Savior Mentality In International Development


By: Priscilla Zelaya

A little over one year ago, Anja Ringgren Loven met a little boy named Hope in Nigeria, where she ran an orphanage alongside her husband. Hope had been abandoned and living on the street after the community labeled him a witch boy. Overcome with compassion at seeing young Hope, Loven and her husband set out to bring him back to health. A year after bringing him into their orphanage, Hope is now healthy and has begun attending school. These images of Loven and Hope contrasting when they first met and a year later have circulated through various social media channels for the past few weeks. These images have been wildly popular online and have been shared through social media sites over 30,000 times. Many have hailed Loven as inspirational. Loven and Hope’s story resonates with many people who seek to “do good” in the world.

As a scholar of international development and an active participant in development through Projects for Haiti, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, I cannot help but see the devastating effects of spreading images such as these two. In order to fully capture the dangers present, I will explore the matter further in two points.


(1) There is an implied degradation of indigenous cultures through this coverage’s focus on Western compassion.

The story begins with an image of an African child wandering the streets, malnourished, due to a community’s deeply held beliefs. In walks a blond-haired white woman to save the day. The white woman is hailed as an inspiration. No one has delved deeply into the backstory of the young child to truly understand the beliefs of the community; instead we get a searing image of community abandonment and a blond-haired savior. Both of these images are faulty. It is unfair to misrepresent a community belief without understanding the full story – this degrades indigenous culture. Yes, there are inhumane practices in every culture, but without balance we are continuing to uplift Western saviors and paint indigenous cultures as “backwards” or “terrible”. I am sure there are many Nigerians who are outraged at the mistreatment of children, but where were they represented in this story?

(2) The resounding praise of this story is focused on the outside savior and does little to highlight the Nigerian people other than as “receivers of Western aid.”

Does the preceding image evoke a sense of dignity for  young Hope? I would argue – No. This image is about the woman, smiling with the progress Hope has made through her efforts. Images of Western outsiders doing things “for” those in less developed nations inhibit the creation of community member dignity. Last I checked, Hope had use of his two hands. Why hold his water bottle as he drinks? There is only one answer: The act of giving Hope water to drink continues the narrative that “Africans need westerners to help them.” Imagine what would have happened if the image was simply of Hope doing something he was not able to do before? The narrative would most likely involve the orphanage, but also include his strength and perseverance. Those are the types of narratives we truly need.

The temptation of savior mentality creeps into the very fabric of development at times. The giver is exalted while the receiver is to be pitied. This is not how international development should work. International development must allow for the dignity of humans in any circumstance to be seen and praised. Images such as these propagate harmful development projects aimed at celebrating the attempts of the giver to ameliorate poverty and believe me, we don’t need another image of a blonde woman giving a poor black boy water to drink.



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