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International Volunteering and the “White Saviour Industrial Complex”

I have been recently struck, as most young people often are, with an insatiable desire to help the world. I soon thought to capitalize on my upcoming trip to India and set out to find an organization that would allow me to help out wherever I could. Turns out it’s really not that hard. There were a seemingly infinite number of organizations for that exact purpose. However, upon scrolling through the photo galleries of these organizations, there was only an endless stream of young white women posing with underprivileged children or making nonsensical yoga poses in front of the Taj Mahal. These images are evident of a new phenomena—known as voluntourism—that has gained popularity in the Western world.

“Voluntourism” markets itself as a seamless blend between volunteering and tourism, and is estimated to bring in about $173 billion annually. The majority of these “voluntourists” are students with intentions to change the world for the better, but the reality of the situation is that they do far more harm than good in the communities they visit. Unsurprisingly, one of the most popular voluntourism hotspot is India, where foreigners often come in to teach English and math in rural villages. However, locals are feeling the consequences of such a system.

The entire system is based, first and foremost, on flawed economics. Volunteers are normally sent to foreign countries with little to no training, and expected to construct schools or teach math to kids that can’t understand English. “We were so bad at the most basic construction work,” an American volunteer recounted. “Each night, the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.” Despite good intentions, voluntourists are not trained in construction, and spend thousands of dollars for the experience of doing a job that could have been done far more effectively by the locals. Imagine the number of classrooms that could have been constructed had the volunteers donated the money to a charity instead. And worse is the fact that, since volunteer organizations tend to be for-profit, only a small fraction of the money paid is actually invested into the communities they are supposed to help.

Evidence also shows that voluntourism is not only ineffective, but harmful as well. The volunteers more often than not take jobs away from the locals, who could have instead found steady employment. There are actual people living in those communities who need the wages that a teaching or building job could have provided. The large amount of money spent by volunteers can even incentivize institutions that actively harm the community under the guise of helping. Institutions such as orphanages are often run like businesses, and are therefore encouraged by volunteers to keep operating for profit, despite the damage that they do. Author J.K. Rowling has been a huge outspoken advocate against orphanage voluntourism, often criticizing it on social media. 

The numbers are astounding; around 80% of the children in the world’s orphanages have at least one living parent, and that number jumps to 92% in Sri Lanka.

Another problematic aspect of voluntourism is that the experience of the volunteers is valued far more than the actual contributions that they make. In reality, only a small amount is spent in community development, which is in contrast to the excessive amount spent in ensuring that the volunteers have an “authentic” experience to remember. Essentially, consciously or not, volunteering abroad turns into one big, expensive photo op.


Furthermore, voluntourism also endlessly perpetuates the idea of an impoverished third world country desperately waiting for the charity of the West. Voluntourists are deluded into believing that their service directly addresses the suffering of the locals, when in reality locals are the only people that are directly disadvantaged by the Western system. The idea of the white man riding as a savior into a destitute, poverty-stricken village draws up unfortunate memories of the colonial “White Man’s Burden.” Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American novelist, describes this phenomena as the “white savior industrial complex” in a series of tweets he explains.

Issues in so-called “developing” countries cannot be simplified in a way that justifies the efforts of foreigners. When so many of the problems are deep rooted in systematic issues, any Westerner on a two-week volunteering vacation is almost completely ineffective.

Despite the numerous problems associated with voluntourism, is is still an extremely valuable system, especially in our increasingly xenophobic world. If nothing else, the experience of traveling to another country promotes greater connectedness and worldliness. However, unless a volunteer is willing to undergo a complete education on the political, economic, social, and cultural histories and situations of the places they visit, it’s probably best to just stick to normal tourism. It is essential that voluntourists realize that the people that they are trying to save are citizens with their own rights and experiences, and not just charity projects. Only then will real change happen. Sometimes the best way to help isn’t to volunteer but rather to “shut up and listen.” Do not go with the intention of helping, go with the intention of learning, and the rest will come naturally.

Photo: Kimthecoach 

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