‘Oxsham’: is foreign aid as righteous as we believe?

By Anna Ley

From Oxfam to the Red Cross, the surge in reported sexual misconduct scandals across charitable organisations has shaken the way the public perceives foreign aid.

In the wake of such events, our confidence in the morality, integrity and overall purity of such companies is wavering.

Swelling beneath the seemingly wonderful work of the gap-year gallivants and NGOs in underdeveloped communities is a darker colonial current. The exploitative transactions between vulnerable populations and incoming foreign aid workers that have recently come to international attention are reminiscent of the civilising missions of colonialism that we thought were buried with history.

Hailing themselves as saviours, relief workers acting upon what they perceive as their mission resonates hauntingly with the age-old power relationship between civilised and uncivilised, a relationship resurfacing in the abuse of power critical to the current sex scandals.

In 2012, US-based Nigerian Author Teju Cole described this ‘White Saviour Complex’: “A nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike saviour, or at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied”. When encountering the altruism of foreign aid, recipients are becoming the pawns of our national and personal pride.

I struggled with the pervading sense of privilege whilst volunteering in Tanzania

Parading social media accounts through non-consensual images, the privacy of the aid recipient is being poached for our own egotistical pleasures. The ‘Barbie Saviour’ Instagram account satirised this behaviour with snapshots of the Barbie doll strutting across the soil of Africa, maintaining her ever-glamourous appearance, and posing at the poolside of a multi-story hotel captioned, “Even amongst this devastation and poverty, amongst so much need…A girl’s gotta relax from time to time!”

This pervading sense of privilege is something I struggled with while volunteering in Tanzania. Scooped up from the community at the end of a day’s work into our company’s flashy four-wheelers, we would be whisked back to our camp that, while rightly basic and well-blended into the environment, was closely guarded, safely and securely partitioned from the very people we were helping. The knowledge that my privilege purchased me a level of security that the community itself lived without beckoned an overwhelming sense of guilt and a nauseating superiority that, so blatant to me, must have been intolerable for the people of the Boma Subutini community.

This residual colonial attitude rightly rouses patronised and belittled feelings in the recipients of relief aid and a certain resentment ran throughout the community I was working in. But who can blame them?

In light of recent scandals, The Guardian columnist Afua Hirsch suggested that some relief companies “prop up local developing economies through prostitution”. supporting communities through an unequal power balance. This image reverberates with White Saviourism and the infantilising approach much of the West assumes when travelling to volunteer that crafts the fraudulent belief that we – the foundations – are here to fix and without us, the community would fall apart.

Yet this also signifies the frighteningly counter-productive side to such a child-parent dependency in which recipients may internalise the idea that only through contact with the ‘civilised’ outside can their country be cured. This is a deeply damaging and dehumanising attitude for international organisations to encourage that will only widen the power relations between native and foreigner.

‘Voluntourism’ companies need to combat this saviourist attitude directly

When working in Tanzania, we were alerted to the strain of suspicion within the community and were encouraged to prove the value and worth of our work; to build relationships that would counteract mistrust of our presence. Through this, I see a solution, regulating the industry to engage in long-term, sustainable projects in which the organisation can build faithful relationships. But with the revelations of how these relationships were exploited, this may not be enough.

‘Voluntourism’ companies need to combat this saviourist attitude directly. The Managing Director of ‘African Impact’, an international volunteering organisation, has said he will use ‘Barbie Saviour’s’ images in his volunteer inductions. This could break down the exploiter-exploited relationship, and make it clear that volunteers are supporting locals and not saving the country. Only then can we start to maximise our impact overseas.

Photograph: Howard Lake via Flickr and Creative Commons. 

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