Annual NGO Ranking Shows “White Savior” Status Quo Remains Intact

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Teju Cole wrote that a white savior is someone who “supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”

Global_Geneva recently released its third annual top NGO ranking, and unfortunately, it’s more of the same. In 2013, I reviewed the board profiles of the previous, focusing on their gender balance and diversity, and links to the tobacco, weapons, and finance industries. The findings were troubling. Many of the listed NGOs were not adequately diverse or representative, and over half had links to the above industries.

This year’s ranking reveals similarly disturbing trends. Though 78 percent of the activities of the NGOs listed take place in the majority world, the ranking remains skewed towards NGOs headquartered in the West (64 percent). This once again sends signals about who has value and expertise, and reinforces the fallacy that citizens of Western countries are best equipped to change the world.


Diversity continues to lag. Women and men of European origin are still over-represented in leadership positions (over 60 percent overall and by gender). The representation of women is still relatively low (40 percent, of whom 63 percent are of European origin). More disturbing, however, is the lack of ethnic diversity.


CEO Activity

The statistics on Africa and Africans (including the diaspora) are once again particularly disconcerting. Only five percent (26) of the 500 NGOs listed have their headquarters in Africa, yet 33 percent of activity takes place in that region. Of those 26, only seven are in the top 100 and most (9) are found in the last tier (401-500).

Only four percent of CEOs are of African descent. People of African descent are the only group in which there are fewer male than female CEOs. This implies an institutional bias against black men.

In the regional rankings, only 25 NGOs have been selected for the top African ranking compared to 100 each in Europe, North America and Asia/Australasia. Moreover, of the 25, eight are outside the African continent—two in Bahrain, three in Israel, three in Jordan.

Many NGOs continue to display stereotypical and patronizing images and videos that portray Africans in particular as poor and needy victims devoid of agency:

Africa collage

In addition, a large proportion of the “top” NGOs continue to appoint leaders who are not representative of the communities and groups they claim to serve, and retain links to corporate interests that appear to be inconsistent with their mandate or public identity.

As with the previous ranking, a number have board members as well as funders with links to the tobacco, finance and weapons industries. Some, such as Room to Read, for instance, pride themselves in such links: “Our leadership team is comprised of veterans of such venerable corporations as Goldman Sachs…”. Others are partnered with corporations that have been accused of human rights and environmental violations: for example, Akshaya Patra with Monsanto to provide food for children, Care with Cargill to combat poverty, Vital Voices with Walmart to increase economic opportunities for women, Injaz-al-Arab with ExxonMobil to mentor Arab youth. The International Crisis Group receives support from corporate members of its International Advisory Council, including Shell and Chevron.

Some also have affiliations with individuals whose political or professional record is arguably inconsistent with the mandates of the NGOs they serve; examples include the International Rescue Committee (Henry A. Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright, Overseers), the International Crisis Group and ONE Campaign (Lawrence Summers, Board member), and Operation Blessing (M. G. “Pat” Robertson, Board member).

The rather broad failure of many of the listed NGOs to have representative leaderships is reflected in some of their publicity statements and attitudes. Some exhibit slogans that offer absurdly simplistic solutions (“You can cure starvation”—Concern Worldwide; “Change the World in 4 clicks”—Ufeed). Others display hubristic attitudes (S.O.U.L. Foundation says that its president represents “a new generation of young American activists who are quickly growing into a group of enthusiastic non-profit entrepreneurs and leaders who are choosing a piece of the world and changing it”; GreenHouse’s ambition is “trying to save the world by developing new models of social change to better people’s lives”). FAME World even adopts a disturbingly traditional missionary approach: It takes “Christ to the unreached and underserved” but provides no assistance to non-Christian organizations.

We are all incoherent. Recognizing this, where is the line between incoherence and deceit?

As individuals, we can easily deceive ourselves into believing that we do not perpetuate global inequities and discriminatory attitudes we claim to oppose. Organizations are no different. When NGOs are challenged to meet standards of integrity and fail to do so, they start to fit Teju Cole’s definition of white saviors.

International aid and advocacy is a multibillion-dollar industry and the corporate structures of the largest NGOs increasingly resemble those of large businesses. At the same time, NGO appeals for public support and public money rely heavily and distinctively on their claim to moral authority. Given this, it is entirely reasonable to expect NGOs to demonstrate their institutional integrity, including accountability to those they claim to serve. Unfortunately, Global_Geneva takes neither of these criteria into account. By choosing to rank so many NGOs in the manner it does, Global_Geneva and those who support it reinforce paternalist models of decision-making and governance that should be challenged rather than lauded.

This article was originally published on the website Africa Is A Country and is reprinted with permission.


  • kebo drew

    This is knowledge that people of color around the world have long proclaimed as truth, yet very few will listen to us. Ella Baker, when mentoring SNCC, advocated for a leader-full movement, not one made of heroes, saints and saviors.

    That model is about charity, never change.

    The most ethical course for NGOs is to be led by, for and about the communities that they serve (of course it is good to have a few accomplices – as opposed to “allies” – in the journey toward justice), in progressive ways that promote the agency, voices and visions of those communities. It ensures that decisions that are made serve the community as a whole for the community.

    Of course, the savior mentality also shows up when we look at social issues through a single issue/identity lens, as opposed to the intersectional lens that most women of color around the world call for, it leads to LGBTQ organizations like HRC (Human Rights Campaign) accepting funding by drone manufacturers, or major Civil Rights organizations supporting media giants like Comcast. It also means that organizations that oppose big oil and/or support communities of color in locations where big oil operates, end up accepting funding from oil service companies like Bechtel (which is known for its unethical contracting policies in terms of shutting out people of color, its security/war contracts in the Middle East/North Africa regions, and many, many other forms of malfeasance). Or some churches stumping for big oil and financial institutions like Wells Fargo, after putting most of its membership out of their homes with subprime mortgages.

    This is also reflected in funding policy, when organizations that are led by, for and about a community receive a percentage (usually less than 5%, but often closer to 1%) of a percentage, of a percentage, when looking at low-income, disabled, youth, elders, women, people of color, LGBTQ, arts, and of course all of these categories mutually exclusive, so if an organization serves youth and elder LGBTQ people of color through the arts, while prioritizing low-income disabled women, the percentage of funding available is laughable.

    All of this means that organizations with any kind of ethics or moral authority, progressive beliefs, and an intersectional analysis, tend to end up at the bottom of the pile. But that just means that our success, when we achieve it, will be concrete and will lead to lasting change and justice.

  • Darcy

    I would like access to a list of ethical standardS so those of us just starting out have something to adhere to. It’s not enough just to say “involve the community” or “create new images”. There needs to be standards anyone can follow.