Are we white saviors?

by Noémie Bricard

Thank you to Lea Buck and Josephine Nzerem for your feedback!

Being a German foundation that funds organizations on the African continent and being financially dependent on and led by mostly white people, the preconditions for acting as white saviors are met. Yet we want to base our actions on justice – after all, fighting injustice is the core of our mission – and that requires “a difficult look at who you are, what your role is in imbalanced relationships of power, and how you can act — sometimes at a cost to yourself — to undo the structural conditions that have produced that injustice,“ according to Granovsky-Larsen. So, that’s what we will try to do today regarding the issue of white saviorism. 

First, what is white saviorism? According to Dickson, Khan, and Sondarjee (2023: 4), it is “simultaneously a state of mind and a concrete unequal power structure between the Global North and the Global South. White Saviorism is founded on the benevolence of Whiteness, which elevates people of White European descent despite their role in exploiting and dispossessing people from the Global South.” It thus describes both individual actions and the structure in which these actions are made. In each case, they ignore the global economic and political context of exploitation they are operating in and focus power and praise on the Global North. White saviorism is entrenched in the international philanthropic sector and persistently influences the work and relationships of foundations and international non-governmental organizations in this field. While we are trying to move away from that, we are still operating within and are thereby a part of this neocolonial system.

White saviorism follows a specific narrative, as the X (twitter) account No White Saviors explains: “White saviorism turns people into projects; Trauma & personal stories into fundraising campaigns; Communities & marginalized groups into lucrative ‘causes’. Justice sees people in the fullness of their humanity and fights to uphold their inherent dignity & worth at all costs.” I took part in a call a couple weeks ago and couldn’t pinpoint my uneasiness at first until I read this post. I had been listening to a young African entrepreneur share her personal story and trauma with a row of older white funders of the organization she was working for. Her trauma and personal story had been turned into a fundraising campaign. Does the Azurit Foundation turn people into projects, trauma and personal stories into fundraising campaigns, and communities and marginalized groups into lucrative “causes”? We hope not! We created a short white saviorism test for us to check:

  • Who is centered?
  • Who is praised?
  • Is our language one of victims and saviors?
  • Why do we focus on an evidence-based approach, and how does it play out in practice?
  • How do we manage power inequality in our partnerships?

Feel free to apply these questions to other organizations or campaigns you come across and see if you notice differences in their approaches.

Who is centered?

Do we center ourselves, the funders, our grantee partners, or the people they serve? Both in our internal work and communications, we mostly focus on our grantee partners. We don’t have direct connections to the people they serve. That might be the ultimate form of actually centering the people that the work is about. Since we work with truly locally embedded partners and not with Western organizations that at most include a local implementation partner in their work (which doesn’t shift the power to local actors and still centers the Western organization although others might be doing most of the work), we feel that we are centering the people and organizations that ought to be centered.

Who is praised?

Are we praising ourselves or our funders for some sort of “saving”? Are we presenting ourselves as the only “solution” to a “solvable problem” we think we’ve identified? How much gratitude for the benevolence of funders are we expressing? These are still very common and mostly unquestioned narratives. Building on the previous answer, our praise is mostly directed at our grantee partners, who really deserve it because they do impressive work. We are still one step removed from the stakeholders themselves, though. We are lucky that the people funding Azurit Foundation demand no praise to maintain their funding, which enables us to put the spotlight elsewhere.

Is our language one of victims and saviors? 

We know that talent is distributed equally, but opportunity is not. We want to create opportunities for our grantee partners to fight the injustices we see today that are caused by a global system of exploitation. We want to understand how they aim to change that system, but we don’t define their strategies for change. So, we hope that our language is more one of justice than of saving. We don’t stay on the comfortable surface of charity and altruism, like Teju Cole writes about Nicholas Kristof: “His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated “disasters.” […] All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.” We always try to consider the bigger context, pay attention to dependencies, and reason out the need for the need.

Why do we focus on an evidence-based approach, and how does it play out in practice? 

The danger here is that it can function as a pretext for other motives than evidence-based decision-making. Measurement and evaluation can be a tool for “White surveillance and intervention on Brown and Black lives in the Global South” (Shallwani and Dossa 2023: 42). Is local knowledge gain or the marketing effect for the funder prioritized? Who decides on the key impact indicators (KPIs)? Are they adapted to the local context of the work, and do they create additional insights besides being a marketing tool (16k lives touched… wow… and now?)? Evaluation can also serve the self-legitimization and “’feel good’ element of the White Saviorism” (Shallwani and Dossa 2023: 42). Many funders have rather narrow definitions of evidence, which forces their grantee partners into rigid frameworks. We focus our work on the belief that not all action (even if well-intentioned) is effective. From our grantee partners, we expect intrinsic motivation as well as relevant skills to assess the effectiveness of their work. We do not impose Azurit-specific KPIs on our partners. Everyone is used to seeing cross organizational impact KPIs and doesn’t bother to question the proportionality of them compared to what they impose on partners. Instead, we dive deep into the specific evidence-based frameworks of each of our grantee partners. We also offer to align reporting schedules with those of other funders to minimize work and use oral reporting, which, beyond reducing the time burden, enables much more dialogue and reflections on current challenges and what’s needed to address them. We are aware that we chose our focus, set the framework for what we interpret as evidence base, and take decisions informed by our western understanding of the topic. Yet, we hope that our evaluation practice is not an unconscious pretext for surveillance and control. 

How do we manage power inequality in our partnerships? 

First of all, we acknowledge it. We are cautious about pushing anything on our grantee partners, and our funding is flexible since our partners know best how to use the funds to achieve their goals. With our approach, we actively try to reduce the funder – funded power imbalance and shift power to our partners instead of imposing our own structures. We are aware of how delicate that can be. A brainstorming idea during a conversation might be interpreted as an expectation by us, and just because we tell our grantee partners that they can say no if we ask them for something, it doesn’t mean they feel they can/should say no. We anonymously collect feedback once a year to be accountable to our grantee partners. We share the findings and report on what we will and have changed according to the feedback. Currently, our advisory board is 50% European (down from 100% at the start), and we want to change that further to increase the percentage of local experts in our governance structure.

Some personal reflections

Most of what I read called for awareness to change the structure of white saviorism. I am unsure if that rests on the assumption that awareness automatically translates into action. Initially, at least, awareness is only in my head; it doesn’t change the systems that need to be changed. So, I am always curious about what the next steps can look like. Is basing our work at the Azurit Foundation on this awareness fighting injustice, or is continuing our work within the realms of the unjust global system in fact maintaining the very injustice we say we work against? I wish for the inner awareness to find more concrete ways to materialize in the world and would love to hear suggestions on that. How can the practical part look like? 


It has been interesting to reflect on these questions before starting big fundraising or communication campaigns, so now we know better what to strive for and what to avoid to stay in line with our values. We will be very mindful of the narrative we support. Let’s go back to our initial question: “Are we white saviors?” Less so than others, from what we can figure out, at least. Can we be sure that we are not acting as white saviors? No. Are we even in a position to give a definite answer to this question? No. Do we reflect on our actions and take measures not to be them? Yes. We are not fooling ourselves into believing that we are free of ignorance or that we are operating outside of this unjust system. Still, we will continue to retain our humility and self-reflection in light of these circumstances and strive to learn and act better. Let us know your thoughts on this!


Khan, T., Dickson, K. and Sondarjee, M. (2023): White Saviorism in International Development: Theories, Practices and Lived Experiences, Wakefield: Daraja Press.

Shallwani, S. and Dossa, S. (2023): Evaluation and the White Gaze in International Development, in: Khan, T., Dickson, K. and Sondarjee, M. (eds.) White Saviorism in International Development: Theories, Practices and Lived Experiences, Wakefield: Daraja Press, pp 42-62.

photo credit: Luca Nicoletti on Unsplash


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