The Head of Communications at the Anglican mission agency Church Mission Society (CMS), Naomi Steinberg, reflects on the dangers of a colonialist approach to western reporting of global missions.
Back in February, two things happened simultaneously yet coincidentally.
The first was that we at the Church Mission Society published an article called “We Went to Learn, not to Help”. This piece tells the story of how the Winchester Diocese School of Mission took a pilot group to Byumba diocese in Rwanda in 2018 with one main objective: to learn from African Christians.
The second thing that happened was that British Member of Parliament David Lammy spoke out about the negative portrayal of Africa by charitable organisations such as Comic Relief. To quote his film for the Daily Politics series, David Lammy said African people need to be seen as "equals to be respected, not as victims to be pitied".
Obviously there was no contest as to which event garnered more of a reaction.
I wasn’t surprised at the defensiveness of some who felt a need to break out their well-worn “ends justify the means” imprinted shield to protect Comic Relief. Even when I raised the topic in a team meeting, someone defended the criticised use of white celebrities to front relief and development work “because that’s the best way to get Westerners to understand and give”.
This led to a spirited conversation about “white saviour complex” and mission communications – certainly not the first we’d ever had about the topic. And probably not the last.
We’re in a strange position at Church Mission Society. We would categorically reject colonialism, imperialism and the exploitation of Africa. We respect and admire our colleagues in CMS-Africa, believing, as Kenyan-born New Zealand CMS Director, Steve Maina, said during CMS-Africa’s 10th anniversary celebrations: “It’s Africa’s time.”
We resonate strongly with recent articles such as this one in Sojourners and this one in Quartz, perhaps feeling ahead of the curve with our Global Mission through Local Leaders initiative which supports locally-led mission across the world, including in Africa.
And yet we do still send Western mission partners to African countries. In recent years, I feel our instinct is to “send and defend”, because it’s true that African dioceses still ask for Westerners to come fill certain roles, and it’s true that CMS is increasingly shifting the balance towards focussing more on Global Mission through Local Leaders and it’s true that we still believe it’s fundamentally a great thing when people from different cultures spend time with one another and share learning and skills with each other. After all, we can’t really have “everywhere to everywhere” mission if people don’t actually go from everywhere to everywhere.
In mission communication, do we have the courage to tell stories not just of the past or present, but of the future of God’s mission? One of the things we say as we promote Global Mission through Local Leaders is that “we recognise the reality that the leading roles in the story of God’s mission are now likely to be played by non-Westerners. We are thrilled to be part of this unfolding story.”
And yet I believe we have to constantly guard against “white narrator complex”. Even when I look back at the article I mentioned above (which I wrote and felt good about at the time) I cringe a bit. I was doing my best to tell a story of African leadership, yet I still told it mostly through the eyes of westerners. Even though I cast them as learners, not saviours, I confess I unwittingly hero-ised their willingness to learn.
So I’m grateful for voices like David Lammy’s, because I think listening to them will help us go ever further along the continuum from aspirational to authentic, ditching pity for partnership.