3. The European Superiority Complex

Global Inequality and “Development”


Reflection 7

Before you begin the section “Global Inequality and Development” consider:

  • What does development mean to you? What about sustainable development?
  • What do you think are the causes of global inequality today?

Note: to access your reflection journal please review the introduction section of the European Superiority Complex module.


To refresh your memory, listen to the audio clip or read the transcript below from Video 3: The European Superiority Complex.

“One of the ways the Western world affirms its superiority is through humanitarian and international development work. Many who commit to ending global poverty and inequality do so from a presumed place of innocence and superiority. Essentially, they are saying ‘I have not created your problems, but I am benevolently here to help you solve them with my good will, knowledge and expertise.’ Definitions of ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ are inherited from ideas of human progress and modernity. Some countries (and the people that live there) are ‘developed’ and more modern, while others are underdeveloped and lagging behind.”

Survival International created a short satirical video about sustainable development (2 minutes). Check it out below. Is this what you think of when you think of the term sustainable?


The international development industry presents another paradox of society today. The problems that this sector is trying to address are in fact created by the same countries and people claiming to do the “helping”. Those who are in a position to offer help globally are typically the ones that benefit from what creates poverty and inequality in the first place, an accumulation-based culture and the global capitalist system. The symptoms of poverty and inequality are the focus rather than the much more complex systemic causes.

The idea of progress and development as defined by Western thought does not serve to actually address human suffering and inequality. Rather, it contributes to the narrative and single story of European supremacy, sustaining the underlying beliefs used to justify ongoing colonial and capitalist violence. As is the case with meritocracy, it deflects the blame from those creating global inequality, those who are accumulating and hoarding wealth through violence and appropriation, and instead places the blame on those who are unable to “get out” of their circumstance: the world’s poor. When yet again, we must name the fact that the very existence of a global working class is what sustains our capitalist system and the world’s wealthy elite.

There are many different ways of describing the relationships between rich and poor countries around the world, the most recent of which try to take into account global power dynamics, such as Global North and Global South. While we won’t go into an exhaustive list here, terms such as developed, developing, less developed and underdeveloped, remain some of the starkest examples that uphold European supremacist thinking.

These terms are based on the idea that there are certain countries that are considered “developed”, more advanced, civilized, progressive. While there are others lagging behind who are trying to catch up. Poverty, failed states, economic stagnation, and joblessness are all seen as the fault of the “poor” countries themselves. As mentioned above, this framing deflects away from the systemic causes. And not only this, it also hides the fact that “poor” countries are actually the ones financing the “development” of rich countries to begin with.


To refresh your memory, let’s listen to another audio clip or read the transcript below from Video 3: The European Superiority Complex.

“There is much evidence demonstrating that it is not rich countries that support the development of poor ones, but actually the other way around. As Machado de Oliveira describes, ‘Most of the wealth of countries in the global north comes from and is sustained by historical and systemic processes of exploitation, resource extraction, land-grabbing, unfair trade, enforced debt, and tied aid.’ Rich countries and people tend to present themselves as altruistic helpers. When, in fact, the food, clothes, health systems, social security and technologies enjoyed by rich people are subsidized by the exploitation of poor people, lands and non-human life.”

Let’s explore below some of the statistics behind global inequality and ideas of “development”. Check out theRules.org’s video below on global wealth inequality (3 minutes).

David Jefferess is a Canadian scholar whose work centres on the intersections between saviourism (which we will explore in the next section) and the development and aid industries. In a 2021 article titled “On saviours and saviourism: lessons from the #WEscandal Jefferess outlined the following:

“In 2012 the people/nations of the global North ‘gave’ more than $126 billion in development aid to ‘poor countries,’ but more than $3.3 trillion left these states through debt repayments, the profits of multinational corporations, and illicit capital flight, much of that a result of an unjust international system of trade. It is this structure that produces ‘need,’ yet saviourism overwrites this real relation, a ‘complex’ of government, schooling, and NGOs propagating the story that the North gives to the South rather than takes” (p.424-425). 

There is plenty of information and research available that quantitatively demonstrates how the global south in fact sustains and subsidizes the wealth of the global north. Yet powerful dominant narratives of Western European supremacy (including its former settler colonies such as Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand) continue to claim benevolence and good intentions. Why and how are many of those in low-intensity struggle in the global north able to deny and ignore this truth?

To consider further, take a look at the video “Who Profits From Poverty?” with Ananya Roy below.

Check Your Understanding

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Global Justice and Change Copyright © 2022 by Nisha Toomey and Emma Wright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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