How Lithuanian celebrities set off to 'save Africa'

While Western donors are slowly unlearning the white savior complex, some Lithuanian celebrities are enthusiastically embracing it.

Daiva Repeckaite
Daiva Repeckaite NewsMavens, Lithuania
How Lithuanian celebrities set off to 'save Africa' - NewsMavens
African child. Pixabay

Why this story matters:

Lithuanian celebrities' 'white saviour' accounts from a trip to Ethiopia has jeopardized the cooperation between their host, Unicef Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian government.

In a document seen by NewsMavens on Tuesday, Unicef Ethiopia was asked by Ethiopian officials to explain themselves and pledge to review, from now on, the images that their partners from richer countries circulate in the media, as stereotypical narratives of poverty and helplessness flooded celebrity news sections in Lithuania.

Sob stories by the three Lithuanian celebrities made it look as if there was some secret 'white saviour's' textbook, which the participants dutifully copied to spread the message that 'saving' children is quite cheap -- a few euros donation is all it takes.

The year 2015 was dedicated to development cooperation across the EU. Among the many statements repeated multiple times throughout the year was the reminder that EU countries that joined in 2004 and later have become rich enough to be international donors. Still lagging behind their commitments to dedicate a certain percentage (0,33% by 2030) of their gross national income to international aid, these countries are adapting to their new responsibilities -- from recipients of aid to donors. The year offered plenty of opportunities for Lithuanian NGOs to discuss how and where to provide aid, and for Lithuanian journalists to benefit from various opportunities to visit poorer countries and search for underreported stories. When Lithuanian celebrities took up the task to promote international aid to various countries, it could have sounded like a welcome development in this context. Who else can convince ordinary citizens of the importance of helping others better than celebrities, such as singers and Instagram influencers?

However, this year's Unicef Lithuania's mission to Ethiopia was in the headlines for many wrong reasons.

A singer, a priest and an Instagram influencer are in the centre of attention, with their feelings making headlines and cover stories. They are surrounded by a crowd of unnamed children, and they write about them the way various self-appointed 'white saviours' have for decades. Nothing is new in the business of 'saving Africa' -- it is only surprising that someone still finds this narrative convincing.

Details from the story:

  • Unicef Lithuania sent singer Jazzu, Instagram star Karolina Meschino and Catholic priest Ričardas Doveika to Ethiopia for nine days to observe the implementation of Unicef's projects and, in the words of the project team, to see how "representatives of Unicef save children's lives and, most importantly, to inspire every citizen of Lithuania to save a child's life by becoming a permanent donor to Unicef."
  • Ethiopia rarely makes the news in Lithuania -- the newsworthiness of its political and social challenges is ranked much lower than, for example, the time when one of the participating influencers, who became famous instagramming herself, 'discovered' that there is inequality in the world.
  • The ambition to 'save Ethiopian children' by donating a few euros has been criticized by Lithuanian experts on development aid, as well as a prominent businesswoman of Ethiopian origin, Eskedar Maštavičienė. Unicef Lithuania responded that the campaign presents the true reality of the location, and emotional messages aim to inspire to donate.
  • The images generated campaign after campaign are so similar that a media partner chose to illustrate this year's mission to Ethiopia with last year's photo in Malawi. Such imagery is criticised internationally in satirical initiatives like Barbie Savior or this video.
  • International experts call for a dignified depiction of children in vulnerable situations and for ditching the passive representation of children as helpless victims, waiting to be saved. Child Rights International Network (CRIN) made a decision to stop using images of children altogether in 2014.
  • According to the Guardian, a fifth of development aid never leaves donor countries. CONCORD, an NGO platform, also criticizes EU governments for inflating development aid figures.

Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

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NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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