NoWhiteSaviors: Is ‘white aid’ colonialist?

Excerpt from a satirical video of the organisation SAIH Norway. YouTube/SAIH Norway

The debate on decolonising aid is pushing Switzerland to question how it is approaching development work. 

This content was published on October 19, 2021 - 10:25

In 2009, a young American woman travelled to Uganda to provide aid to poor people. At first, she handed out free meals to families in need. She then founded an aid organisation and a health post where she treated children suffering from malnutrition. In 2020, she was sued by several Ugandan mothers seeking justice for their children who died in the young woman’s care. The mothers accused her of treating the children without any formal medical training. 

The case made headlines in Uganda where activists launched the #NoWhiteSaviors campaign on several social media platforms. They claim it was a classic case of young privileged white people coming to Africa as aid workers without having the necessary skills or understanding local customs.  

On Fox News, the American aid worker gave her point of view:  

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Local communities come first 

This was not an isolated case. Since then the campaign has spread with more and more organisations on the ground in the Global South, countries challenging what they say is a “white” narrative to aid. The Global South refers to countries mainly in Asia, South America, Africa and Oceania, whereas the Global North is mostly countries in Europe and North America.  

“It is as timely and pertinent debate that requires reflection,” says Faye Ekong, a British-Nigerian management consultant who lives and works in Kenya. “It’s not about stopping development cooperation or banning white people from providing humanitarian aid; it’s about putting the local communities at the forefront.” 

‘Localising aid’ is the technical term for this kind of support. It is not just about who makes the decision on how the funds are being used; it’s also about visibility and who will get the most credit at the end. “The people in the Global South say: ‘We don’t want white people to be the heroes of our stories’,” Ekong explains. Numerous Hollywood actors becoming celebrated heroes by having their photographs taken with dark-skinned children in Africa come to mind. 

Ekong laments the fact that the “NoWhiteSaviors” debate has become hateful and focuses on the colour of your skin which has made a fruitful dialogue almost impossible. But she also deems it important for the white aid workers to reflect on their behaviour. “Why do I give presentations? Why do I talk to donors? And why do I post on social media?” Aid workers should also ask themselves why they travel to faraway countries to solve social problems when these problems also exist – to a different degree - in Europe, the United States and Australia.  

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Not a new debate 

The debate is not new. Scientists have written about it since the 1950s. However, the “NoWhiteSaviors” social media campaign has caused more stir than all books and academic papers gathering dust in university libraries. “Decolonising development aid has been an issue of discussion in the Global South for many decades,” says Ekong. “People in developed countries just haven’t realised it.” This, she says, only changed after the killing of George Floyd in the US and the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement. The debate on decolonisaing aid then migrated from the US, where it was much more prominent, to Europe.  

Political scientist Faye Ekong conducts research on social transformation and consults with other companies through Ravelworks Africa. zvg

The structure of development cooperation 

The issue is not so much that white people are coming to the rescue of developing countries but more that development aid and cooperation still follow a colonialist approach.  

“I believe it’s more about the way development cooperation is structured,” says Elisio Macamo, Professor for Sociology and African Studies at Basel University.  

Colonial structures are still present in developing countries. For instance, aid flows between former colonial powers and former colonised regions, mirroring their past relationships. In a report published in May this year, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Peace Direct found that many current practices and attitudes in the aid system have not shifted. It says this is something developed countries are still reluctant to acknowledge. “The structure of the aid system allows the existing power dynamics to be strengthened,” Ekong observes. “Money and expertise are sent from North to South, but the North decides where the money goes.” 

Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie speaks to children who fled Venezuela as a UNHCR special envoy in 2019. Keystone / Andrew Mcconnell / Handout

Switzerland: colonial without colonies 

Switzerland has never colonised a country, but this does not mean it is immune to colonialism.  

“The Swiss development apparatus is still very colonial,” says Macamo, who was born in Mozambique. “There is the assumption that Switzerland helps other countries solve problems it created itself without taking the role of the global economy into account.”  

Swiss academic circles and development aid agencies are just starting to seriously tackle the issue which was rarely discussed until now. A self-critical debate is ongoing and challenging the whole Swiss narrative to aid.  

A beggar woman in Geneva. Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi

One of the most questionable practices is how the country decides to reallocate funds from corruption which end up in Swiss bank accounts. Switzerland in this case pays the money back to the developing country in question in the form of development aid projects. This tactic is supposed to prevent the money being used for corruption again. Even though Switzerland puts a lot of importance on giving these countries a say, the approach is not always well received. 

“It is similar to me finding your credit card on the street and realising that you spend too much money on perfume and other unnecessary items. So, instead of returning the card, I go to the next supermarket and use it to buy fruit and vegetable vouchers for you,” Ekong says. “I understand why Switzerland is doing this, but I am not sure if this is the best practice in the current climate.”

Things are shifting, albeit slowly. In November, the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) plans to launch a course called Decolonising Aid. It targets both aid workers and academics and aims to raise awareness on how power structures have had an impact on development. The debate is also picking up in parliament. Some right-wing politicians are also calling to rethink how Swiss taxpayers’ money is being used and how funds could be better allocated on the ground.  

A spokesperson for the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs told SWI that it is “adapting its approaches” without referring directly to the terminology of 'decolonisation of development aid'.  

Experts argue it’s a good start but that Switzerland could do more. "The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation indirectly deals with various decolonisation issues, but could and should do so more systematically and explicitly,” says Kimon Schneider, a lecturer at the Center for Development and Cooperation NADEL at ETHZ. Meanwhile his course on decolonising aid is fully booked.  

Correction: The course Decolonising Aid will be offered at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) and not Zurich university as originally written.

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