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Volunteering abroad? Consider this: Voluntourism, the Privilege of Traveling, & the White Savior Complex

Last summer I spent a month in Peru working at a non-profit. My birthday happened about a week after I got there. As I scrolled through the text messages and Facebook posts from family and friends, something stuck out: a number of them mentioned something about “changing the world”. For example:

Teach me how to be you? All the love to you as you casually change the world.

“Happy birthday, Emmeline! I know you’re having a wonderful time in Peru, changing the world.”

“Happy birthday doll, spend it changing the world okay? ;) Find some time to celebrate too."

“Happy birthday! So excited for you and the other gals as you guys make a huge difference in Peru."

“Em! So proud of you for going out and changing the world.”

“The fact that you’re spending your 21st birthday volunteering at a non-profit in Peru blows my mind."

Before I go on, I definitely don’t write any of this to bag on my friends that wrote these. Not at all. Obviously they had nothing but good intentions and were being nice. But… too nice. Undeservingly nice. Most, if not all, of my friends had no idea what we were actually doing in Peru let alone much about the non-profit we were working for. I wish I had said something about it back then other than a mere “haha, thanks!". But this summer, I’m in the same thing, and I’ve thought a lot over the past year about what it means to “volunteer abroad.” This post is a cumulation of the articles read, thoughts journaled, and conversations had.


30 some years ago, volunteer opportunities in developing countries were only open to skilled medical professionals. Nowadays, the opportunity to “volunteer” has become a lot less exclusive and has expanded to anyone (that has the money and time to, that is). It should be noted that the industry that’s been deemed as “voluntourism” is now worth over $2 billion dollars. Of the 1.1 million international volunteers, 88% are white and 1 in 3 come from a household that makes at least double the average American income.

Voluntourism has become one of the most controversial trends within today’s travel scene, and for good reason. Why? Because volunteering abroad can often turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, a sort of “I chose hardship and survived it” scenario to make us feel and seem selfless and worldly in some way. It’s the all too familiar photos with impoverished kids, the college essays about building houses, and the pride in doing things that, truthfully, most people could do, thinking we’ve somehow changed the world. The reality, though? In most cases, it's that we don’t know what we’re doing. We haven’t taken the time to know a place or a community and more often than not, we’re coming in with our own views of how something should be, thinking our unskilled labor is somehow better than the labor of an actual member of the community. The truth is that we can’t actually contribute as much as we’d like to believe we could. In some cases, we’re even doing more harm than help — it’s gotten as bad as “orphanages” keeping children that aren’t orphans so that they can make money off all the voluntourists seeking some life-changing, transformational experience. As Mark Watson, the Executive Director of a charity focusing on ethical tourism, said, “it’s imperialistic in some ways — white people going out to Africa to help the Africans."

I’ve volunteered abroad technically three times now. I was in Peru last summer working for Laboratoria, this summer I photographed and filmed for an orphanage for a couple days, and up until a couple weeks ago, I was working at a youth center/shelter in South Africa, which I'll be going back to in September. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t days that I question my own work. Have I been contributing to the very thing I feel so strongly against? I very easily might be. Unless you’re a specialized professional with years to give, it’s inevitable to some extent. 

But this isn’t a post to discourage you from traveling and volunteering. Not at all. In fact, it’s a post to my friends that want to do some sort of volunteer work abroad. Because, at least seemingly, as long as you’re not doing more harm than good, then you should be able to — just with some precaution. It goes without saying that I’m still learning this myself, but in my mind, it breaks down like this:


1. INTENTION: Recognizing that it’s more for you than anything

    Mark Watson put it perfectly when he said, “I think it’s mostly about getting people to be realistic; you’re just doing it for yourself, it’s a holiday.” Simply put, we’re being selfish. Traveling the world is a privilege and most of the time, we’re taking more from a place than we can give for our own growth, experience, and benefit. We’re spending our own money to see and experience the world for a little bit, and that’s okay. But recognize that. Choosing to go to a developing country doesn’t suddenly make it a selfless act of service. 

    I’m going to take Laboratoria as an example here. When we went last summer, it was because they gave us the opportunity to see and witness the behind the scenes work of one of the best organizations I know. I went to see that, to be apart of it, and to learn from it — in other words, I went for myself, not because I thought I could change the entire social construct of women in tech in Peru. Of course I wanted to help and contribute as much as I could within our 4 weeks there, but more than anything, it was a growth experience for me, not them. 

    This brings me to the next point: action. Because while we like to use our goodhearted intentions as a way of justification, the truth is that’s only a fraction of what makes up the impact of what we do.


2. ACTION: Aim to contribute to long-term work. Seek the organization, not the experience.

    This is what brings about the biggest issues of voluntourism. If we’re volunteering abroad to do things that are short-term solutions and are things that can be done by community members, what’s the point? We’re providing fairly unskilled labor, something that there is already an abundance of in many developing countries. While it may be easy to go in with the mindset of “at least I’m doing something to help”, the truth is that our “help” often times does more harm than anything. Our presence with kids can add to attachment disorders, we can take work away from others in the community that need it, or we just don’t know what the heck we’re doing because we haven’t taken the time to actually know the place/actually just don’t know what we’re doing. Why spend thousands of dollars on a flight to come and build a house when you don’t have any experience building houses or teach English when you have no experience in education? So many articles have pointed to communities that have to rebuild houses that high school students on a mission trip attempted to build or show studies of classes having to reteach/prolong their curriculums because of how students are taught differently across borders.

    I read an article once that talked about how we should ask, “what do you need?” versus “where should I put this thing that I’ve decided you must want?”. This is everything — it indicates that we should listen to a community, understand their needs first, let them lead the way, then take action. Ask as many questions as possible to see what they want and need, then ask yourself what you can contribute that is maybe a little harder to access, requires a certain level of specialization in skill, and can have a long-term impact. Though this quote is about Africa, it could be said about most developing areas — “The genuine hurt of Africa is no fiction. But beyond the immediate attention that rightly pays hungry mouths, child soldiers, or raped civilians, there are more complex and more widespread problems. There are serious problems of governance, of infrastructure, of democracy, and of law and order. These problems are neither simple in themselves nor are they reducible to slogans. Such problems are both intricate and intensely local.” Yes, they are hurting, but the issues are rooted in something so much deeper and it’s not in our power or knowledge to think we know how to fix everything (hi, Kony 2012).

    Finally, and on a related note, since the work being done is entirely dependent on the organization, it’s critical to take time to get to know the organization. Be weary of third-party businesses that charge you money to pair you with a non-profit to volunteer at, advertising a sort of “you can change the world” feel to it. These third-party sites are so much of the cause of why voluntourism exists. It’s worth heavily researching both the organization you’re using to pair you (if you are) and the non-profit you’ll be paired at. Each non-profit I’ve worked at I was connected with through a friend and I got time to chat with the staff at each organization beforehand. For Laboratoria, I would Skype them regularly for hours on end and for Little Rose, I visited beforehand with a friend who had grown up there. In both cases, it was because I fell in love with the organization and the community first and that lead into volunteering, rather than being determined to have this transformational experience abroad. Though it wasn’t really my intention, focusing on the organization versus the idea of an experience shaped everything.


3. REACTION: The White Savior Complex. Don't have it. Instagramming all your photos of you holding impoverished kids. Don't do it.

“One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism."

How we react to an experience like volunteering abroad is perhaps the most important part of it all (and probably the hardest to talk about). Let's say, referring to the above two points, you find a good org and do some solid work for a couple weeks. Sweet. You're not harming anyone with your work and you're doing it for self experience. But what follows next?

The White Savior Complex, by definition, can be summed up by this quote: "[It's] about assimilation. It's about feeling superior to another culture. It's about validating your own personal, individual experience through the lives and experiences of other marginalized peoples. It's taking their struggle (even if it's a sometimes imagined or exaggerated struggle), using your privilege, and making it about how much of a good person you are." It's real and so, so prevalent. They even made an Instagram account to illustrate it (what's up White Savior Barbie). 

All good intentions aside, it's why people think you can somehow "change the world" by working at a non-profit in Peru for a month. It raises egos, it feeds ignorance, and it belittles communities without even giving them a voice to stand on their own. 

How many times have you seen a photo of someone you know holding a kid in a developing country? How many times have we equated that to heroism and being a good person? I wrote a post not too long ago about the concept of photovoice and a conversation with a South African native about how African children are represented in media. Much of my work from the past couple of months of traveling has revolved around photography, taking photos and videos for two different non-profits in South Africa. I have logs of thousands of photos, some of which I'll occasionally post. As a photographer, something you're constantly thinking about is how you're representing what you're photographing. With everything I post, I make sure the photos are of kids I know and work with. For the most part, I try to leave myself out of it. They are photos that I find beautiful, carefully crafted to capture the energy of the moment and the personality of whomever is in the image. I know it sounds like a bit of an overwhelming commitment for something as simple as an instagram post -- but I would argue that if there's any time to obsess over "how your instagram feed looks", it should be now. Post all the selfies, latte art, or hiking shots you want, they're great. But when it comes to posting photos of you holding a kid you met once while volunteering abroad for a week, please, by all means, just think twice -- because unlike your selfies, you are no longer only impacting yourself by making it about yourself. You are using a person or people as a prop for your own ego and image, and you are taking away the voice of a community that is already so misrepresented across the globe. 



It's a lot to take in, but also makes traveling that much more meaningful. If we can afford the experience of traveling, what are we doing to make the most of it?

If you've gotten this far, thanks for taking the time to read. Have questions or insights of your own? Please, please reach out! I'd love to talk and discuss. Peace and love y'all. 

From one end of the continent to the other: Welcome to Cairo

From one end of the continent to the other: Welcome to Cairo

Harnessing the voice of children through "photovoice"

Harnessing the voice of children through "photovoice"