What Can We Do About The White Savior Complex?

In August, a video went viral showing an American missionary screaming racial slurs and throwing punches at hotel workers in the lobby of the Grand Imperial Hotel in Kampala, Uganda. The violence exposed an ugly side of the way ongoing racism and colonialism continue to infuse global development. But, perhaps less talked about and more subtle are the microaggressions affecting non-white aid workers every day.  

In this podcast, we hear from a diverse group of people with deep experience in the aid and development sector about their encounters with racism and inequality. We seek to understand why racist and colonial structures persist in the sector. And we learn how they can be fought both individually and at an institutional level.

Lydia Namubiru is a journalist, writer and researcher in Uganda. She worked in the development aid sector for about three years.

“The white people were bosses, and the black people reported to them. And even when you had a Ugandan who was at management level, somehow, at least in practice, they seemed to be reporting to another American at that same level. It didn’t show on the organizational chart. On the chart, they looked like equals. But, in practice, they had to report and their work had to be reviewed by somebody who is in theory at their level, but happens to be American, and therefore presumably more competent.” – Lydia Namubiru

Angela Bruce Raeburn is the Associate Director for Advocacy at the Global Health Advocacy Incubator. She used to be Senior Humanitarian Policy Advisor at Oxfam in Haiti.  

“I would send out resumes, and sometimes I would get these calls, and then I would go into the interview and there was always this sense that ‘Oh, I didn’t expect you to look like you.’ No one ever said that, but there was always this surprise that I’m a Black woman. And it would be people who had gone to Haiti for a week, two weeks, or maybe gone to Kenya for a month. Those would be the people who would be deciding if what I brought was valuable enough.” – Angela Bruce Raeburn

Solome Lemma is the Executive Director of Thousand Currents, an organization that helps fund grassroots efforts by community leaders and aims to encourage self-determination.

“Some of the biggest national development agencies around today were actually created before colonialism ended. They worked in places like Africa and Asia. Their initial work was actually under the governing structures of colonialism, right? So there is a deep history that’s connected to that, and what that means is that it permeates some of the cultural practices and even the discourse around international development in philanthropy that’s practiced today.” – Solome Lemma

Jennifer Lentfer is Director of Communications at Thousand Currents.

“I’m going to say ‘We’ white folks, I’m going to invite them all into this conversation and say, ‘Let’s talk about what it really means to give up access to resources, and to give up the opportunities that come to us, and actually learn what it means to share power. Do you want to be in solidarity and support? Or do you want to represent the obstacles which people are already facing everyday?’ And that’s the choice, and it’s a tough one. It’s a painful one. It actually necessitates really deep questions that really put me in a vulnerable space.”
– Jennifer Lentfer

Teddy Ruge is co-founder of the game Jaded Aid, and currently founder of Raintree Farms which exports medicinal crops, and HiveCollab, a technology incubator in Uganda.

“If we can do our job in building our own countries, and in fixing our own schools, and building our own water infrastructure. If we can rise up to actually do that, that automatically takes care of that inequality. When we’re unable to actually defend our own agency, our own worth against this structural racism, it actually creates a further problem because we have generations that are watching and learning where they belong, what their agency is, what their responsibility is, what their opportunity is. This is part of the reason why I decided I needed to come back to Uganda. I needed to stop, yes – I was doing a lot of critiquing and writing op-ed pieces – but op-ed pieces don’t change paradigms. Work does. Sweat does. You come here, and you get involved in this muck.” – Teddy Ruge

Additional Resources:

Quartz Africa: An American missionary’s racist rant in Uganda shows the disturbing reality of White Savior complex

Thousand Currents website

Teddy Ruge on Tiny Spark: Building a Self-Reliant Africa from the Bottom-Up

Angela Bruce Raeburn: But Wait Until They See Your Black Face

Lydia Namubiru: Of Course, Development Aid has a Big Black People Problem

Quantam Impact Report: State of Diversity in Global Social Impact

Featured Image: Rahma and friends play with the camera in Zanzibar (photo credit: Frederica Boswell)



  1. Salome

    Blacks from African countries who are used to working as expatriates in other countries after returning and picking up a job in their home countries face much more opposition from the local African staff who wrongly assume we think we are better.

  2. Natasha

    Very well presented and very relevant! You managed to capture the whole (or almost whole) problem in half an hour. For me, one of the most problematic things is recruiting white men (and even black men) to go work on violence against women and similar sensitive topics. Local women are at the last place during recruitment. A lot of restructuring and recalibrating is needed, for sure. Keep up the great job!

  3. Karl

    I think the whole problem starts even from recruitment. Generally white guys get it first. Its very very rare for blacks to get a position in Europe and you come to Africa and would think African positions will get more Africans only to find an Italian, American getting hired for some entry level, internship etc . the UN is one such culprit.

    • Amy

      Thanks for writing, Karl. Indeed it seems that the sector has a long way to go to ensure that non-white aid and development workers are promoted to positions of power. Similarly, I am interested in following what will be done to make the pay and benefits packages between “international” and so-called “local” or “third country nationals” more equitable. This is a specific issue we plan to cover in a future episode and welcome accounts and input about this in the meantime.

  4. Miriam Kyomugasho

    Great discussion!
    Such debates need to reach young Africans in schools too where ideas & mentalities are formed

    We indeed have a lot to unlearn

    • Amy

      Thanks for taking the time to listen and to write, Miriam. Yes, it would be interesting to learn more about what explicit messages are being taught to young Africans about the role of white aid and development workers in their countries and what can be done to promote ideas around agency, self-determination and power, which Teddy Ruge describes in the podcast. And, yes, many of us have much to unlearn, including myself – it’s an ongoing journey.

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