Tonight will see Comic Relief raise millions, which will go towards poverty alleviation around the world. As the chief executive of Christian Aid, there aren’t many people more in favour of helping the world’s most marginalised groups than me. But as a black African woman, I regularly have to face up to the challenges highlighted in the recent exchange between TV presenter Stacey Dooley and MP David Lammy on the issue of so-called “white saviours”.
On the one hand, we know we need people in public life to raise awareness of issues of global injustice and poverty. They act as go-betweens, bringing the heartbreaking reality of abject poverty into the homes of ordinary British people and encouraging them to help. On the other hand, there is the knowledge that the way we frame these stories paints some as the saviours and others as those without autonomy and in need of salvation.
In his challenge Lammy raised important questions about how African countries and their people are still perceived and portrayed. We in the aid sector have to face up to our part historically in perpetuating a tired and one-dimensional picture of Africa – what the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the danger of a single story. It suggests Africans are helpless and lack agency.
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To escape this single story, those working in international development, in the media and in politics must try to reframe the narratives. Yes, there is poverty in Africa – that is precisely why a lot of Christian Aid’s work takes place there. But it is false to paint Africa’s problems as one-dimensional and simplistic – in need of a hug from a western celebrity to make things better. Not only is this narrative false, but it is also dangerous. Those in Africa – and in Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Middle East – who are living in poverty are caught up in much bigger systemic issues. The challenge for us is to tackle the global economic systems that are hardwired to increase inequality and injustice. Because poverty is political. It is not an accident. Rather, it is as a result of human structures and systems that hold power over millions of people across the world. And there is no easy solution.
We have to play the long game if we are to see real and lasting change. The problem with the white saviour narrative is that it echoes colonialism. Colonialism is not a distant crime of our ancestors, but the genesis of our global structures that ensure the interests of economic growth in the north are prioritised over the lives of those who are powerless, poorer and usually darker.
Of course, I recognise that my own organisation is, in many ways, part of a development structure that perpetuates some of the problematic myths. But, as an African woman leading Christian Aid, I’m committed to helping reverse historical mistakes. I’m under no illusion that it makes everyone – including me – uncomfortable. Understandably, none of us wants to be painted as in the wrong when all we are doing is trying to help.
So I believe that to bring about change, we cannot just shout from the sidelines or be defensive. Because it’s going to take all of us to make the world a more equal place.
Perhaps the first step for all of us is to not make ourselves the heroes of the story. Let’s see those we are helping or donating money to as people just like you and me – deserving of dignity and respect, but also able to play a part in changing their own futures.
There are enough groups and activists in developing countries who are ready to challenge the world’s governing institutions to hear their call for change: let’s use our energy to help them in their fight. Let us stand together to create a new narrative and new reality.
• Amanda Khozi Mukwashi is chief executive of Christian Aid