The Ineffective White Savior

And how to actually make an impact

I first came to Ghana with a white savior mentality. I was going to make a difference. I was going to help the Ghanaian people. I was going to improve public health with my three-month research project. I was a student at the University of Michigan, and I would bring my brain power to help Africans improve their work. I was naïve.

The research project was purely an academic exercise. I was essentially helpless in the lab without Ghanaian scientists holding my hand. We generated good data, but had no end goal in mind, as it was conjured up by our professor and had no buy-in from the Ghanaian scientists. Once we left, the project was over forever. We had spent thousands of dollars on flights, housing, and stipends for ourselves. Local people already knew the medicinal uses of the plant that we were studying. Our small experiments changed nothing.

I’ve met a lot of “white saviors” in Ghana who remind me of myself during my first trip here. Usually, they are young people in their early twenties from Europe and the USA on volunteer and university trips coming to Africa to preach the social justice gospel, hoping to make a difference in the lives of African people. White saviors volunteer in orphanages, schools, and hospitals. From what I’ve seen, the impact of these trips is usually negligible and a large waste of resources. They often fill roles Ghanaians would be better suited to fill at a fraction of the cost. These trips are generally self-serving. They make for great social media posts, blogs, and stories on applications to grad school.

My first trip to Ghana fit this description almost perfectly, which was extremely humbling and made me reconsider my approach for my subsequent visits to Ghana.

The white savior mentality is incredibly destructive. It assumes that you as a white person have the means and knowledge to actually solve the problems in a country you are just getting to know. It’s entitlement. It’s a sense of superiority that stems from nothing more than the place in which you were born and the color of your skin. It hinders true collaboration that could actually make a difference. It leads to money being wasted on unnecessary things.

I was certainly guilty of this until I realized how ineffective this mentality is.

There is a great anecdote about a group of European farmers who came to Africa. They saw the way the locals were irrigating their crops and told them it was all wrong because they were wasting dirt building mounds around each plant. The Europeans changed the irrigation style of the farm to that of their own back home. Then as they stood back admiring their work, the heavy tropical rains came, uprooted the plants, and washed the farm away. White saviors often come to Africa and press their ideology upon local people without seeking input from those they’re hoping to help.

That’s not to say I haven’t seen cases where white saviors have had some impact. A volunteer friend of mine used $5,000 to build a well leading to a cleaner and cheaper water supply for the orphanage she was working at. A Ghanaian friend told me the story of a peace corps volunteer who fundraised and bought a generator that brought electricity to his small village. These acts of charity make a quick, direct impact and are generally the best-case scenarios of the white savior. I’m a big fan of bringing capital into the Ghanaian system. The downside of these donations, however, is that they are not sustainable nor do they address any systemic issues. For this reason I’ve completely changed my strategy from one of charity to one of entrepreneurship.

White saviors may have genuinely good intentions; however, intention and impact are two very different things.

Ironically, the Lebanese, Chinese, and Indian businessmen, who come here without the “hearts full of grace” the white saviors do, make a large impact towards moving Ghanaian society forward. The Chinese have paved many roads in Ghana and conducted large-scale construction projects. The Lebanese started some of the first department stores selling important consumer goods that improve quality of life. Indians sell generic pharmaceuticals which are the backbone of Ghanaian healthcare. These businesses are sustainable. They employ Ghanaian people, often with middle class incomes that allow them to build a dignified life. They add value to the system. In the healthcare sector in which I work, by far those with the largest impact are Ghanaian entrepreneurs who invest in building new hospitals, medical education programs, and diagnostic centers. These people have their own financial self interest in mind, and yet make the greatest difference.

What the white saviors do can be best described as voluntourism. It’s essentially poverty porn. They come, observe the negative things, post about them on social media, and leave. I had this brief but powerful exchange with a friend recently…

Friend: “[White people] want to see that we sleep on trees”
Me: “and then they get disappointed when they don’t see those trees”
Friend: “of course, because they want to take pictures of that”

It reminded me of the time a fellow U of M student took a picture with two random Ghanaian kids she didn’t know, made it her profile picture, and got heartfelt response from family and friends online. African children are not accessories to be used in pictures. Many white saviors use such a trip to shed their white guilt and put themselves on moral high ground. Writer Teju Cole, who coined the term “White Savior Industrial Complex”, wrote, “It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

I’ve always said the biggest difference that the white volunteers make in Ghana is not through their work, but through the money they spend here in the local economy. Mostly, their excess income fuels the tourism industry, which has grown exponentially over the past decade or so yet done little for the average Ghanaian.

Academics are often the worst kind of white saviors. I’ve seen them bring huge grant money to Ghana, most of which is wasted. Or even worse, they come to simply study, measure, and quantify problems that local people are already well aware of. They throw conferences that waste thousands of dollars in a few days where they stay at luxury hotels and grant per diems to upper class Ghanaian administrators. In order to generate ideas to make meaningful change, you need Ghanaians to be able to give you honest feedback on your grant ideas. But Ghanaians are not going to tell you that your grant has the wrong approach when they are personally benefiting from your current vision. They paid a Ghanaian $10,000 to emcee a conference I attended in Accra. The money was most likely a large percentage of his yearly salary. This man had no incentive to criticize the vision of the conference when that kind of money was being thrown his way. A few Ghanaians I became close with at the conference admitted to me that they believed the vision of the conference was all wrong. And yet they sat quietly in the audience, listening to the white saviors share their academic gospel, applauding each and every backwards idea.

I don’t really blame the white savior. We are socialized to think this way. It’s something that needs to be unlearned. It would be great if we could turn the genuinely good intentions of the white savior into meaningful impact. Unfortunately, the machinery of white saviorism has been churning along for so long, a paradigm shift is unlikely. However, I hope anyone reading this hoping to volunteer or work abroad can learn from my own mistakes and observations in order to adopt a better strategy.

How to avoid white savior mentality and make a real impact:

  • Above all else, collaborate with local people closely and leverage their knowledge of their own country
  • Think about what unique skills you have to offer, seek projects where you can put these skills to use, and transfer these skills to local people
  • Look for projects that lead to sustainable economic empowerment
  • Try to inspire a local young person to continue your work
  • Stay for a long period of time, to build connections with local people as well as to learn the culture and society you are hoping to impact

Ghanaians know what they need to do to improve their country. They are more equipped to solve the problems of their country than any 20-year-old volunteer. In order to enact meaningful change, the would-be white savior has to remain quiet at the brainstorming session and let the people in their own country come up with the solutions. You then bring resources and perhaps technical knowledge to help bring those solutions to life.

I remember when I was writing my Fulbright grant, I proposed analyzing data collected from paper patient records to do my research. The director of the clinic challenged this idea, “that’s great, but what we really need is an electronic medical record system.” He was right of course, an EMR was a much better way to research the effectiveness of the clinic. At the same time the EMR helped improve patient care. When I finished this first implementation, my colleagues said “we can do this for other hospitals.” Now we’re in four hospitals and have helped manage patient records for over 100,000 patients. None of this was my idea, but I listened to those with the local knowledge and used my technical skill-sets to carry out their vision. We owe our success to our ability to collaborate.

Like the white savior, I have come to Ghana with the best intentions: Trying to make a positive difference. But my approach has completely changed since my first trip here. Instead of charity, donations, and volunteerism I choose entrepreneurship to try to make systemic, sustainable change. No society has ever been built on a foundation of charity and volunteering. Changing a system is not sexy. It takes a long time. I know I will spend my whole life trying to have a positive impact on Ghana. It’s crucial to my success that I set aside the ideology of the white savior, and continue my transition towards a strategy of collaboration and empowerment.

Began writing to share my experiences in Ghana over the past decade. Originally from Ann Arbor, MI. I obtained a Ph.D. in Biostatistics from Harvard in 2020.

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