Unreached Network

Avoiding the White Saviour Complex in Cross-cultural Work Part 2

Part 2 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.

In part 1, we looked at why white saviourism is harmful and began to explore how those who are involved in cross-cultural mission can avoid being white saviours. In this post, we continue to discover how we can avoid harming those we are seeking to reach out to with the gospel of Christ.

Treat local people as collaborators and partners…

… rather than those who are expected to do what we say.

For 28 years, I have had the privilege of visiting and working in different, low-income communities on the African continent, and am always inspired and humbled by the resilience, creativity and abilities of the local people who are able to endure and surmount great challenges that would completely break me, through their own skills, resourcefulness, and faith in God. Again and again, I find myself looking to them for their wisdom and advice.

In the church and community work I am involved in, I make a point of asking local community members and teams what they think, how they would handle things, what their vision is and get them to lead the way in planning.

We work with a project in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo that reaches out to street-living children. When Covid first hit, we and the local friends that we partner with were concerned about what could be done to keep the children living on the street safer from the disease. So, our local friends consulted with the children – especially the gang leaders. Together, they decided that what they most needed was hand washing stations with water and disinfectant because they had nowhere to wash.

It was agreed that if the street-living youth helped with the building, the upkeep, and the maintenance of the hand-washing stations and if the local mayor and water company would provide the water for free, we would help to part-fund the stations. This was a huge success. Most of the children and youth remained Covid negative, but more than that they had a real sense of pride and achievement because of the washing stations. All because someone respected these despised and marginalised children enough to ask for their opinions, to listen to them, to collaborate with them and to let them take the lead.

Therefore, we must foster inclusion and not exclusion and adhere to the maxim ‘Nothing for us without us.’ We need to include the local people we are working with in setting vision – and that includes those who are the most marginalised. Give them a place at the planning table and on the team. This may require that we plan and teach in a different way using participatory approaches such as discussion groups and group decision making.

So, who do we partner and collaborate with? Do we listen to local voices and include in our work those on the margins? All through the Bible, we see that God chooses to include and work with marginalised people to advance his kingdom and so should we.

Acknowledge our inadequacies, our vulnerabilities, and our need for help.

How can those we are connecting with relate to us when we come across as being invulnerable, self-sufficient, as having all the answers and as never putting a foot wrong? If I meet people like that, I instantly feel inadequate! The Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama said, ‘We must resist the temptation to act or speak in ways that imply that we have all the answers and have come to save people from their ignorance.’

So, I always say when I don’t know something or haven’t got a solution to a challenge. Some of the best times have been when I have been ill during an overseas trip. There’s something very levelling when someone has to help you to the loo or take you to hospital or help to turn you in bed because you’re so weak! Mission worker Steve Saint said, ‘They are looking to see if we have a scar where they have a wound.’

So, are we prepared to show our scars and to express our need for help to those we are reaching out to?

Seek to make ourselves redundant.

Whether we are church planting or involved in community development or integrating both, it’s vital that right from day 1, we seek to make ourselves redundant. Help local people to find their own strengths and to build on them. White saviours are good at focussing on needs rather than strengths. So, flip the question. We don’t ask ‘What are the needs here?’ But rather, ‘What are the strengths and resources that exist here?’ What and who brings life? Hold up a mirror so that local people, young and old, educated and uneducated can discover and articulate their abilities, skills and resources and use them.

Strengthen capacity rather than providing services. We take a mentoring rather than a managing approach. As soon as possible try and identify local people to mentor as leaders. These may be unlikely people who are not obvious candidates for leadership, so don’t necessarily look for the most experienced, or educated. Beware of your cultural bias. The prophet Samuel had to be told by God not to look for the tallest, the eldest and the most good-looking man to be the new king of Israel, but rather to look at the heart.

We need to ask ourselves, ‘Does what we are doing have a process for transferring to local leadership?’ Our Lord Jesus mentored local people and had a timetable for handing over to them.

Ensure Sustainability

As far as possible, ensure sustainability from the start by helping local people to use their own skills and strengths and local resources rather than overseas resources.

With the best intentions, unwise giving can destroy local growth and initiative. In his book, Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton wrote, ‘Give once and you elicit appreciation; give twice and you create anticipation; give three times and you create expectation; give four times and it becomes entitlement; give five times and you establish dependency.’[i]

So often, churches and charities from the Global North send containers of clothing or material goods to people in the Global South, even when the need for emergency relief is long past. This stifles local entrepreneurship and doesn’t help to boost the local economy.  It’s far better to encourage things like investment, income generation, saving schemes and the involvement of local people at all levels.

‘Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.’[ii] This also applies to giving financially to churches. Local contribution must be encouraged as much as possible if local churches are to grow in faith and sustainability.

In 2003, we were asked to help support children living in communities in Northern Uganda that were impacted by the infamous rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, who had razed villages to the ground with a scorched earth policy and kidnapped thousands of children. Our first action was to meet with a local community and to learn from them what they felt their priorities were. They decided they were to build wells for water and pit latrines, as the LRA had destroyed them all.

So, as we negotiated with the community members, it was agreed that they would provide all the labour, they would do the digging and building, they would make the bricks and cut and source the logs, and we would provide the concrete. This all happened, and the villagers were able to start to build their lives again and to lift their heads.

Psalm 3: 3 (NLT) says, ‘But you, LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high.’

Jesus always raises up those who have been oppressed by the effects of sin. He always liberates, always renews, and always restores – spiritually, socially and in every area of life.

May he perfect his work of transformation in each one of us, using those we are reaching out to, to be our teachers, and using us to impart something of his love and grace to them in a beautiful cycle of reciprocity. To his glory.

A Prayer

Lord Jesus, help us to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with you and with those we are reaching out to. Help us to acknowledge our own need of help, our own vulnerabilities and to learn from those on the margins. 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. 129

[ii] Lupton 2012 P.4