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Lithium How to not be a white savior

Aug. 5, 2019
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So, you don’t want to be problematic. You know there’s more to volunteering abroad than posting black and brown babies on your social media, and you might even follow No White Saviors on Instagram—but you’re not sure how to do it the right way. If this is the case, you’re likely aware of the shortcomings of voluntourism: it can kill local enterprises, prevent locals from getting jobs, and cause emotional trauma for children who interact with foreigners.

But the world doesn’t exist in black and white. Often, volunteers are well-intentioned, just grossly misinformed. I’ve heard testimonies from people who’ve taken service trips on how their lives have been forced into perspective, which is great. But the development of foreign communities should always be prioritized over soul-searching Westerners looking for ways to “grow.” Voluntourism and its negatives have been adequately elaborated upon in countless articles, so instead, I’m here to offer a positive twist. If you really want to volunteer abroad, here are five ways you can do a better job. Disclaimer: you don’t have to be white to be a white savior, so everyone can learn from this.

  1. Ask yourself why you’re going abroad.

Before traveling abroad for humanitarian work, ask yourself why people in a foreign country need you any more than the people in your local city. Because of your cultural understanding, you’d probably be of the most use within your own community. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to help people from other places—just that if we do, we should make sure we’ve been substantively trained to do so beforehand. 

As Courtney E Martin pointed out, innumerable voluntourists are attracted to the seeming “solvability” of problems abroad. This describes the illusion that complex institutional problems in other nations can be easily fixed by the snap of a Western hand. Leila Janah said in her surprisingly misguided piece that Western volunteers go abroad because there, “the need seems greatest, and they might have the ability to help.” Let me stop her there. The issue here is that key word “seems.” Thanks to Instagram posts bombarding us with children’s brown faces colored either by melanin or grime, it may seem that those who need you most are kids abroad. But if you aren’t qualified or trained to be working with them, you are not helping. If you wouldn’t be legally permitted to carry out the same work in your home country—whether that be teaching children or building wells—don’t assume that because you are surrounded by people of color, the standards required for work have dropped. 

An example of this disillusion is the assumption made by countless small charities and NGOs that rural communities’ lack of access to clean water can be solved by flying down and installing wells there. It’s just that simple, right? Frankly, such assumptions are offensive. If any of these issues were so isolated and easily solvable, nationals would already have fixed them. Unfortunately, though, white saviors always seem to think they know best. In 2007, a “badly constructed and poorly maintained shallow well” in northeast Uganda that had been dug by a charity was “full of soil and animal feces, making the local people sick.” Only “one-third of water points built by NGOs in Senegal's Kaolack region are working.” The list goes on. Issues abroad do not have simple solutions, and when they are treated as such, the most vulnerable pay the price. 

It may not seem so, but you could be a great help to the underserved in your home country—the “unexotic underclass,” as referred to by CZ Nnaemeka. This includes those with disabilities, the homeless, and even children in deprived neighbourhoods. The organizations serving them could use volunteers (and without the hefty paytag of crossing the ocean), but because these citizens blend into the familiarity of everyday life, and lack the allure of traveling to Africa or Asia, they are too often overlooked. Or are you volunteering abroad because a week vacation is more convenient than making a regular commitment to the “vulnerable” individuals you claim to care for so much? Is convenience a factor in your decision to volunteer? It’s something to consider.

2. Do not center yourself.

Referring to all Western volunteers in LEDCs (less economically-developed countries) as “white saviors” is undoubtedly flawed, but this term was created in reference to people who center themselves—those who believe they’re “saving” the foreigners they encounter and are doing a job that locals are unable to. Instead, work closely with local workers, keep your social media out of it, approach the culture with open arms and without assumptions, and you should be fine.

3. Consider your long-term impact.

Before volunteering, you or the organization you work with should create a plan detailing how the change will be implemented, how it will be maintained once you’ve left, and a means to measure its impact over time. 

Too often, volunteers inject themselves into communities and foster a toxic system of dependency which, dare I say, mimics colonialism; everything’s all shiny and built up until the Western folk retreat home for a cup of tea. It’s important to remember that the sudden departure of European powers after colonization is responsible for much of the administrative, cultural, and economic disrepair we see today in countries frequented by volunteers.

Volunteers should work closely with locals within communities to ensure that projects can become self-sustaining once foreigners have inevitably left. This means partaking in open discussion with locals and using their input to create better plans. Though this may not be the easiest way to create change, it will likely be the most effective. Herbert Kashililah, chair of Water Witness Tanzania, acknowledged this difficulty: “If I am from the World Bank, it is easier to count new projects than try to ensure people are running their own systems." He is referencing the World Bank’s $1.4 billion-dollar project (you heard right) that aimed to improve Tanzanians’ access to clean water. Due to the short-sightedness of the initiative’s creators, the number of Tanzanians with access to clean water dropped from 54 to 53 percent between 2007 and 2012, as no long-term plan was created to ensure water pumps did not become polluted and continued to function after they were implemented. What a waste. 

4. Stay away from children’s homes and orphanages! 

There are better ways to help children, like engaging in community activities or teaching (if you’re relevantly qualified and follow the three steps above). When abroad, do not visit children’s homes or orphanages to interact with young children, especially babies. The organization Raptim describes volunteers frequenting orphanages as likely supporting “a business model designed to not only deceit poor families...but also manipulate wealthy foreigners.” Put as simply as possible, voluntourism creates both orphanages and orphans.

The dollars of eager foreigners help contribute to a booming market of orphanages worldwide. Impoverished parents often send their children to these institutions for the promise of meals and a better education, yet children may be exploited; the owners of illegitimate orphanages, created to have permanently full beds and profit from senseless generosity, are often abusive. In 2005, Save the Children found that 85% of children in Nepalese orphanages had a living parent. (Sidebar: it’s because of statistics like this that people become so enraged at wealthy whites adopting "chocolate" babies and taking them home.) Even the potential of sham orphanages to provide for penurious children is dampened by their overall inferiority at supporting them, emotionally and intellectually. Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, said, “shifting children from low-nurture institutions to high-quality foster programs can produce very notable increases in measures of well-being, including I.Q.” 

There’s also the emotional well-being of the children to be considered. The constant making and breaking of bonds with others, especially considering that many children have been abandoned, “prioritizes the volunteer’s emotional needs over the child’s best interests,” as stated by Tina Rosenberg. Your role is not to play caregiver. Babies aren’t yours to pick up and cuddle for a minute, so please direct that emotional desire elsewhere. They are not tourist attractions. They shouldn’t be a nice way to end your day after feeding giraffes at the nature reserve. Don’t treat them as such.

5. Does Instagram need to see it?

Always ask yourself if it’s appropriate to share pictures online of you volunteering, especially if it involves children. There’s nothing wrong with sharing pictures of a transformative experience you’ve had—that’s what social media is for—but always be conscious that in posting photos in a certain region of the world, surrounded by deprivation, you are implicitly defining what poverty looks like to your followers. When people are bombarded by your photos with Kenyan babies, though you may enjoy being called “brave” and “amazing” in your comments section, it’s likely that the poor baby you’re holding will become many people’s visual representation of a Kenyan child. Poverty becomes inherently correlated with being of a certain complexion and hailing from a certain part of the world, despite the fact that LEDCs boast five-star hotels, international superstars, and rapid economic growth.

This list is not meant to scare you into submission for fear of amplifying a problem, or provide an excuse for lack of social engagement (“well, at least I didn’t do anything problematic”). To the best of our ability, we should ensure we are having a lasting positive impact on the communities we serve, whether abroad or across the street. I’m down to forgive those who’ve made mistakes, as long as we use their defects as opportunities to grow. 

Illustration by Malaika Astorga