Unreached Network

Avoiding the White Saviour Complex in Cross-cultural Work Part 1

Part 1 of 2. Susie Howe expands on a talk that was first given at #Unreached22. You can listen to the full talk here, or watch it again here.

What does the term ‘white saviourism’ mean to you? It wasn’t until I got involved in cross-cultural work that I had even heard of the term. Undoubtedly in my ignorance, I have inadvertently played the white saviour. So, I write this in all humility as one who is still learning from her mistakes, past and present!

White saviourism is often described as a form of post-modern colonialism, whereby those from the Global North seek to fix the problems of those in the Global South, imposing their worldview, cultural norms and their own solutions to problems and difficulties, without any attempt to learn from, listen to, or to involve local people, or to consider their skills, their abilities and resources or their local history, worldview and culture. So-called ‘white saviours’ are very often loving, caring and very well-meaning, but they can put a wrecking ball through local communities and cause untold harm.

Examples of the white saviour in action

It’s the summer season here in the UK and Ireland – a peak period for what I call volon-tourism, when teams of kind-hearted, well-meaning but totally inexperienced university-leavers and unskilled youth or adults will go on eye-wateringly expensive overseas trips to construct buildings for example or to work in schools and orphanages for a couple of weeks. They’ll go somewhere perceived as exotic, feel good about themselves because they have ‘helped the poor’; they will take lots of selfies with ‘poor children’. But having spent a fortune on the trip, there will be little community transformation as a result. In his book, Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton says, ‘What appears to be extravagant, selfless, even sacrificial investments from caring benefactors may well be exposed as large-scale misappropriations of charitable resources.’[i]

Another example of white saviours is those who believe their theology and ecclesiology needs to be exported to the rest of the world to save the world. They are totally ignorant of or show no interest in learning from the rich theological thinking and reflection that exists in other parts of the world and believe their ecclesiology is the right and only way of doing things.

There are those who plant churches in other cultures in which they lead, they set the vision and they impose western-style church culture. Church funding is sourced from overseas, and local church members just play a peripheral role. Such churches are inappropriate and unsustainable because they have no local roots and no local sense of ownership or identity.

Then there are those who treat people who are poor as a project or a problem to be fixed.

Why is white saviourism harmful?

Let me share a quotation from a book by Jean Johnson.[ii] Jean quotes Oscar Muriu, a leader and pastor in Kenya who says, ‘…so many people have come to fix us that O’ Lord, please don’t bring another person to fix us. We have been fixed so many times, we are in a real mess now. Please allow us to be us. Allow us to find God and to find faith in the reality of our need.’

White saviourism harms because it robs people of their dignity and identity and creates dependence. It says, ‘you can’t but we can’. It creates jealousy and divisions and upsets the finely balanced traditional relationships, systems, and structures in local communities.

How can we avoid being white saviours?

Check our motives, attitudes, biases, and prejudices

I know that I am constantly checking mine and the way that I view people. It’s something we must do again and again. Let’s ask Holy Spirit to reveal our unconscious biases (that we all have!) and the beliefs that we hold that are harmful rather than helpful and ask him to change and transform them.     

Relationship first

Let’s not make people into a project. When I visit the families of vulnerable children overseas, I build in lots of time to just hang out with them, to play with the kids, to chat in the yard with the parents and to see where the conversation leads. I do the same when visiting team members. It may not make for efficiency, which can be a killer of relationship building – but it does make for effectiveness because trust is built, and I get to learn what the real issues are for the families and team members and what’s important to them.

In our eagerness to ‘see people saved’ we can treat people as a salvation project and cause more harm than good. So, a question to ask ourselves is, ‘Do we treat people as a project and parachute in and out with our own agenda?’ Or do we give time and space to allow relationship to develop? It’s worth remembering that our Lord Jesus always invested time in building relationship with people.

The importance of humility

We need to have the attitude of a servant and to be aware of the power dynamic we represent. In some nations that I travel to on the African continent, I am called a Mzungu (or Mlungu) by those who don’t know me, which has come to refer to a ‘white person.’ People look at the colour of my skin and instantly make a set of default assumptions about me – that I am rich and influential and there to take the lead.

So, when I go to a new area, I always start by saying that I have come to serve and to learn. I reinforce that the local people are the experts in their context and try to resist the efforts of local people to make me into something that I am not.

I remember making a visit to a community deep in the jungle in the Democratic Republic of Congo where I was to stay for a few days. On arrival, the tracks were thronged with people waving palm branches and singing. I genuinely thought that this was a case of mistaken identity and that they were expecting someone else! They led me to a clearing where they had set up a draped chair like a throne on a dais that they wanted me to sit on.

I was totally mortified, and to the general consternation of all present, knelt at the feet of the pastor who had invited me and said that I had come to serve him and the local community. Fortunately, after a couple of days, everyone calmed down as they got used to seeing me sitting on the floor with the local women, shelling the maize cobs and chatting about their daily lives.

As far as possible, I make a point of respecting local culture, living as local people live, eating what they eat and comporting myself and dressing as a local woman would. I tend to stay with local team members or families rather than in hotels. I do the housework that they do and sweep the yard as they would. It always draws me closer and because of this, I have again and again been told, ‘you are like one of us.’

In Philippians Chapter 2: 3-7 it says, ‘Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests but take an interest in others too.  You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had….’ As we know, he took the humble position of a slave.

Do those we are connecting with cross-culturally see and experience the humility of Jesus in us? Subconsciously, are we more focussed on our own self-interests rather than the best interests of the local people we are seeking to reach? And here’s a thing: Even our passionate desire to see people reached by the gospel can cause us to treat them like a project, so we need to guard against that.

In Part 2 of this blog, we will continue to explore how we can avoid being white saviours and instead learn from those that we are reaching out to.

A Prayer

‘Lord Jesus, you came and lived amongst us with humility and grace. You became one of us. Reveal to us our blind spots. Help us to live amongst those we are seeking to reach with the same grace and humility. Amen.’

[i] Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It.) (HarperCollins Publishers Inc 2012) P.5

[ii] Jean Johnson, We are Not the Hero: A Missionary’s Guide to Sharing Christ Not a Culture of Dependency (Deep River Books 2012) P.12


For 27 years Susie has worked cross-culturally into different African nations as part of her involvement with children’s charities that mobilise churches to respond to the needs of marginalised children. She and her husband Jeremy are part of the core team for the Unreached Network, but are wearing massive L-plates, as they seek to learn more about good practice in cross-cultural mission.