Africa Month: Dear White Saviours

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Last year our favourite mellow music maker, Ed Sheeran, came under fire when he appeared in a charity appeal by Comic Relief. The ad, along with others, sparked debates on whether charities were guilty of advertising ‘poverty porn’.

Poverty porn is often described as media of a graphic or disturbing nature which serves to expose the distress and misery suffered by others in order to sell messages, draw sympathy and most importantly get donations from unsuspecting audiences.

The ad followed Sheeran in Liberia, a small country located in West Africa, narrating the plight of homeless children in the country. We see Sheeran randomly approach a derelict boat, in the early hours of the morning, and watch two unsuspecting kids sleeping. Sheeran portrays the white saviour role as he fantasises about putting all the children he’s encountered into a hotel until the country fixes itself. Then the scene changes to Sheeran talking to another child in the dirt, as the camera-man makes sure to zoom in on the child’s unclean hands. Despite the criticism, the ad was successful in provoking pity for the unfortunate children and collecting millions of pounds in donations for the charity.

The issues with such ads are the dangerous stereotypes which have existed since colonisation in the 18th Century. They reinforce the beliefs that Africa is a dying continent where residents are plagued with nothing but famine, HIV, mosquitos and are completely incompetent when it comes to helping themselves. Since the 18th century Europeans have adopted this white saviour complex when travelling to Africa as Christian missionaries to cleanse the continent of its savages and Westernise those who remain.

At the time, missionaries would stage photographs with their passion projects. In these photos the missionaries would either pose sitting on chairs or standing, dressed in white or light materials, in wide brimmed hats, and their necks decorated with large crosses. Meanwhile, the natives of the countries they were pillaging were depicted in darker garments, some filthy, and sitting in the dirt with looks of melancholy.

The cameras used at the time were not meant to take pictures of black people as their faces were nearly impossible to distinguish from a distance, further darkening their whole being and stripping them of any features which may have distinguished them as individuals. Such poses may be interpreted to be power poses on the missionaries’ behalves. Their forms looming over the natives mimicked those of angels often portrayed in classical artworks; bright and elevated above those needing saving from their sins.

It is easy to argue that times have changed, such dehumanising portraits no longer exist. However, if you scroll through social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram you’re bound to come across some of your school friends’ gap-year selfies with ‘skinny, pot-bellied, orphans’. Such images demonstrate that the ‘missionaries’ of the past have rebranded into ‘volunteers’.

The concept is still the same, people are being encouraged to pay thousands to organisations to travel abroad to take selfies and impose the English language, all under the guise of helping people. They continue to sport the white saviour cape, further reinforcing the misguided beliefs that Africa cannot develop without white people’s generosity.

It’s important to ask why large charities continue to recruit unqualified and even dangerous people, when they have the finances to recruit professionals to provide the skills required in those nations? If there was a camera ban would people be as inclined to go if their Instagram followers would never get to see just how selfless they had? If they were not allowed to put the experience on their CVs or UCAS applications would they still have the same energy?

Charity poverty porn
Credit: Judith E. Bell via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Some charities and adverts serve to exploit the plight of people living in some of the worst situations imaginable; however, all dignity is stripped once they are exposed to millions around the world. Such ads have been present in the media since 1980 and continue to increase in numbers, whether they’re advertised on YouTube, the side of a bus or during the commercial break of your favourite reality television show.

We have become so accustomed to poverty porn that we are now desensitised to actual human beings’ suffering. We will happily sing along to BandAid’s repetitive Christmas jingle and throw money at iTunes, but refuse to assist the prevailing issues closer to home without first posting about it somewhere for others to see with hashtags like: #1LIKE=1PRAYER.

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