With Christmas fast approaching, festive songs and charity appeals are once again bursting onto the scene in the hopes of canvassing the season’s goodwill. However, the growing post-colonial dialogue in society casts a different light on these charitable ventures, and the concept of white saviourism has sparked much debate and invoked calls to ‘decolonise’ aid.
Oxfam defines white saviourism as ‘a symptom of racism and white supremacy which places those in a position of privilege into the role of saviour over those who have been historically oppressed and exploited.’ While the aid offered to those less fortunate may be well-intentioned, some argue that it is painfully redolent of colonial and imperialist practices which has led to the ‘undermining, undervaluing and disrespecting’ of citizens.
While this isn’t a new phenomenon, the discourse surrounding white saviourism has only really come to the fore in the past decade. A classic example in popular culture is Madonna’s adoption of 4 Malawian children, something which sparked particular controversy when the locality rules were waived in her case, possibly achieved through her alleged ‘bullying’ of Malawian state officials. Regardless of good intentions, the waters surrounding this case are muddied indeed. More recently, a documentary on missionary Renee Bach revealed how she moved to Uganda to establish a food bank and health clinic, despite her lack of medical training. While many people’s conditions improved under her care, more than 100 patients died, thus indicating how well-intentioned aid can result in negative consequences due to a lack of training and dialogue between communities and aid workers.
Indeed, conversations about missionary work – helping disadvantaged communities by spreading religious messages – have become much more prevalent in recent years, with many countries condemning it and the musical ‘The Book of Mormon’ heavily satirising the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which has dispatched more than 1 million missionaries throughout its history. While the postcolonial conversation has only recently received due attention, there are indeed nuanced discussions of missionary work in literature, as seen in the disillusionment experienced by the heroines of both ‘The Color Purple’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ when faced with missionary work. While in both novels, missionary work is initially presented as a viable and rewarding form of moral employment, there is indeed a darker reality which underpins this glorified moral concept.
Of course, it would be remiss to suggest that all charitable ventures, particularly around Christmas time, are simply instruments which uphold a colonialist attitude; we too must adopt a nuanced approach. I’m sure many of us recall packing shoeboxes with toys, stationery and toothbrushes as part of Operation Christmas Child. While some laud the initiative as sharing the joy of giving and receiving to those less fortunate, others have highlighted how the predominantly Christian messaging associated with the project has caused it to take on a quasi-missionary light: of the 23.3 million children who participated in OCC’s course ‘The Greatest Journey’, 11.2 million have subsequently accepted Jesus as their saviour. A similar divide also arises with Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ song – while the intention of raising money to alleviate hunger is a charitable one, critics have pointed out how some African countries are Christian, thus rendering the question obsolete, and stating that this image of all Africans being in debilitating situations is simply untrue.
It is only logical that a nuanced concept has a nuanced response. Oxfam’s answer? ‘Listen to the voices of who you claim to work with’, suggesting that it is ‘only then will international development be based on justice rather than condescension’. It is high time to dismantle the hierarchical relations between Western countries and disadvantaged communities to make way for equal two-way conversations. Indeed, this encapsulates the true spirit of Christmas, and makes the joy of giving all the more fruitful.
Featured image: Cup of Couple via Pexels