No White Saviors: How a campaign against the powerless African stereotype rose – and fell | Global Development


Ohen two young women teamed up to shine a light on racism in the development sector and challenge celebrities and aid workers who spread stereotypes that Africans needed saving, it was seen by many as a welcome intervention.

The two social workers, Olivia Alaso, a black Ugandan and Kelsey Nielsen, a white American, started No White Saviors (NWS) in 2018 and its social media presence grew rapidly, attracting a liberal black and white audience. It rose to prominence following several high-profile campaigns.

But earlier this year, NWS publicly imploded amid accusations of the very thing it was meant to tackle – saviorism and white privilege. Nielsen was accused of using her white privilege to control the organization and of abusing black Ugandan staff. Allegations of bar fights have surfaced.

Now Nielsen, who has since quit the organization she helped start, has told the Guardian she admits to behaving hypocritically.

In Uganda, public conversations about white saviorism began 10 years ago after Kony2012, a student-made film, was launched by US non-profit group Invisible Children to support a campaign to translate the lord of war Joseph Kony in court. The short film sparked a wave of criticism in the country and beyond for its simplistic and outdated account of a complex conflict highlighting the abduction of children by the Lord’s Resistance Army for use as soldiers.

A photo from Kony2012, launched by the non-profit organization Invisible Children which demanded the removal of Ugandan guerrilla leader Joseph Rao Kony. Photography: invisible children inc

Ugandan author Rosebell Kagumire said the campaign ignored local efforts to manage the conflict and played into harmful narratives of African powerlessness.

No White Saviors have challenged the use of black children as props in charity campaigns, attacking, among others, British media personality Stacey Dooley, in 2019, for her photo taken with a Ugandan child (at the time Dooley had said she was “contained” with the image).

No white saviors helped uncover the story of Renee Bach, an American evangelical Christian with no medical training who was accused of practicing medicine on children at a facility where at least 100 children died. The organization also arrested Bernhard ‘Bery’ Glaser, a German accused of sexually abusing Ugandan minors, who died before the end of his trial.

Nielsen – a so-called “recovering white savior” – supported the organization by infiltrating white spaces and gaining better reception for his work among white audiences.

“I think they wouldn’t have done some of the things they did if they hadn’t had Kelsey on board, or stood up against some of the people they targeted in their campaigns,” says Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire, a Ugandan activist and African studies. researcher at Cornell University. “White faces are better protected than black faces when whiteness is in question.”

Cracks in the NWS had begun to show in 2020 when a global race toll after the murder of George Floyd in the United States sparked difficult conversations about race and the role of allies. Some of the campaign’s supporters began to question Nielsen’s prominent role in the organization.

Mwesigire says Nielsen co-opted major campaigns. “At one point, the story of Renée Bach harming Ugandan children became a personal conflict between Renée and Kelsey – an intra-white affair where we [Ugandans] were just props,” he says. “In a way, the NWS approach was to separate the good whites from the bad whites, so it was always centered on whiteness.”

Far-right Renée Bach has been accused of practicing medicine on children without medical training.
Far-right Renée Bach has been accused of practicing medicine on children without medical training. Photography: handout

Alaso told the Guardian that black team leaders were often sidelined by third parties in favor of an outspoken Nielsen, which she said was partly because of her white privilege. Alaso says Nielsen’s central role in the organization became more problematic as the organization expanded its focus on black liberation and Pan-Africanism. According to some employees, Nielsen began to distance himself from his background and would compare himself to black revolutionaries like Assata Shakur. “Kelsey considered himself the most radical person in the organization for black liberation,” says Rwothomio Kabandole, an NWS employee. “She behaved as if she knew more than Africans and appointed herself judge, jury and executioner of what it meant to be black in Africa.”

As NWS has evolved from a social media campaign to an organization, many of its blind spots have emerged. Alaso says that because Nielsen was American, the organization chose to open its US-based financial accounts under her name. Nielsen also facilitated its registration as a nonprofit in the United States, where the organization received most of its funding, making it eligible for tax exemptions. As a result, Kabandole claims that Nielsen exercised sole control over the NWS accounts and “effectively held them hostage.”

“Initially, Kelsey’s presence on the team seemed to help us overcome legal challenges, but she abused that status and used it to her advantage,” Alaso says. She claims that late last year she discovered that Nielsen was misusing the organization’s funds and says that when she challenged her about it, Nielsen tried to have her fired.

In correspondence with the Guardian, Nielsen denied all allegations of embezzlement.

As the financial scandal rocked the organization, other allegations against Nielsen began to surface. Some employees claim she insulted them and threatened them with firing when they refused to support her decision to fire Alaso. They also say they received periodic reminders of how lucky they were to have a job in the NWS when Uganda had high unemployment rates. They also say she was violent towards a bar worker in Kampala.

In a statement to The Guardian, Nielsen expressed regret for the attack on the bar and, without responding to specific allegations, said she acted out of white privilege while at the organization. “It’s easy to talk about whiteness damage when it comes to naming it in others,” she says. “We become much more resistant and reluctant when he recognizes it in ourselves. I resisted seeing this and it is extremely hypocritical of me, especially considering the work I have engaged in.

After facing a backlash on social media, things came full circle for Nielsen. “For me, that experience humanized the individuals we ‘held accountable’ on the platform,” she says, adding that the experience made her wonder if public calls were the best way to incite change.

Alaso was not immune to criticism when NWS issues began to surface on Twitter last month. Many supporters of the organization believed she was at the helm, with Nielsen playing a supporting role.

“The NWS team and I are accountable to our community and will remain transparent and open to ongoing questions and concerns,” she said on june 3rd.

After a tumultuous year, the organization is now restructuring itself into an all-black, African-led NGO that Alaso says will continue to call for white saviorism.

Even with the changes, Mwesigire is skeptical of the organization and its work, saying a better way to tackle the white savior complex is to support informal “unstructured” community efforts.

“Every day, the ordinary [Ugandans] save themselves. The reason they are not supported is that they are not considered stakeholders,” says Mwesigire. “The only way to end white saviorism is to stop centering whiteness.”

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