David Lammy, Stacey Dooley and the White Saviour Debate

British MP David Lammy caused a twitter storm when he spoke out against Comic Relief and a film they had produced with journalist Stacey Dooley. For Lammy, the pictures of Dooley holding Ugandan children was perpetuating stereotypes of poverty ridden Africa, and the need for a “White Saviour” to rescue the continent. Dooley responded by claiming that Comic Relief and the projects they support were saving lives, while also questioning if the MP had a problem with her being white.

While watching this play out I felt compelled to put together my own thoughts on this. As an African Politics student and someone who has volunteered in Sierra Leone and Uganda, I felt that I needed to look at my own perceptions. I believe that Lammy’s point has been completely misunderstood, due to the very issue he is talking about.

To begin, I would like to defend some aspects of Comic Relief. It has shown the incredible generosity of the British public in wanting to help those in other countries. In a time where racism and fear of the other is on the rise, it is a welcome relief to know that we still do have compassion for those worse off than ourselves. 2017’s edition of Comic Relief was able to raise just over £48 million.

It would also be wrong to claim that poverty doesn’t exist within certain African states. Yet it would also be wrong to claim that it is widespread across the continent. This idea that all of Africa is in poverty and needs saving is in some ways perpetuated by events such as Comic Relief. Videos of celebrities jetting off to Africa for a few weeks, then sending back emotional videos of the poverty they have witnessed has an effect on viewers. For many, these are the only images of the continent they will receive. Therefore, rightly or wrongly, an image of a poverty stricken continent that needs saving becomes embedded.

This image that has been perpetuated and is in the minds of the British public is why Lammy has been misunderstood. For many, he is just attacking a white woman for wanting to help out those in need. They see Africa as one big country full of poverty, AID’s, corruption and conflict that needs “white saviours”. It is this very image that Lammy is attacking.

Those of us engaged in current affairs in Africa know that this is not the case. Not all countries in Africa are riddled with AID’s, corruption and conflict. For example, most people only associate Rwanda with a genocide which happened over 20 years ago, rather than a country with an up and coming national airline and its own oyster card system. There are many positive stories coming out of Africa that if given the media coverage, could help to change the image of the continent, or at least allow it to be treated as a continent of separate states rather than a country. As Lammy himself said in a 2017 article “Africa may have changed beyond recognition, but over the generations knowledge and attitudes in Britain haven’t”.

It would be wrong to question the motives of these celebrities and many others who volunteer in African countries. I believe that their intentions are good and they shouldn’t be personally attacked for what they are doing. However, they should be aware of the image they are promoting at the same time. It is this lack of awareness which has been so striking in the rebuttals of Lammy’s argument.

Lammy claimed that the images create a perception of Africa very similar to that of the colonial time. During the colonial period many people moved to the newly created colonies, some as missionaries looking to spread the Gospel, some as capitalists looking to make a fortune and some came with the belief that the locals needed saving. Colonial expansion was built upon the three C’s, Commerce, Civilisation and Christianity, which was also referred to by the poet Kipling as “the white man’s burden”. Colonialists during the colonial time thought that people living in Africa were backward and needed saving from their own ways by the white man. Hence the idea of a “white saviour”.

Nowadays I would hope that those who go as part of Comic Relief or other projects don’t believe in the backwardness of the people they are helping, however it is important to be aware of what the images suggest. Whether intended or not, the image of Dooley holding a Ugandan child could be used to suggest that this child needs saving and only a white woman can do so.

At the end of his tweet Lammy said we need to have a serious debate. This debate regarding Britain’s engagement with Africa is long overdue. As a former colonial power, we do have responsibility for creating nation states with artificial boundaries and the problems this has caused. However, the debate needs to focus on how we act on this responsibility and it needs to distinguish between countries. Do we continue to push the “white saviour” narrative, either deliberately or unintentionally, or do we look at other ways we can continue to help those who need our help without being seen in this light?


Featured image | Stacey Dooley filming for  Com Relief in Uganda | Stacey Dooley | Instagram

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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