White Saviourism is a colonial legacy. But White Indifference is the larger one.  

Autor*in: Joël Glasman
Datum: 15. Februar 2023

There can be no doubt about the need to decolonise aid. The aid industry does have a colonial past. White saviourism finds its roots in the ‘Colonial Development Acts’, discourses of Europe’s ‘civilising mission’, and the origins of Christian missionary work.  Humanitarian compassion is linked to European colonialism[1]. The discussion on decolonization is important. But it may well feed into false understandings that humanitarianism is the main avenue for North-South discrimination.   

The main legacy of colonialism however is not compassion. It’s indifference. Compassion was not at the heart of the colonial project. Complacency was. Colonial politics were not primarily about pity or about saving lives. They were about fear, violence and letting people die. Colonial administration sometimes fed, housed and cared. But much more often, it chose not to. Colonialism is, above all, a project of negating the humanity of others[2].

Colonial powers were not interested in the fate of the colonised. While European states documented the needs of European populations by gathering data on standards of living and health indicators, they systematically excluded the colonised. Half a century after the creation of French West Africa in 1895, France still had produced no single figure on the standard of living of its inhabitants.[3] Decades after the invasion of British East Africa, the United Kingdom was not even able to tell how many people lived in this territory.[4] It was not by coincidence: the colonial administration explicitly avoided counting people. They had no will to know, for knowing would have implied a responsibility to act.[5] 

Not content only to avoid documenting, the colonial state also hid, with all its might, the real living conditions of its colonised subjects. Colonial powers censored newspapers, destroyed books and arrested journalists. No one was supposed to know the reality. Rudolf Manga Bell was one of the many African intellectuals who alerted European public opinion. He wrote to the German Imperial Parliament about the fate of the Duala of Cameroon and asked foreign countries for help. The German administration hanged him for “high treason”. Nothing was to be known. 

Ignorance required separation. People were prevented from meeting and empathising with each other at all costs. The colonial state erected borders and checkpoints. The camp is a colonial invention: a technology of containment and confinement that made sure no one would care by keeping interned subjects out of public view. Migration was restricted or strictly monitored. Populations were divided and sorted. Segregation was meant to create distinct emotional and moral communities. Whites everywhere were required to empathise with Algerian, Kenyan and South African whites, but not with their non-white neighbours. The creation of gated bubbles, impervious to the concerns of others, was the condition to create what Charles W. Mills calls white ignorance.[6] 

But spatial separation was not all. Colonialism needed ideological war. Of course, part of the colonial ideology was about missionary care and the ‘civilising mission’.[7] But much more often, it was about maintaining difference and dehumanisation. Empires hired armies of biologists, anthropologists and journalists to perpetuate biological and cultural racism. This was not easy, because on the other side, intellectuals, trade unionists and religious people kept pointing out the commonalities between people. European propaganda machines went all out. They propagated the most caricatural clichés, the most implausible images, the vilest insults.

And it worked. Soon enough, Europeans were able to enjoy the world’s commodities all the while not caring about the people who made the products – or in fact not knowing anything about these people to begin with.  Every morning, Europeans put on their shirts, drank their espresso, and filled their cars with petrol without the slightest idea of how the people who harvested the cotton, grew the coffee, or extracted the oil lived. Soon enough, European toddlers would learn to speak by using the name of large African mammals, while their parents would find it difficult to identify African countries on a map. Colonisation made the impossible possible. Europe’s wealth was built on the work of people whom most Europeans did barely not know anything about, and for whom they did not care.

This is not to downplay the responsibility of humanitarian organizations. Humanitarian organization do have to address their own colonial legacy. But we should not forget that other colonial legacy that Hannah Arendt called apathy.[8] Consumed by an individualistic way of life and the competition of all against all, the populations of the North take refuge in nihilistic politics, which makes the nothing the centre of its attention, and the everything its periphery. Indifference to the suffering of others is a colonial legacy that still kills today. Humanitarian action is under attack, not only by authoritarian regimes, but also by European border and security policies that call themselves liberal[9]. Solidarity with migrants is treated as a crime. Ports refuse the entrance of ships rescuing refugees. Humanitarian activists are being sued. The daily harassment of migrants, the closure of food aid programmes, the refusal to share Covid-vaccines and the lack of attention for the consequences of war in Ethiopia and Yemen are the new clothes of colonialism. Decolonial humanitarianism does not mean less humanitarianism. It means better humantiarianism. And more of it.  

Joël Glasman is professor of contemporary history with a focus on Africa at the University of Bayreuth. His last book, Minimal Humanity. Humanitarianism and the Quantification of Human Needs, was published with Routledge in 2020.


[1] Machikou, Nadine, Cum Patior Africa. La production politique des régimes du proche, in : Mbembe A.,
Sarr F. (ed.) Politique des temps. Imaginer les devenirs africains, Dakar, Philippe Rey/ Jimsaan, 2018, pp.183-224

[2] Elkins, Caroline. Legacy of violence: A history of the British empire. Random House, 2022.

[3] Bonnecase, Vincent, Bonnecase, La pauvreté au Sahel. Du savoir colonial à la mesure internationale, Karthala, Paris 2011.   Weitzberg, Keren, “Unaccountable Census: Colonial Enumeration and its Implications for the Somali People of Kenya.” The Journal of African History 56, no. 3 (November 2015), 409-428. Breckenridge, Keith. “Power without Knowledge: Three Nineteenth Century Colonialisms in South Africa.” Journal of Natal and Zulu History 26 (2008): 2-30.

[4] : Weitzberg, Keren, “Unaccountable Census: Colonial Enumeration and its Implications for the Somali People of Kenya.” The Journal of African History 56, no. 3 (November 2015), 409-428.

[5] Breckenridge, Keith, and S. Szreter. “14 No Will to Know: The Rise and Fall of African Civil Registration in Twentieth-Century South Africa.” Proceedings of the British Academy. Vol. 182. 2012.

[6] Mills, Charles. “White ignorance.” Race and epistemologies of ignorance 247 (2007): 26-31.

[7] Conklin, Alice L., A mission to civilize: The Republican idea of empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930, Stanford, Stanford University Press.

[8] Arendt, Hannah. “The origins of totalitarianism [1951].” New York (1973). On the concept of “white apathy” or “white indifference”, see: Forman Tyrone A., Lewis Amanda E.. 2006. “Racial Apathy and Hurricane Katrina: The Social Anatomy of Prejudice in the Post-civil Rights Era.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 3(1):175–202

[9] Isabelle Defourny, Michael Neuman, ‘Forgive us for inconveniencing you by not letting them drown’, in : LeMonde, November 2022. https://www.lemonde.fr/en/opinion/article/2022/11/23/forgive-us-for-inconveniencing-you-by-not-letting-them-drown_6005267_23.html

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