Exposing the White Savior Complex

The following excerpt comes from Against White Feminism, a deep exploration of the impact of whiteness on both feminism and the societal power structures that feminism critiques. At a moment in which the futility of the U.S. war in Afghanistan is on full display—a war supported, in part, by white feminists in Congress—Zakaria’s reflections on the effect of whiteness on the battle for women’s rights are more salient than ever.

In 2001, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. Aid and International Development Agency (USAID) began implementing one of the largest disbursements of development aid in history: a program called PROMOTE. Touted as “the world’s biggest program ever designed purely for female empowerment,” PROMOTE was intended to help 75,000 Afghan women get jobs, internships, and promotions. They would be given training in conducting advocacy and encouraged to set up civil organizations, gaining the leadership skills necessary for Afghanistan’s bright new future. In September 2018, seventeen years later, the New York Times published a report that showed how terribly PROMOTE had failed in this mission. It was, in the words of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), “a failure and a waste of taxpayer money.” A lot of money: the program cost $280 million, most of which, according to the Times report, was allotted to administrative costs and payments to U.S. contractors. 

In some cases, women who attended a single workshop on women’s leadership were counted as having benefited from the program, without any follow-up on how the training had helped their long-term prospects. In the end, the SIGAR report noted, only 55 women could have been said to have benefited from the program, a far cry from the 75,000 target.

The aid industrial complex is a massive part of the global economy, estimated to be worth more than $130 billion per annum. This is money that is funneled through to governments, aid agencies, transnational NGOs, and the thousands of people that work for them. The leadership of this massive system comprises mostly white and Western development professionals, charged with formulating the programs and policies of how aid will be disbursed. The image of the white Westerner as savior, then, is not only a pervasive stereotype, it is built into the organizational and policy-making architecture of the aid industrial complex.

The aid industrial complex is inherently steeped in a power dynamic that mirrors the racialized wealth differential across the globe, in which those who have systematically extracted and accumulated wealth (historically, through stolen resources and stolen labor) hold structural power over people of color (who have been on the receiving end of this exploitation, and the violence and oppression required to enact it). White and Western charity donors will eagerly donate money for girls’ education in Bangladesh for the uplift of women, they will not give up the cheaply produced  “fast fashion” that is sold by major American brands and is based on exploiting women in poor countries. The implied goodness of the charitable act thus works to erase complicity in a global system that is instrumental in enforcing global racial hierarchies.

These racial hierarchies also operate within the aid sector. Most policymakers and program directors in major development NGOs are also white, Western, and paid salaries that are astronomically higher than those paid to locals working for the same NGO and doing the same job. Angela Bruce-Raeburn, regional advocacy director for Africa for the Global Health Advocacy Incubator, in an essay titled “International Development Has a Race Problem,” affirms that “inherent in the very concept of aid is race and racism because only in this system can majority white societies with ample resources determine what poor black and brown people need, how much they need, set up parameters for the delivery of what they need and of course create an elaborate mechanisms for monitoring how well they have managed the donated funds to meet their needs.” And, she observes, “‘helpers’ and ‘do-gooders’ arrive in places like Sierra Leone oozing natural confidence and bravado, buttressed by their titles as expatriates holding advanced degrees from elite schools in UK and the US and earning significantly higher salaries than their local counterparts.”

When women of color do get into programmatic roles, they continue to face discrimination and are often denied leadership roles. One African woman described her experience working at the United Nations in Geneva as riven with racism: “When I was at the UN my skin color got in the way of my advancement,” she wrote, and the good lady in charge told her that she could not be selected to lead projects because she “would not be able to command any respect.” At other times she was told to change her tone and her “strong personality” even as she witnessed her white male boss yell at people and refer to her female colleagues using the C-word. A recent staff survey of UN employees in Geneva backed up these descriptions, with one out of three workers surveyed saying that they had either experienced or seen someone else experience racial discrimination. Fifty-nine percent of the survey respondents said that the UN was not good at dealing with racial discrimination. 

The result of an absence of women of color in these roles means that there is no one to question the hypocrisy in arrangements whereby those who donate money to maintain the face of white benevolence are routinely undercutting the power of the same women they are purporting to help by investing or leading companies that squeeze the life out of the women workers in poor countries. 

Feminist theorist Gayatri Spivak identifies the well-worn trope of the “rescue mission,” saving Black and Brown women and girls (inherently helpless and primitive) from their woe-filled realities while masking histories of oppression perpetuated by exactly those white saviors. Silencing the voices of the women involved and sustaining the operative logic of “white men saving Brown women from Brown men,” such advocates of development aid would never consider, for example, supporting women in the garment industry in Bangladesh who are trying to unionize to agitate politically for better working conditions.  No large garment corporation has ever committed to using only unionized factories and thus “empowering” these women; instead, they donate to and elevate only those causes that fall along the rescue-mission model.