The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Part 2

Postcolonial Discourse in Development

The terms “development” and “Third World” are used liberally when discussing poverty, economics or global politics; however, their widespread usage suggests that Western or European views of the Global South are the representative and respected understanding of the world; “Third World” problems are viewed from an outside-in lens most frequently when employed within the framework of “humanitarianism”.  The phrase “White Savior Industrial Complex” takes its name from similar phrases like “White Man’s Burden” or “White in Shining Armor”, terms used to explain how the West has, since colonialism, inserted itself into the affairs of other countries under the guise of humanitarianism or international development. While the West has offered its strategies and money to those in need, it continues to assert its power with a postcolonial viewpoint: there are poor countries and poor people, and “we” (the West) better, so we must do what we can to help. There are strings attached – be they political, monetary or otherwise – which make the implementation of international development a double-edged sword for the countries that are recipients of such aid, since they are consistently viewed as victims and “in need”. The institutionalized concepts of “Third World” or “development” are so entrenched that it becomes almost impossible to divorce certain countries from them within the international discourse. “Third World” often reads synonymous with terms like, “poor”, “dysfunctional”, “black” and “backward”. It is precisely this reason why critical analysis of the communication around such concepts is so important.

The “Master/Native” Binary Framing in Development

As Teju Cole points out in his article, naming white privilege within humanitarianism is often seen as “unduly provocative.” (Cole, 2012)  And yet the “master/native” binary framing in international development persists – the West, formerly the colonial master, now the postcolonial savior – and continues to proliferate and metastasize every passing decade, in new and different ways.  Cole excoriates “do good” types like Western journalist Nick Kristof, in writing, “all he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.” (Cole, 2012) With the master/native binary, so-called “easy” solutions are created and implemented by a white, rich benefactor, with little input or feedback from the recipients, and little analysis of the complex factors that create the need in the first place.  Unfortunately, according to Hughey (2010), “binary frameworks are a cornerstone of our social structures and a roadmap for our navigation of everyday life.” (Hughey, 2010, p. 492) As humans, we simplify our problems to binary narratives in order to move through life – e.g., good versus evil – and good must ultimately trump evil so that we can survive as a species. And even more grotesquely, this same method is applied to humanitarianism with the postcolonial lens, by the West’s persistent use of First/Third World comparisons in its discourse, media campaigns, and its scholarship.

Syed and Ali (2010) used a critical feminism lens to describe postcolonial imperialism, and offered examples of the West’s binary framing during a campaign for Afghan women’s rights in the 2000s. A Western charity, Feminist Majority Foundation, campaigned to raise money to halt gender apartheid in Afghanistan. And, “while the campaign drew public attention to the discrimination and violence facing Afghan women under the Taliban, its discourse was embedded in an ahistorical and orientalist framework that assumed the benevolence and superiority of the US in establishing gender equality.” (Syed & Ali, 2011, p. 258) The example of the Foundation’s charitable dilemma highlights the West’s neglect in acknowledging its responsibility in creating hostile conditions for women through its involvement in multiple wars throughout the last few decades; instead, the charity distorted the complexities and oversimplified the narrative in order to solicit donations and support. It is precisely these types of efforts that Cole denounced in his Twitter feed: “the white savior supports brutal regimes in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon and receives awards in the evening” (Cole, 2012).


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