The Problem With Savior Mentality in Voluntourism

Zimbabwean kids

| Saviors? |

FIVE minutes before I started writing I came across an article titled ‘White Savior Barbie’ brilliantly mocks insincere volunteer selfies in Africa. It’s about Barbie Savior, an instagram account that criticizes what some call the ‘white savior complex’, a modern version of Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden.

While I personally think that the satirical photos on Barbie Savior serve as thought-provoking tools to spark discussions on the issue of ‘white savior complex’ , what I would like to discuss here is not related to the colonist/ post-colonial mentality. In fact, I prefer addressing to voluntoruism in general.

It is that time of the year – summer vacation is just around the corner and some university students are traveling to developing countries for a week or two to do volunteer work. Some people who are graduating from university told me they want to ‘go somewhere to volunteer because I don’t want to find a job yet’.

zimbabwean kidMany of these ‘volunteer trips’ are organised by university societies/ clubs, and in the case of Hong Kong, these tours usually bring volunteers to countries in Southeast Asia, Tibet, China, and Mongolia. Posters are everywhere and 99% of the time they indicate that volunteers’ main ‘duty’ is to teach the local school kids in these countries.

Teaching at local schools in developing countries is the most common and popular volunteer work, and for many tour organizers (especially the commercial ones that accept anyone who pays a huge sum of money and the university ones whose intention is to accept as many students they could to show that their program is ‘making an impact’) it is the ‘easiest’ type of work to attract people to join them. Why? Because who doesn’t know how to teach kids A-Z, simple English sentences and English songs, right?

Now don’t get me wrong – I am not criticizing what volunteers teach. I am criticizing the kind of mentality that this kind of 1-2 week volunteer teaching program nurtures. Some people volunteer in a developing country with a mindset that “I am going to save the country” and that they are the solution of the problems that country is facing. They believe that through using their ‘skills from the developed world’ they can rescue the ‘poor’, ‘underprivileged’ and ‘hungry’ children. And in the process they can take selfies with these kids and post them on social media.

Zimbabwean kid in the car


Don’t believe me? I was a volunteer in an education program in Underberg, KwaZulu Natal, and my job there was to design a set of English teaching guidelines for the local teacher to follow as she was the only person in the village who was willing to teach at the school. She didn’t have a high school qualification but because she needed to take care of her family and without money, getting out of the remote village and traveling to the nearest city (Durban) was not an option. She was hired by my host, a British health-care researcher, to teach occasionally at the school. One time I asked the teacher and my host, out of curiosity, how the past volunteers were like. They said in general the volunteers were very good, especially because many of them who came to South Africa were medical students doing an internship abroad, so they worked hard at the local clinics for months and learned a lot from working in less-equipped environments. What this means is that there is a lesser chance that they get unskilled volunteers or those who don’t know what they are doing. However, my host told me that there was this doctor-to-be (from a country outside of Africa of which I shall not name) who came to volunteer, and the first thing he said when he arrived was ‘give me only the black patients – I will cure them’. And my host and the teacher also witnessed many of their volunteers taking pictures (selflies) with the kids on their last day of volunteer work at the school and they deliberately chose to take pictures ONLY with the ‘black’ kids and ignored the ‘white’ kids. They actually said it out loud that they only wanted pictures with ‘black’ kids so that they could post a picture of their authentic ‘volunteer experience’ in Africa. What about the ‘white’ South African kids? Weren’t they the people they tried to ‘help’ and weren’t those kids also the reason they were there to teach? Many of them were also orphans and marginalised like some Zulu children in that village, but probably not in the eyes of social media and the saviors.

What I am trying to emphasize here is the mindset of volunteers. I do believe volunteer programs are more beneficial to the volunteers than the people they try to help, and I don’t see problems with someone teaching in developing countries for the sake of seeing different cultures, broadening their own horizons and even hoping to make a difference, as long as they don’t do it in the name of ‘saving the poor country and people’. It’s not even really about the duration of volunteering, which of course matters but some people can stay as a volunteer for the longest time with the most incorrect mindset. Whether short term voluntoursim is doing more harm than good to the locals, on the other hand, is an even more debatable topic that I shall save for next time.

Photos taken in Zimbabwe

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