It’s worrying that the ‘White Saviour’ trope is still being peddled by the likes of The Telegraph. But as those looking to ‘do good works in faraway places’ are finding more and more organisations willing to indulge their voluntourism fantasies, it’s worth looking deeper at the ethical implications.
The existence of White Saviour Barbie, the Humanitarians of Tinder, or any of these brilliant aid parodies, shows that, happily, many people now recognise that any volunteering opportunity in a developing country should be cautiously analysed, thoroughly researched, and accompanied by a hefty dose of personal responsibility. Also, that it’s never okay to use a human being as a prop in your profile picture. Then an article like this one by Louise Linton comes along and sets us all back a couple of decades.
Others have already rightfully pointed out that the historical inaccuracies in this memoir are unacceptable. It seems that this writer’s passage of self-discovery would not have been nearly as readable without a few embellishments to the facts.
But my gripe lies less with Linton herself (laughably misguided as she is) than with The Telegraph for peddling such nonsense. I’m tempted just to tweet this hilarious spoof article and get back to work, but what troubles me is the implication that many people – intelligent people, like The Telegraph’s commissioning editor – still haven’t grasped just how damaging the ‘White Saviour’ trope really is. See, when you give ideas like this one such a prominent platform, it lends them credibility. Somebody might actually pick up The Telegraph and think that this sort of behaviour is okay.
For those of you who have missed the debate about darker side of voluntourism, let me explain to you why it isn’t.
1. By its nature, Voluntoursim promotes an unequal power balance between the ‘helper’ and the ‘helped’.
Organisations that offer voluntourism opportunities are selling the idea that you, privileged Westerner, can make a positive difference to this poor, less fortunate person/ community’s life. Often, voluntourists aren’t expected to analyse the relationship much beyond that.
A telling quote from Linton’s article is the bit where she writes: “Needing my own escape and hoping to continue my mother’s mission to do good works in faraway places, I’d accepted a position in Zambia. It was the most remote country on the list I was given and the one most in need.”
You see, Zambia’s history, culture and local capacity are less important than the perceived ‘exoticism’ and ‘neediness’ of this country in the eyes of voluntourist Lou. How do you think the people at the receiving end of this ‘help’ feel about this suppression of all other aspects of their identities?
2. Voluntourism is usually a transaction – and buyers want to get their money’s worth.
If you go on a package holiday and the swimming pool is dirty or the food is substandard, you’re likely to demand a refund or write a petulant comment on TripAdvisor. Organisations that sell voluntourism experiences for a fee have recognised that there’s a lucrative market in capitalising on the Westerner’s desire to ‘do good works in faraway places’ (see also, The White Man’s Burden, a poem that really shouldn’t be warranting reference any more).
But in doing so, these organisations are entering into a transaction comparable with the package holiday provider, but one with far more uncomfortable implications. What does “getting your money’s worth” entail here? An authentic insight into the neediness of this country or community? An irrefutable sense that what you’ve done has really made a difference? Those are the sorts of expectations that lead organisations to take voluntourists on grisly ‘poverty parades’ where the local people are expected to perform as obsequious beneficiaries.
On the flipside, it can mean organisations feel obliged to provide their voluntourists with a relatively luxurious experience, providing ‘Western-style’ food and accommodation. Not only is this money spent on expensive services that could otherwise be channeled into, you know, the actual work this organisation is supposed to be doing, but there’s something less than noble about the idea of bounded face-time with the people you’re allegedly helping, with their strange foreign foods and habits. I once sat by a pool in a luxury hotel in Cambodia, overhearing two gap year voluntourists, sunbathing and complaining about how much they missed chips and jacket potatoes. Tell me, what’s wrong with this picture?
3. It’s almost impossible to make a lasting impact as a voluntourist.
It’s a struggle trying to find meaningful projects for volunteers when they’re only visiting for a few weeks at a time (more of our own experiences of that later). Often, the best option is a nice and simple construction project – come over for two weeks and build a school/ church/ library, and the results speak for themselves. Everyone’s happy, right? Except even basic construction requires some level of ability (have you ever tried laying bricks in a straight line?), and did that community really want said school, church or library in the first place, which, when all is said and done, is just an empty building needing maintenence, staffing and resources? There are far too many testimonials floating about on the internet recalling trained construction workers going in after hours and re-doing the building work completed by volunteers earlier in the day.
And what about teaching? There is an absolute glut of organisations offering the chance to teach children English in underdeveloped and remote locations – the only qualification needed being that you can actually speak English. Sure, the kids get to practice their language skills with a well-wishing Westerner. But with a constant revolving door of new teachers, each with their own ideas about the ‘difference’ they want to make, and almost none possessing any formal teacher training or lesson plan guidance, what is the real impact? At best the children will learn at a far slower and less efficient pace than they would with a proper education, and at worst… well, they may be taught conflicting or unhelpful information; they may form attachments to volunteers who then abandon them; those with behavioural or learning difficulties may never receive the ongoing support they need – and so the list goes on. What development organisations need to provide is sustainability, and by definition voluntourism cannot support that.
4. Worse still, voluntoursim can often exacerbate poverty, exploitation and inequality.
More often than not, activities like construction and teaching can be very well performed by members of the local population. As we’ve just discussed, voluntourism projects often deny vocational opportunities to the local community in favour of unskilled, unsustainable voluntourists, who pay the organisation money to perpetuate the cycle.
But there’s an even darker side to this industry. When poverty or degradation is the draw-card, unscrupulous people are going to step up to supply what’s in demand. Horror stories abound of children snatched from parents to populate fake ‘orphanages’, of sham schools controlled by shady ‘businessmen’. Remember that scene in Slumdog Millionaire when the kids have their eyes burnt out to make them more pitiful beggars? I’m talking about that, but on an industrial scale. The cruel irony is that it’s always going to be the most vulnerable who are the ultimate victims in this gruesome charade.
So what to do? Explaining these risks, especially as a representative of a development organisation myself, is in itself a bit of a minefield. What I’m certainly not advocating is that all would-be volunteers stay at home and forget all about their desires to help people. It’s certainly not hopeless, and we certainly shouldn’t feel bad about wanting something more than the world of instant gratification, self-centredness, and have-it-all greed that as affluent Westerners we’re taught to pursue.
However, if you feel that nagging urge to look beyond your worldly comforts, be realistic. This is as much about you and your fulfilment as it is about whoever you might encounter on your journey. You have a responsibility to research the opportunity as much as possible. If you’re planning on taking a volunteering trip, be wary of organisations that charge a fee. Ask yourself what is the transaction here. Ask the organisation questions about the long term sustainability of their work. Look at other ways you can help to address the root causes of the problems in that context, rather than just providing a very temporary band-aid. Are there advocacy groups you could support who are effectively lobbying governments or corporations to redress the inequalities you see?
At SeeBeyondBorders, we’ve been grappling with these issues for years. In fact, SeeBeyondBorders is one of the few non-profit organisations that rarely turns away a volunteer who wants to help. But our approach has always been to invest in skills-based volunteering where it’s needed. We have a long term volunteering program, where qualified individuals with particular skill sets, such as finance, communications or project management, can come to Cambodia for six months or more and provide these ‘back office’ functions in the field, participating in project activities (like school sports days or health demonstration workshops) where they’re needed. But far from taking jobs from local people, the volunteers have mentored local staff in their particular area of expertise so that eventually all the international staff will be led by the Cambodian team.
We also run a ‘project team’ programme, which is our attempt to provide a worthy option in the voluntourism market. This is where we host groups of volunteers for a couple of weeks at a time, either qualified primary school teachers or members of staff from our corporate partner organisations. The former are invited to participate in our annual teacher workshops, where teachers from Western schools can share ideas with teachers in Cambodia.
The latter we invite to participate in – you guessed it – construction or maintenance activities. Crucially though, we implement a year round program under our Better Schools focus area, where the school staff, students, their parents, and members of the local community are able to contribute to a School Development Plan – their vision for the school and a wish list of all the improvements they’d like to see. The project team activities could involve anything from building a fence around the school, repairing a toilet block, or painting a mural, but importantly, these activities are always determined by the local community, who come out to help too – whether or not there are foreign volunteers to support.
We still ask ourselves everyday if there’s a better way to be implementing our programs, or to channel the positive energy of our supporters more effectively towards the complex reforms that are so desperately needed in Cambodia’s education system. With a growing tourism industry in Cambodia, there’s no shortage of well-wishers who could be easily persuaded to avoid the common mistakes that only perpetuate the shocking levels of inequality. We hope that by always putting first the needs and wishes of the people our organisation was set up to serve – Cambodian teachers and students – that we’re at least on the right track.
Pic 2: https://www.instagram.com/p/BDLlkaaMfQC/?taken-by=barbiesavior&hl=en
Pic 2: https://www.buzzfeed.com/genamourbarrett/how-my-dream-gap-year-in-europe-turned-into-a-nightmare?utm_term=.cbGZo3795#.maOW3r01P
Pic 3: http://theplanetd.com/images/pepy2.jpg
Pic 4: http://screenmusings.org/SlumdogMillionaire/images/Slumdog-Millionaire-0194.jpg