AN interactive poverty bus is touring the UK. Yes, you read that correctly.

Compassion UK, a Christian charity, has created a “unique journey” into the lives of children living in poverty in the global south. Visitors can “discover” the sights, sounds and, unbelievably, the smell of inequality, by gawking at the lives of two black children; one from Ethiopia and the other from Uganda. The tagline for the exhibit is: “Experience another world without leaving yours”. This is precisely the problem.

I have no doubt that Compassion UK wanted to do something positive here – but it is utterly tone-deaf in its execution. Instead of creating a thought-provoking exhibit, they’ve resurrected a ghoulish, “family-friendly” version of a human zoo.

From the 19th right through to the 21st century, humans were exhibited like animals. Indigenous people of colour were collected as specimens by white Europeans and displayed as primitive examples of the species. The exhibits purported to be in the name of science but existed mostly for entertainment purposes.

Many exhibitions positioned black Africans like Saartjie Baartman, the derogatorily named “Hottentot Venus”, as the missing link between apes and humans. There was no real science here, just a racist ruse that primarily served to validate stereotypes and vindicate white people in their assumed superiority.

Today, we should recoil at the idea of such a nakedly racist endeavour masquerading as entertainment. And yet much of what makes The Compassion Experience so troubling is how closely this mirrors the behaviours and mindsets of old: white Europeans off for a day out to view the natives before returning to their relatively comfortable lives.

Africa has been homogenised and fetishised by the global north. It is seen as a land riven with misfortune, desperately in need of intervention and relief. The entire continent has been positioned as a project, and white folks have taken it upon themselves to nobly step in to rescue it. In sociological terms, this has a name – the white saviour complex.

If you need an image to solidify the concept, may I offer you Band Aid. I’m sure you can picture the choir of mostly white people singing condescending and explicitly racist lyrics about their “idea” of Africa, purportedly to end famine. The whole self-congratulating exercise is as cringeworthy as it is repellent. The idea that you can – and should – sing people out of poverty or ebola is just so ... well, white.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, we’ve grown up on a single story of the continent. We’ve glutted ourselves on an appealing myth, one that perpetuates structural racism and dehumanises African people.

Continuing to view Africa through such a warped lens fosters a “but for the civilising influence of us” mentality.

The Compassion Experience is so replete with white saviourism it’s practically glowing. This is clearly supposed to be a humanitarian provocation, and yet it replicates and amplifies the same power dynamics present during colonial rule. In this paradigm, people of colour are positioned as needing white western intervention to succeed. This reinforces the implicit notion that we know better, that our ideas are more valuable, and that people in poverty in the global south are beholden to us for our beneficence. This does not contribute to a world where we consider everyone as equals.

Exhibits like this whitewash the reasons for global inequality. Allowing the Smiths from Milton Keynes the opportunity to step into an ersatz shack without getting their feet dusty does not confront the ugly truth of the situation: that many of the economic and political issues experienced on the continent today are the result of colonialism, past and present. Despite half a century of independence, the legacy continues to assert itself today. State-nations with arbitrary boundaries drawn up by western powers in the scramble for Africa divided ethnic groups across state lines, laying the foundations for continuing conflict.

Loans and policies implemented by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have impeded the growth of African economies, creating conditions more inclined towards US trade and investment than the development of the nations. Crippling debt, enduring poverty

and political instability are no accident – they are strategies that serve the interests of the global north-west. They are the conditions most favourable for access to markets, trade, and resources. This maintains a structure of them and us: their penury makes us richer.

Aid from western governments has continued the paternalism of the pre-independence era. The conditions of structural adjustment programmes have undermined internal economies, leaving countries with foreign debt they have no hope of repaying, all while foreign companies have easy access to exploit their natural resources. Debt begets debt, trapping countries in an endless cycle of financial enslavement.

And so the western organisations swoop in to act as deliverer, and power dynamic persists, eliding over the truth: that humanitarianism is not just a goodwill enterprise. It exists entirely because of the brutality of colonial rule, and insists upon the neoliberal route as the only viable way out of poverty.

If you want to understand global inequality, you are not going to find the answers by touching the textbooks of an African child exhibit in a pop-up exhibition.

This can only come from decolonising our perception of Africa. We all must take an unflinching look at the past and our country’s role in the problems we’re so keen to fix.