Films. I love them. And I don’t just mean going to the cinema to watch the latest blockbuster. I was brought up in an age when it was still acceptable to watch black and white films on a wet Saturday afternoon. If I recommend a film to the family, my children’s first question is always “Are they in black and white?”. If the answer is “yes”, then it is doubly difficult to persuade them to join me. I’m particularly interested in productions from the 1930s and 40s but at the end of the day, a good film is a good film irrespective of when it was made. I go along to a course called “Hollywood and American Culture”. Basically it looks at American history and culture through the lens of Hollywood movies (using the America word for films in this case). I won’t bore you, but one phrase that has cropped up on several occasions is the “white saviour narrative”. It was referred to as we considered “Dances With Wolves” (1990) and “Mississippi Burning” (1988).

Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman in "Mississippi Burning" (Orion Pictures, 1988)

Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman in "Mississippi Burning" (Orion Pictures, 1988)

So what is ‘white savior narrative’? In both those films, there was a downtrodden or threatened community. In the former it was native Americans pursued by the US Army and in the latter it was Afro-Americans in 1960s Mississippi oppressed and brutalized by pretty much everyone else. Both films make hard watching at times, especially “Mississippi Burning” but there is a sense of justice at the end where ‘right overcomes wrong’ to some extent. However, if one reflects a little longer one realises that the seeker and bringer of justice or freedom is not the people themselves but an outsider/s, who are white. Now many may not immediately see the problem here but Hollywood has been excellent at creating films (many are undeniably wonderful) that perpetuate the belief that a struggling people, particularly a non-white community, requires a white outsider to come along and sort things out for them. They are not capable of doing it for themselves. Other examples of this narrative are  found in “12 Years a Slave”, “Amistad”, “Blood Diamond” and “Gran Torino”. All films I admire by the way. A white saviour narrative paints a picture of a helpless people dependent upon the more educated, wise or powerful white benefactor intervening.


Now let us leave the world of film and reenter the real world. The reason this narrative interests me is because there is a similar mentality still very much at large amongst western culture towards those in developing countries i.e. we need to help them e.g. volunteering in Africa (its individual countries not even being recognised). There may be a subconscious belief that ‘they’ are incapable of solving the problem themselves. Not only that but we can have a very simplistic view of what the ‘white knight’ needs to do to sort the problem. The solution is often seen as throwing money at the problem or carrying out a short one-off project. Those who are a little more seasoned in the world of development will be able to give numerous examples where neither money, expertise nor projects have solved a problem. This is often because local people have not been listened to. Their knowledge, expertise and willingness to contribute to the solution have been ignored. They have not participated in the solution at any level.


Do those in the rich, ‘advanced’ West, prefer to retain the power in the relationship? It is a role that they are used to, it makes sense and it feels good to use that power to ‘do good’. I am not saying that the use of power in this way is not well intentioned but I do suggest that it is harmful in the long-term. Power is a concept fundamental to an understanding of problems of development and the strategies to tackle them. Let us consider three forms of power.

To have ‘power over’ anyone else is a destructive form of power e.g. colonial domination. This form, although not necessarily brutal, does rob people of their independence, reduces their opportunities in life and basically prevents them from reaching their potential (Irish Methodist World Development & Relief’s vision is that every person’s God-given potential is fulfilled).

There is then ‘power to’ which some equate to the concept of ‘empowerment’ a word much loved by development practitioners. Empowerment relates to giving people the tools or opportunity to hold to account those who have ‘power over’ them. This implies redistributing power and transforming institutions as well as taking direct control of one’s life.

Now ‘empowerment’ definitely sounds a lot better. However, we often use phrases such as ‘empowering the poor’ or the poor ‘being empowered’. It is as if even the act of becoming empowered and having power, needs to be given to the poor by someone else who currently holds the power. So, at best, there seems to be some sort of contradiction there.


Are you still with me or would you rather talk about films again?! World Development & Relief’s strapline is Partners in Change; ‘Partners’ meaning equal partners; not nominal or notional partners. This type of partnership speaks of ‘power with’. An approach to improving lives for those in material poverty or suffering injustice with a ‘power with’ understanding speaks of participation, of different people contributing to the designing, planning and implementing of activities to address the problems. These people include those who will benefit (the materially poor), professionals from development agencies, donors and others who have some kind of stake e.g. local authorities. So there is a ‘togetherness’ in this approach. No one has ‘power over’ anyone else and everyone’s contribution is recognized and valued. ‘Power with’ others is harder to understand and, at the time, can seem harder work and more time-consuming. However, World Development & Relief and many who are active in development believe that the results are more effective and longer lasting. As a Methodist body, World Development & Relief also believes that theology must inform our work and thus we must take the path where everyone involved and their contribution is seen to be of equal worth.


One of our partners, Graham Philpott of the Church Land Programme (CLP) in South Africa is committed to this model as well. CLP have embraced a concept called ‘animation’. Graham says,

“Animation has imposed the discipline of listening to and learning from people with deep seriousness, and understanding that listening is a political act in itself. It involves relinquishing control by returning responsibility to people. It means abandoning the assumed mantle of superior knowledge”.


I’m sure none of us wish to be seen or act as ‘white saviours’ (and by the way, we could replace the word “white” with “rich”, “educated” or “middle class”). It can be hard to let go of the power we have, especially for those of us who have been born into a privileged position in the world. However, I believe that most of us would much rather want to seeand treat others as equals (because they are) and collaborate where and when we can, if our common purpose is to reduce hardship, fear and oppression. We can all contribute what we can. That’s what World Development & Relief try to do and we can see that it brings results.