What if I told you that there was a country on earth where one in five kids goes hungry? Where one in four women is sexually assaulted, but few incidents are reported due to mistrust of the biased legal system? Where a radical right wing has a stronghold on the political system, allowing for barbaric racist, homophobic, classist, and anti-women policies? Where law enforcement is poorly trained and frequently commits acts of severe violence against its citizens? Where women are criminally prosecuted for abortions and miscarriages? Where the government is entirely corrupt, controlled by a few rich individuals? Where rapists can sue for custody of their biological children that resulted from rape?
What if I told you that this country exists as a major world power? What if I told you that this country is the United States of America?
All of what I previously mentioned is entirely true of (at least some parts of) the United States. Meanwhile, thousands of U.S. citizens are constantly travelling to non-Western countries (so-called “third world” countries) in an attempt to “save” people of color from themselves.
The issue is not that Western folks want to help out people who are disadvantaged. The issue is that they rarely take into account what the people of these regions actually want when planning these trips. Usually, the dynamic is of a Westerner who barges into a non-Western country and “helps” the native people by doing whatever he or she pleases, be that building schools, protesting governments, or setting up medical clinics. Sometimes, a specific community may be far more in need of, say, a bridge than a new school. But these service trips are too often dead-set on bringing a new school, regardless of what the locals think.
This utter disregard of native people combined with the intent of helping them sounds very familiar: the Crusades, the “exploration” of the Americas, manifest destiny, European imperialism of Africa and Asia… We’ve been through this before. While this neo-imperialism may not be quite as harmful as colonialism has been in the past, it is still problematic, not to mention deeply troubling.
It is also incredibly demeaning. Westerners are essentially saying that they “know better” than local people, that they “know what’s best for them.” Kinda insulting, huh? And that’s in the context of what I wrote earlier: Western countries (specifically the United States) aren’t perfect either. We don’t have the greatest social justice records for people who are determined to tell non-Westerners what to do to improve their countries.
We also take for granted that we have the skills to help them. Personally, I have had no trouble finding opportunities for ordinary high school students to take service trips to places like India and Mexico. Now, I think it goes without saying that the majority of Western high schoolers have very little to offer people who are struggling geographically, politically, or otherwise. I certainly don’t. There are plenty of people who could really help these people (with problems that they recognize need fixing): carpenters, teachers, doctors, etc. But that’s not every Westerner, despite what your local church wants you to believe. It’s just not necessary or helpful for any random person to go in and “help” struggling communities.
In fact, it is probably far more helpful for these Western “saviors” to instead simply donate the money they would have spent on their trip to the community in question. If said community is really so in need of help, think about how it looks to them: some unskilled Westerner is paying thousands of dollars in airfare to travel to an extremely impoverished village that could probably feed their citizens for a month with that kind of money. If you truly wanted to help, why wouldn’t you give them the means to help themselves with what they feel is most important for their community to have?
This brings me to the heart of the matter: most people don’t actually care about the people they claim to be helping. People want to feel like a savior, and they want a Facebook profile picture with African children to prove it. (This has often been termed the “white savior complex,” a term that is actually rather inadequate, simply because it applies to all Westerners, including people of color. Hence, one term I’ve seen: the “brownish-white savior complex.” However, the most accurate is really the Western savior complex.) Westerners want to think that they can single-handedly change the world, one “starving African child” or “oppressed Muslim woman” at a time. Everyone wants to be a hero, and it seems that invading a non-Western country, as part of a mission trip for your local church, is the easiest way to go.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for helping people. If an African village expresses need for a new school, and you happen to be a skilled carpenter, then by all means – please – go. But if you aren’t particularly skilled in something that would help the local community, then – please – be honest about why you want to do a service trip. Odds are, you just want to feel like a hero and maybe do some ethnographic voyeurism along the way. That’s not a good reason. Think especially hard about the position of power you are in as a Westerner and the history of imperialism and colonialism by Western countries (and yes, people of color in Western countries also have Western privilege). You may mean well, and you may even be a good person, but maybe just consider donating the money you would have spent on that plane ticket to the community in question, so they can help themselves instead.
Sophia Cunningham is a vegan feminist from Orange County. She is interested in studying politics and sociology, and she spends her free time reading, writing, and singing. She hopes to educate others about social issues and the importance of activism in everyday life