In light of Sir Bob Geldof’s recent re-recording of ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas?’, controversy around the so-called ‘white saviour complex’ continues to grow. Naturally, I thought I would add my two cents to the debate surrounding the song and the culture that produced it.
There is another side to Africa; one which thrives with educational achievement, research and the arts
Charity exists, that’s a fact – but there are good ways and bad ways to go about helping out our fellow humans. When we think about the continent of Africa, we may see images of poverty, starving children, dried up crops and shanty-towns – but there is another side to Africa; one which thrives with educational achievement, research and the arts. A stronghold for indigenous people who live for the community and look after each other – a place where our Western idealism does not always translate. This is the same for places in the Pacific. On a recent trip to Tonga, I stayed on a small island off Tongatapu by the name of Atata Island. When visiting the village (of 200 people), I saw that each dwelling had its own solar panel, and that the local school had been built by a group of Australians.
A fellow visitor to the island was a man from Italy – he was wearing a Sea Shepherd hoodie and Birkenstock sandals (actually, I was wearing Birkenstocks too), and I struck up a conversation with him about how great the island’s sustainability efforts were, noting the solar panels. He told me that the solar panels had been donated by the Japanese government in exchange for access to “explore” the surrounding waters for whales. Typical, I thought. It seems that sometimes people are incapable of giving without expecting something in return. Sometimes we give, without realising what we are taking away. In an article on Al Jazeera, a local man talked about Sir Bob Geldof’s charity efforts and said that locals are already trying to help ease the spread of Ebola, and now they will have to fight for air time with Bob’s celebrité too.
It’s also important to empower communities so that they can help themselves.
This is how I have come to view the efforts of various Christian groups, and organisations which travel to the Islands or Africa to build houses, bring resources and teach. There is a place for this, of course, but it’s also important to empower communities so that they can help themselves. Is it better for young African children to grow up aspiring to be like the white lady who once came to build a school in their village, or to see that their mum, sister, dad, cousin or friend is upskilling and paving the way for the younger generation? I personally prefer the latter, but that’s just me. (Actually there’s a really great website where you can loan locals on their own entrepreneurial endeavors here: http://www.kiva.org/)
It’s important for indigenous people of the world to grow up in touch with their culture and identity – even more so if that particular culture is at risk of extinction – and what can help this is community learning and activities, not Westerners arriving in the nick of time to “save” the people. I look forward to a day when we don’t need charities, but sadly, I don’t think that will happen in my life-time. Even in New Zealand, we have charities such KidsCan to provide children with clothes, shoes, and food. Why, in our so-called “land of plenty”, does such a charity even have the need to exist?
I’m a strong believer in fair representation – just in case anyone misinterprets my feelings around the white saviour complex. As someone who became involved in politics because of the presence of strong women, influencing me and empowering me to feel that I could be a “political Pasifika woman”, I can see the benefits of young women having role models that look like them, and share the same culture. Already from our recent election we have better representation for Pacific people than ever before – but this is a trend that I would like to see in other places.
The recent proposal to cut funding of Pacific and Maori programmes on TVNZ is a huge step back for our Pacific people. Shows such as Tagata Pasifika and Fresh will be sorely missed if a lack of funding sweeps them under the rug. We need to see all people, from all different backgrounds and cultures, both in the House and on TV – we are a massively multi-cultural country and our broadcasting should represent this. This, however, is a topic for another day and another blog post.
I don’t believe that Sir Bob Geldof intends to harm the cause of Ebola relief in Africa – to the contrary, I’m sure his intentions are entirely honourable. However, while he may have the best of intentions, it is often the case for white saviours to be so caught-up in their own cause that they fail to step back and ask what could truly help.