-wide and encourage aid organizations to avoid White Saviorism.
1 Butler, Gerard (September 5, 2020) Instagram account. https://www.instagram.com/p/CExKOgcgoaO/, accessed on February 04, 2021.
2 Mary’s Meals, Who we are. Our history. Our history | Mary’s Meals UK, accessed on February 04, 2021.
3 Mary’s Meals, Love reaches everywhere: New film featuring Gerard Butler. https://youtu.be/1s8RF_ukusY, accessed on February 04, 2021.
4 Cammarota, J. (2011) Blindsided by the Avatar: White Saviors and Allies Out of Hollywood and in Education, Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 33:3, 242-259, DOI: 10.1080/10714413.2011.585287
5 Barone, M: The 10 Lamest White Savior Movies, in: Complex. https://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2011/09/the-10-lamest-white-savior-movies/, accessed February 04, 2021.
6 Biccum, A. (2011) Marketing Development. Celebrity politics and the ‘new’ development advocacy, Third World Quarterly, 32:7, 1331-1346, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2011.600107
7 TED. Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story, https://youtu.be/D9Ihs241zeg, accessed February 04, 2021.
8 Hall, S. (1996). Ethnicities. In D. Morley & K. Chen (Eds.), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London: Routledge. p. 258
9 Shrader, A. White Saviorism and Modern Day Colonialism, in People Heard. https://peopleheard.com/white-saviorism-and-modern-day-colonialism/, accessed February 08, 2021.
11 El Tom,F. Annual NGO Ranking Shows “White Savior” Status Quo Remains intact, in Nonprofit Quarterly, https://nonprofitquarterly.org/annual-ngo-ranking-shows-white-savior-status-quo-remains-intact/, accessed February 04, 2021.
12 Website Mary’s Meals: https://www.marysmeals.org.uk/, accessed February 04, 2021.
13 Wardlow, K. Weaponizing Equity: White saviorism and the School Reopening Debate, in The Educators Room, https://theeducatorsroom.com/weaponizing-equity-white-saviorism-and-the-school-reopening-debate/#:~:text=The%20White%20Savior%20Industrial%20Complex%2C%20a%20term%20coined,in%20creating%20these%20conditions%20in%20the%20first%20place., accessed February 08, 2021.
14 Connoli, C. Embracing insecure-ity: A pop culture exploration of white saviorism in nonprofits, in funrise, https://www.funraise.org/blog/embracing-insecurity-an-exploration-of-white-saviorism-in-nonprofits , accessed February 08, 2021.
15 Hoffmann, H. Debatte über europäische Helfer in Afrika. Es braucht keine Weißen, die zeigen wo es langgeht, in Spiegel Online, https://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/white-saviors-in-afrika-wir-brauchen-keine-weissen-retter-a-853c6e9f-2239-404c-9b90-92ddeb0503d4, accessed February 04, 2021.
Written by Agnes Hütte. Short intro:
– What do you identify as? she / her
– What is your guilty pleasure? Watching Trash-TV
– Which book do you recommend? Jorge Bucay: Let me tell you a story (Déjame que te cuente…), Buenos Aires 1999
In all fairness and admitting that all above is correct, still AKK was the main person since she was inaugurated…