Voluntourism's saviour complex

Image credit: Thomas Wanhoff

“When I first walked through the gates of the orphanage, a flood of children ran to me – I stepped forward, my feet cascaded in the red dirt, my arms open wide. I have never felt more loved or needed as I did in that moment. This... this is where God wanted me…These precious little ones, who laugh in the face of much trial, who choose joy despite their circumstances, inspire me – and should inspire us all,” Saviour Barbie’s instagram account exclaims. In the post, Saviour Barbie bends down to embrace a small brown child, outside a ramshackle old building in the desert. Created by two white volunteers, Saviour Barbie is a satirical Instagram account which mimics white ‘gap yah’s’ quest to find spiritual fulfilment by taking poignant pictures with “saved” poor children.

The end of summer. A change in scenery, change in season and most importantly, the change of profile pictures. Lets examine the features of the most fashionable profile picture of 2016: a beaming white person (wearing suitably colourful ethnic clothes) surrounded by a crowd of small brown children in *insert developing country*. The volunteer is tenderly hugging one of them. The caption: “These smiling children have nothing yet they’re so happy *praying emoji*”. The volunteer is the centre of attention. They are adored by these children. And yet, almost certainly, the volunteer (the hero, the God, the modern Mother Theresa) would not be able to tell you the name of a single one of them.

Here we have it: voluntourism. Defined normally as a form of tourism in which travellers participate in voluntary work in schools, orphanages and at similar projects. Although seemingly admirable, the concept of voluntourism is narcissistic in a self-satisfied way; it is coloured by a White Saviour Complex. Idealistic and privileged Westerners aim to find “spiritual fulfilment” in order to become a “better person” and “find themselves”. Instead of discovering the hardships of people of colour, voluntourism enables white people to discover themselves. Brown bodies are used as mere props for wealthy teenagers to get as many Facebook likes as possible – it is a near impossible feat to volunteer without instagramming pictures of yourself “giving back”.

Disregarding the tastelessness of the voluntourism trend, there are other unavoidable problems. Voluntourism is unsustainable: short-term endeavours cannot cure a structural, long term issue. Helping out in a community for a week or two will not make a discernible difference. In fact, it can do more harm than good. Voluntarily constructing houses, schools and libraries may look good on paper (that paper being your CV, naturally) but native builders, bricklayers and construction workers would have benefitted from those few weeks of potential employment. There is a great deal of unskilled labour in all countries, and native workers would be able to work at a fraction of the cost of a foreigner flying out to help.

Reverse the scenario: picture 18 years-olds, fresh out of sixth form teaching in schools in England and building houses. It seems laughable. So why in “developing countries” is it seen as commendable? Overridingly, it illustrates the imperialistic view that development cannot happen from inside the country, and is only achievable with help from the West.

If you're considering volunteering, the key questions to ask yourself are: am I qualified to do this in my home country? Would I trust myself to do this at home? Would the authorities at home allow me to do this? Your presence is not a godsend. You are not a gift to the community. You are not a hero, saving these poor brown people from a lifetime of poverty. Save your money, and your white saviour complex for another day. 

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