When two young women teamed up to highlight racism in the development sector, and call out the celebrities and aid workers who pushed 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, began No White Saviors (NWS) in 2018 and its social media presence grew quickly, attracting a black and white liberal audience. It rose to prominence on the back of several high-profile campaigns.
But earlier this year, NWS publicly imploded amid accusations of the very thing it was designed to tackle – white saviourism and privilege. Nielsen was accused of using her white privilege to control the organisation and of abusing black Ugandan staff. Allegations surfaced of bar brawls.
Now Nielsen, who has since resigned from the organisation she helped to start, has told the Guardian that she acknowledges she behaved in a hypocritical way.
In Uganda, mainstream public conversations about white saviourism began 10 years ago after Kony2012, a student-made film, was launched by the US non-profit group Invisible Children to back a campaign to bring warlord Joseph Kony to justice. The short film sparked a wave of criticism in the country and beyond for its simplistic and outdated account of a complex conflict in highlighting the Lord’s Resistance Army’s abduction of children for use as soldiers.
Ugandan author Rosebell Kagumire said the campaign ignored local efforts to handle the conflict and played into harmful narratives of African helplessness.
No White Saviors 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 said she was “content” with the image).
No White Saviors helped uncover the story of Renée Bach, an American evangelical Christian with no medical training who was accused of practising medicine on children at a centre where at least 100 children died. The organisation also called out Bernhard ‘Bery’ Glaser, a German accused of sexually abusing underage Ugandan girls, who died before the end of his trial.
Nielsen – a self-styled “white saviour in recovery” – supported the organisation by infiltrating white spaces and gaining better reception for its work among white audiences.
“I think that they wouldn’t have done some of the things they did if they did not have Kelsey on board, or go 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 protected better than black faces when calling whiteness to account.”
The cracks in NWS had begun to show in 2020 when a global racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd in the US prompted difficult conversations on race and the role of allies. Some of the campaign’s followers began to question Nielsen’s front-seat role in the organisation.
Mwesigire says Nielsen co-opted important campaigns. “At some 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 some way, the NWS approach was to separate the good whites from the bad whites, so it still centred on whiteness.”
Alaso told the Guardian that black team leaders were often sidelined by third parties in favour of an outspoken Nielsen, which she believes was partly because of her white privilege. Alaso says that Nielsen’s central role in the organisation became more problematic as the organisation broadened its focus into black liberation and pan-Africanism. According to some employees, Nielsen began to distance herself from her background and would compare herself to black revolutionaries such as Assata Shakur. “Kelsey considered herself as the most radical person in the organisation for black liberation,” says Rwothomio Kabandole, an employee at NWS. “She behaved as though she knew more than African people, and appointed herself judge, juror and executioner of what it meant to be black in Africa.”
As NWS evolved from being a social media-led campaign into an organisation, many of its blindspots surfaced. Alaso says because Nielsen was American, the organisation opted to open its US-based financial accounts under her name. Nielsen also facilitated its registration as a non-profit in the US, where the organisation received most of its funding, which made it eligible for tax exemptions. As a result, Kabandole claims that Nielsen exercised exclusive control over NWS’s accounts, and effectively “held them hostage”.
“Initially, Kelsey’s presence on the team appeared to be helping us overcome legal challenges, but she abused that status and used it to her advantage,” says Alaso. She claims that late last year, she found out that Nielsen was misusing the organisation’s funds and says that when she challenged her on it, Nielsen tried to have her dismissed.
In correspondence with the Guardian, Nielsen denied all allegations of misappropriation.
As the financial scandal rocked the organisation, other allegations against Nielsen began to surface. Some employees claim that she subjected them to verbal abuse and threatened them with the sack when they refused to back her move to fire Alaso. They also claim they received periodic reminders of how fortunate they were to have a job at NWS when Uganda had high unemployment levels. They also say that she was violent towards an employee at a Kampala bar.
In a statement to the Guardian, Nielsen expressed regret over the bar assault and, without addressing specific claims, said she had acted out of white privilege during her time at the organisation. “It’s easy to talk about the harm whiteness causes when it’s naming it in others,” she says. “We become a lot more resistant and unwilling when it is recognising it in ourselves. I have been resistant to see this and that’s extremely hypocritical of me, especially considering the work I committed myself to.”
Having faced a severe backlash on social media, matters have come full circle for Nielsen. “For me, this experience has humanised individuals we’ve ‘held accountable’ on the platform,” she says, adding that the experience has made her reconsider whether public callouts were the best way to instigate change.
Alaso did not escape criticism when NWS’s problems began to surface on Twitter last month. Many of the organisation’s supporters believed she was at the helm, with Nielsen playing a supportive role.
“The NWS team and I are accountable to our community and will stay transparent and open to questions and ongoing concerns,” she said on 3 June.
After a tumultuous year, the organisation is now restructuring into a fully black, African-led NGO that Alaso says will continue to call out white saviourism.
Even with the changes, Mwesigire is sceptical of the organisation and its work, saying that a better way to fight the white saviour complex is to support informal “non-structured” community efforts.
“On a day-to-day basis, ordinary [Ugandans] are saving themselves. The reason they are not supported is because they are not seen as stakeholders,” says Mwesigire. “The only way to end white saviourism is to stop centring whiteness.”
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