If you’re looking for an exotic adventure and the validation that you’re a good person, what better way to do so than by visiting a country in Africa to do a job that you are by no means qualified to do.
Voluntourism attracts 1.6 million (mostly educated) young people a year looking to make a difference. While the sentiment is good, the flood of people from the West attempting to solve problems of other countries can cause more harm than it fixes.
The Instagram account Barbie Savior parodies the two-billion-dollar-a-year trend of traveling abroad as a way to appear like a good person to all your followers back home. Its description reads, “It’s not about me…but it kind of is.”
For decades wells and schools have been built by idealistic people from the West earnestly attempting to solve problems for communities far, far away. But without the proper skills these structures are built inefficiently and overtime break down.
It’s not that wells and schools don’t have to be built, it’s that the unskilled good-willed volunteers from the West don’t need to be doing the building. In order to really help a community, sustainable measures should be put in place. This involves giving power to the people of the region you’re trying to help so they can improve their own circumstances. This approach breeds pride and continued development within the community.
Water.org took this approach by creating water credit. This gave people who wanted to help themselves access to loans and a platform for investors to connect to these people. This gave more funds and power to the people in need to create and sustain their water facilities which reached five million people. The idea came from co-founder Gary White witnessing the billions of dollars wasted on broken wells built by volunteers.
Barbie Savior is a play on the phrase ‘white saviour’. White saviour complex refers to ideas that have been perpetuated through popular media of a white person coming to the aid of a minority group. The individual is painted as heroic while reinforcing ideas that minorities must rely on help instead of possessing agency to help themselves. This common narrative implies that there aren’t people within the community competent enough to be leaders, which is just not true. This idea transfers into voluntourism with the waves of white westerners flowing into the global south in order to save people. Posting photos depicting yourself as a hero among the community reinforces this complex and silences the voices of those living and working there.
While genuine care for helping is often at the heart of good doers, without understanding the full effect of one’s presence in a region the efforts can actually be hindering to the well-being of the community. Before embarking on a volunteer trip ask the question: are you qualified to do what you plan to do back at home? If the answer is no then consider if it’s entitled of you to assume that you would be qualified to do it elsewhere. The work being done should aim to help the people of the community better help themselves.
“Any organization working with development… should essentially be working themselves out of a job by building capacity within the community to do the job they initially set out to do,” said Go Overseas’ Jessie Beck.
Not all voluntourism is bad. Choosing to work with an organization that has a long reputation of making meaningful differences within communities and being aware of what you can realistically offer are good places to start when looking into volunteering abroad.
While raising awareness of issues is important, don’t follow the Savior Barbie model of painting yourself as the main character in a story that is much bigger than you.