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Dismantling the Saviour Complex

By Chow Jo Yi


If the pandemic years were anything, it was a period where people needed help. Recessions and supply chain disruptions blanketed societies in sudden vulnerability, exposing systemic disparities and encouraging individuals to support each other where institutions had failed. In the spirit of #KitaJagaKit (literally ‘we look after one another’ in Malay), my friends and I started an organisation that sought to alleviate period poverty during the pandemic. Period poverty, defined as inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and products, is certainly not a short-term issue. After all, most of us bleed every month for many, many years, so the best solutions would be the ones that last, right?


With this mindset, our organisation chose to provide reusable pads in-place of the regular one-use pads you’d usually see in stores. In our understanding, reusable pads meant that our beneficiaries would have stable access to sanitary supplies, no longer needing to use unsafe pad alternatives like notebook papers or old rags, or so we thought. It was long after that we found out that our beneficiaries no longer used the donated reusable pads after just mere months. In our hurry, we neglected to account for the local situation of the people we were trying to help, namely that they lacked access to steady supplies of clean water to wash the pads.


Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated case of minimising other people’s problems in the altruistic world. My naivety led me down a rabbit hole of what I now know as the ‘saviour complex’, so powerful that there is a whole industry built upon it. Essentially a form of perception blindness, the complex does not stem from malicious intent, and in many ways is a natural part of the human condition (i.e. ‘we don’t know what we don’t know). While my experience isn’t at a magnitude large enough to cause real harm, the reductive way in which we can view problems faced by communities unfamiliar to us is reckless, even when our intentions and hearts are in the right place.


There can be real loss for the people whose problems we incorrectly determine are easily solvable without understanding the underlying complexities of the situation. One example that frequently comes up in the EA forums is PlayPumps, a merry-go-round pump that produced safe drinking water whenever children played on it. Flaunted as the fun solution to the third world’s water woes, it received $16.4 million in funding by the U.S. government and others in 2006. But just a year later in 2007, 25% of the pumps in Zambia alone were abandoned. It was later estimated that to produce the water that PlayPump promised, children would need to ‘play’ 27 hours a day. PlayPump’s rollout was eventually halted, with some of the original pumps replaced.


The underlying lesson here is that we need to include the communities we’re trying to help in the decision making process. During the ideation phase, there should be assessments and discussion which allows the communities to understand the utility of the technology compared to existing solutions and to provide feedback on how to better the solution. In the case of PlayPump, hand-pumps already existed in many sites chosen for the rollout, meaning that the PlayPump couldn’t add much more value than being an alternative form of pumping water and children's entertainment. This made it difficult to justify the four-fold cost required to build and install PlayPump compared to the traditional hand-pumps. Without active feedback from the community, it’s easy to fall into the trap of a top-down approach, losing sight of what our beneficiaries actually need.


Learning from failures shows that doing good (effective!) work is slow and strenuous, but the people that seem to make a real impact are the ones that put in the long-term investment, diving into their communities’ complexities and hardships with a sort of bright idealism. If you’re planning to interfere with the life of others, the bare minimum is due diligence. You need to be willing to take a sidekick role in the solution by actively listening to the advice and requests of the people closest to the core of the problem until the ‘other’ becomes real people. If you see others partaking in the saviour complex, call them out, but remember: call them back in. When banded together in the right direction, even the smallest groups of people can make a world of difference.

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