White savior complex and volunteerism

By Margaret Johnson

If someone has been to Africa on a mission trip servicing an under-developed area, it’s almost guaranteed that he or she has posted a picture on social media with a smiling, nearly emaciated African child, or shared their immersion in the culture by donning traditional garment, eating local food, engaging in community activities, exploring the exotic wildlife, etc.

What these pictures don’t show is not only the poverty and institutional instability that has been cropped out of the picture, but also the harmful effects of volunteerism in foreign countries.

Short-term volunteer projects in impoverished countries are often more detrimental than they are productive, despite the intentions of the volunteer, which intentions may also be detrimental in their own way.

When volunteers go to a poverty-stricken country in Africa, they often don’t have the skill set necessary to be helpful to the community. They lack the training and experience that is required to positively contribute to the society.

Volunteers aren’t professional engineers, doctors, teachers or carpenters; they are typically white college students who pay thousands of dollars to build infrastructure that they are unqualified to build or share information they are unqualified to teach.

My experience in the field of construction is practically nothing. I would be completely useless assisting a construction project, for instance; my capacity for carpentry doesn’t amount to anything past using a hammer and a nail.

If community work projects are being implemented, it is much more beneficial to the local economy if local people are hired to do the work rather than have a selection of college students, who barely know how to use a hammer, attempt to build infrastructure.

Additionally, local institutions waste time and money trying to upgrade facilities for the volunteers as well as looking after the volunteers—time and money that should be spent on local issues.

In regard to children, the emotional attachment depicted on social media between volunteers and children is very much genuine. The relationship formed by volunteers and young children often results in further trauma to the child when the volunteer leaves—especially considering that many of the children have already been orphaned or abandoned by their parents.

The disappearance of yet another adult to whom they have become emotionally attached causes only more harm and pain to the children. Children in these impoverished communities who come from unstable or broken families latch onto volunteers as maternal or paternal figures that are soon absent from their lives. When these volunteers leave, the children are once again left with feelings of abandonment that contribute to psychological trauma.

Even if the children are with parents, it is inappropriate to care for children that are not your own. How socially acceptable would it be in America if foreigners came into our homeland and starting caring for, cuddling and taking pictures with our children? The same respect needs to be given to all communities, regardless of their economic and political standing.

But there is perhaps a larger detriment to communities filled with volunteerism, and that regards the intentions of the volunteers themselves.

Deciding to volunteer in an impoverished country by following the logic of hoping to learn a greater life lesson along the narrative of “being grateful for what you have” services your own privilege instead of challenging it.

The experience of travelling to an under-privileged country is a promotion of your own privilege. That privilege which you have is magnified by the lack of privilege by those in the community.

If that experience is not used to question that privilege, but used rather to relish in it, the experience becomes about self-fulfillment rather than fulfilling the needs of the community. This ideology behind volunteering further neglects the community.

A volunteer can further neglect those communities by misrepresenting them. By posting pictures of smiling children or locals enjoying traditional customs, social media followers see that people are still happy despite brutal conditions. It is possible that this conveys the message that nothing much has to be changed.

By romanticizing poverty, the situation looks easier to fix. Simple solutions are then generated—build a library, grow a garden, buy mosquito nets—but none of these contribute to solutions for the institutional causes of such poor conditions.

Even more dangerous is the ideology of the community being in “need” of volunteerism. Going on a mission trip doesn’t make you a hero. Your presence in an underdeveloped country is not a godsend.

This notion of the “white savior” complex devalues and subordinates a culture that is in its current situation because of that same white superiority complex, i.e. colonialism. By assuming that another culture needs the presence of volunteers’ culture, those volunteers magnify their own white privilege rather than deconstruct it.

Aside from magnifying their own privilege, the attempt to instruct another culture on which values it should have or what type of institutions it should invest in is offensive and counterproductive to a cause which is working towards advancing the rights of the underprivileged. Entering another culture with the intention of showing them your customs as an attempt to fix their own customs simply spreads Western ideals. This is essentially a method of colonialism. By doing this, the cultures of native communities are disregarded and forcibly removed. This hinders the community’s autonomy, as well as its cultural and social development.

Volunteerism, in the sense of international aid, ignores the institutional and geo-political problems that lie underneath the poverty—especially when volunteerism is filtered through the lens of smiling young African children on Instagram.

Volunteerism is the equivalent of putting a band-aid with worn down adhesive on a wound that requires the help of a medical professional. Rather than import volunteers to build insufficient infrastructure or teach programs that they are unqualified to teach, countries need to use international aid as a means of empowering natives at a local level to build and teach themselves, and do so while being culturally sensitive.