Throughout history, missionaries have been the staple of our society, spreading across the world in an attempt to seek religious conversions. Nowadays, they do this through aid and disaster relief. Faith-based aid organisations do a lot of good across the world, but there is a dark side that is rarely acknowledged. In the 21st century, is it time to rethink their existence altogether?
This is not to disregard the good work done by some missionary groups: they provide 70% of healthcare services in the slums of Nairobi and help millions across the developing world. So, what is the issue? Well, it comes down to two points: the “white saviour complex” and individual atrocities committed by volunteers across the world.
There are a number of atrocities committed by individual missionaries. A prime example is Renee Bach, who is being sued by two women for the deaths of her relatives. Renee Bach is the founder of Serving His Children, a non-governmental organisation that worked mostly in Eastern Uganda. Although she did not have any medical training as a doctor or nurse, Bach worked in eastern Uganda inserting drips into children and conducting blood transfusions.
Zubeda Gimbo – the mother of a boy who died receiving medical care from SHC – claims that she was led to believe that Bach was a doctor. Her lawyers, however, dispute this and claim that Bach never gave anyone the impression that she was a trained medical professional. However, Gimbo is not the only person making this claim. Grace Adikin says that her two-year-old daughter died shortly after Bach performed a blood transfusion on her child. Even if Bach’s intentions were pure, practicing medicine without adequate training or a license is obviously dangerous.
Another example is that of Gregory Dow. In 2008, Dow founded an orphanage in Kenya, and it was in operation until he fled the country in 2017. He was found guilty of sexually assaulting four girls, aged 11-13 years from 2013 onwards. He left Kenya in 2017 but was found guilty by the FBI this year when they received a tip. The US Department of Justice in a statement said that “he preyed on their youth and vulnerability.”
These cases tie in perfectly with the “white saviour complex”. A white saviour is a white person who helps non-white people in a self-serving manner. It is exactly this complex that enables atrocities like those mentioned above. The feeling that you can practice medicine without a license or take advantage of helpless young girls at an orphanage comes from an innate sense of superiority that is the basis of the white saviour complex.
Many people who partake in “voluntourism” – a mix of volunteering and tourism – do so at the expense of the communities they are helping. Filled with an innate belief that they know better due to the privilege they are born into, they disregard the voices of local leaders and the people they are helping, helping themselves instead.
This becomes significantly worse when it takes a political or religious overtone. For example, a former pope has repeatedly spoken out against the use of condoms and forced bishops in Africa to speak out against it as well, which led to the the further spread of AIDS in Africa, and killed millions of people each year.
The feeling of superiority, which is innately linked to both the white saviour complex and voluntourism itself, ends up helping those giving the help more than those receiving it. It projects the aid-giver as a hero, while leaving those who they are supposed to be helped, nothing more than the status of a pawn. While white guilt is given relief, the communities that they ‘help’ end up in a worse state than before.