On white saviour complexes

As a youngster, at around the age of 15, I became interested in the field of sustainable development. An article in the magazine of a Sunday newspaper about life in Burkina Faso had particular influence on me. From that moment on, I was convinced that my future lay in working on rural projects in central Africa that aimed at alleviating poverty amongst some of the world’s poorest people.

Like David Lammy, I ended up as a student at SOAS in heart of Bloomsbury, a University of London college famous for the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Whereas he studied at the school of law, graduating three years before I started, I became a student of development studies. When I read reports of the Labour MP for Tottenham’s intervention on a film for Comic Relief today, I couldn’t help thinking back to my time at SOAS as a student of international development.

I began as a bright-eyed student, eager to change the world. But after three years studying post-colonial discourse, acquainting myself with the works of Edward Said, Amartya Sen and their confreres, perpetually questioning what development really meant, and the role of outsiders in it, I graduated from university disillusioned, convinced that the world had no more room for another white saviour, wandering into places he was not wanted, contributing nothing that a local engineer, doctor or teacher could not already offer.

It is how I ended up, a decade later, working in web development instead. A completely different field, totally unconnected from my youthful interests, where my identity could not be employed to undermine my intentions. Those studies looking at environmental degradation in sub-Saharan Africa and water pollution in the river Ganges serve now only to help with our children’s homework. Economics for a developing world a mere footnote in time. Refugee studies mere context to the daily news.

If I had the opportunity to start over, and undertake that degree today, perhaps I would be less easily cowed by those that sought to undermine my naive but good intentions. While I understand what Daivd Lammy is saying — how could I not, having immersed myself in the same milieu — nowadays I would say that the world needs idealists more than ever before. Better a white saviour than a white supremacist, sowing seeds of hatred and division everywhere in the world. Better to make allies, than to create enemies.

In truth, worrying what people will think of me and my intentions has frequently prevented me from doing good work. Now that I’m older I just think to myself: sod what people think. The world needs people willing to make life better for others, whether at home or abroad. Alas, the politics of identity is stifling our ability to bring about positive change. It is as if some prefer division to coming together, dogma over action.

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