Safari Animals, Nature Hikes and Children: How International Voluntourism Perpetuates the White Savior Complex

By Tess Buckley

 On the surface voluntouring seems like an opportunity to do good, but there are many underlying implications and harmful practices that take place and aren’t spoken of. This article will dive into the layers of the business behind “helping people” and the many ways that the white saviour complex is perpetuated. Globalization has increased international voluntourism, which has made the preservation of local culture difficult. The white savior complex is innate to voluntourism, this is when westerners venture to ‘save’ the fantasy ‘third worlds.’ The modern systems and institutions shared through international voluntourism are from former colonial powers. These colonial legacies in post-colonial societies solidify the hegemony of the west. Voluntourism is neocolonial in nature, although not always malicious in intent. NGOs, although usually non- profit and independent of governments organizations, are still accountable to funders. This accountability to funders creates tension and hinders many voluntourism businesses from being autonomous. The voluntourism sector continues to grow and adapt, however not necessarily to the needs of the host communities, but rather to the profitable voluntourists idea of development (Stein, 2017). Even if voluntourists were to be briefed before travel, the white savior complex is innate to voluntourism (due to historical and systematic injustice) and so this illusion of helpfulness would remain. It will be argued that international voluntourism, made possible by globalization, perpetuates the white savior complex and magnifies inequalities rather than reduce them. The counter-productivity of inexperienced volunteers who lack development skills and understanding of local context will be presented (Devereux, 2008). This article will discuss the implications that are a consequence of the increase in international voluntourism, perpetuating the white savior complex that is innate to this type of travel.

The West is the Best: The Counter-Productivity of Inexperienced Volunteers

The rise of this industry, voluntourism, has followed the same structure of privilege, power and hegemony as the post-WW2 “development project” (Pastran, 2014). Colonial legacies in post-colonial societies can be seen in the inheritance of modern systems and institutions from former colonial powers (Takamura, Colonialism, 2018). Although voluntouring abroad often offers a wealth of benefits to the volunteer, this positive impact is less prevalent in the host community. The structural inequality innate to voluntourism can be seen in the ways that ‘development’ is pitched to non–skilled voluntourists. This perpetuates a simplistic idea that young westerners could be a developmental solution. In return, the developing world is encouraged to follow the West’s lead and to look to volunteers as an example (Simpson, 2004). Disparity of power can be seen in cultural hegemony and the mechanisms of colonialism, which impose “modern” values and social norms on “underdeveloped” communities (Takamura, Colonialism, 2018). For example, the invention and institutionalization of traditions and customs of the west can be seen in the types of housing built on a service trip. Local customs are not considered while organizations build new homes that are thought to be ‘better’ but are simply more western (Stein, 2017). With each new house built, the view that ‘the west is the best’ (including our houses) is perpetuated and so is the West’s unchallengeable power.

Voluntourists attempt to help, however, their ability to change systems, alleviate poverty or provide support for vulnerable people is limited, if even existent. Voluntourists are often “unqualified people doing the jobs that they would never be allowed to do at home”. Pastran analyzes the post-colonial impacts of voluntourism, stating that voluntourism “does little more than reinforce unequal power relationships and cultural stereotypes between tourists and hosts” and is therefore neocolonial in nature (Pastran 2014). Voluntourism perpetuates a colonial relationship by “continuing impacts on the political,economic, and social development of both the former colonizer and colonized” (Pastran 2014). Many cliché mistakes such as the aforementioned are made by voluntourists that don’t treat the place or people they are visiting with the same respect as they would in Western countries. An example of this was seen in nurses taking Instagram photos of their patients in underdeveloped areas and posting about how ‘tragic’ their life was. This would never be seen in North America due to the respect of personal privacy

The maintenance of the West’s hegemony is clear in the power of development actors over aid recipients (Takamura, Post-Development, 2018). Stein describes Voluntourism as “Volunteering to Colonize” through the arrogant assumptions made by Westerners that they are better and therefore capable to change the conditions of the developing world communities. This can be seen in the lack of qualifications needed for an individual to venture abroad and teach in schools, especially in comparison to North America (Devereux, 2008). This leads to people with little to no experience sitting at the same table as local experts with decades of experience in certain fields. Ignoring local politics and asymmetrical power relations among local actors, shows the apolitical nature of voluntourism. Apolitical development is one of the many reasons that well intended development projects lead to unintended negative outcomes (Takamura, Post- Development, 2018), such as voluntourism. Despite the small successes, the realities of the diminished power, autonomy, and culture in the areas visited by voluntourists considerably outweigh the perceived benefits (Smith, 2015).

The White Savior Complex in Social Media

The white savior figure (WSF) has been kept alive in films and television shows, for decades. The WSF is a white character who rescues people of color from their plight. Freedom Writers (Paramount Pictures, 2007) is a movie about a majority nonwhite, low-income, “at-risk” classroom, that – through the sacrifices of a white teacher – are transformed, saved and redeemed by the end of the film. The white savior figure has been pushed even harder because of voluntourism. This cinematic trope is now, due to the international growth of voluntourism, seen on all the social media platforms of voluntourists. An Instagram account @barbiesaviour has, since 2016, parodied the sad reality of the WSF. Captions such as “orphans take the BEST pictures! So. Cute.” have been shared. The humorous tone of satire allows us to address problems that are sometimes difficult to tackle. Due to the history of slavery and colonialism, many people in developing countries find such attitudes, that follow the WSF, deeply patronizing and offensive. The desire to ‘help’ is sometimes problematic and it is important to understand the original intent and perception/reception of voluntourism. When white voluntourists place themselves in the middle of a group of orphans that they are ‘helping’, they portray themselves as a hero and centerpiece in the story of ‘suffering of developing countries.’ Another ethical implication of photos such as this are the nameless extras, who are more of a prop for the Western volunteer than people who lead lives of their own (Veradi, 2013). The power and implications of social media are important to consider as it is used to build and reinforce images across the world (Shintaro, 2013). Photography, particularly the cliche of volunteers taking and posting selfies with local children, acts as a central component of the voluntourism experience. Voluntourism organizations don’t have to advertise, they simply crowdsource. Internet advertising of voluntourism opportunities creates demand for a presented experience. The image of voluntourism that is so carefully constructed online births many implications, which will be discussed below. 

The Business Behind ‘Helping People’: Implications and Exploitation

Framing voluntourism as a gift is dangerous, but very common (Verardi, 2013). Through giving “the gift” of voluntourism, voluntourists claim they feel bonds towards the host community, and begin to represent themselves as understanding local cultures and perspectives because they are “not just a tourist” (Verardi, 2013). This falsehood of a bond to the local populations makes it easier for voluntourist to claim they “made a difference.” There are many assumptions and oversimplified views of developing countries, without reflecting on complex local contexts and realities (Takamura, Post-Development, 2018). Pastran writes “the host community is irrelevant in the equation of ‘development’ that is simply, generously, and neutrally bestowed upon it by Western volunteers”. The narrative of a voluntourist being able to ‘give back’ and ‘make a difference’ is shaped by the organizations and voluntourists desires to be helpful (Veradi,2013).

Many developing countries are treated as playgrounds for westerners to learn and gain real life experience. The mission statements of many companies discuss opportunities to learn organic farming practices, play with local children, and more (Stein, 2017). Although these travel experience may stay true to their missions, they neglect to recognize the accompanied motivations of many voluntourists. Voluntourists motivations could range from the pull of international adventure, a break from corporate burnout (McGehee, 2005), or desire to add to one’s CV/resume (Daldeniz, 2010). Resume building, self enhancement, pursuing adventure or proliferation of ideas would never be presented as a mission statement of a voluntourist program, but this skewed and ignorant yet altruistic motivation is a reality (Stein, 2017). It is imperative to acknowledge that, although organizations may state they intend to ‘help’ and ‘develop’ countries, they exist in a capitalist market economy where their true goal is to make a profit.

A sampling of trip formats offered by the voluntourism agency Projects Abroad

The priority of many organizations is to attract inexperienced volunteers that they see as profitable consumers, not aid workers. The central point of this view is the prioritization of donor interests over those of beneficiaries (Takamura, Post-Development, 2018). One cannot help but beg the question of how these voluntourism programs stay in business, if they are constantly ‘helping’ and ‘fixing’ the communities that they repeatedly visit. The business stays alive through the desire of voluntourists to ‘help’ the presented ‘fantasy’ of third world. Although there has been some shift in the formatting of development programs, westerners ideas of what a developmental trip should entail have not changed, thus, the programs have not evolved either. The companies that offer volunteer programs stick to satisfying the consumers dream trip of ‘helping’ without truly considering what local needs are (Stein, 2017). The exploitation of voluntourists and local communities, that is market driven with no regulation of state that anyone can participate in, has caused many voluntourism businesses to lose sight of their original mission statement of ‘helping.’

Solutions?

Integrating local knowledge into the voluntourist programs has been proposed as a way to achieve effective and efficient development interventions (Takamura, Post-development, 2018). When applying this ‘solution’ to voluntourism, one could brief the volunteers about the society they are about to enter and discuss the harmful cliche interactions of voluntourists.  The programs created by the voluntourism businesses could be tailored specifically to the places visited and changed overtime, but this would not solve the inherent implications of voluntourism. No past ‘solutions’ have mitigated the harmful effects of the white savior complex that are innate in voluntourism projects. This is because “by its nature, voluntourism brings together economically powerful volunteer tourists with less powerful host communities (who are deemed “poor enough” to place them in the position of being ‘voluntoured’). The power dynamic naturally created through voluntourism is damaging and unchanging (Pastran, 2014). As demonstrated, the recent surge of international voluntourism exudes imperialism, perpetuates the western savior complex and magnifies inequalities rather than reduce them. Voluntourists must be aware of the inherent paradox of trying to transform the neocolonial effects of tourism without leaving the tourist industry all together. 

Additional sources

Devereux, P. (2008). International volunteering for development and sustainability: Outdated paternalism or a radical response to globalisation? Development in Practice. doi:10.1080/09614520802030409

Pastran, S. H. (2014). Volunteer Tourism: A Postcolonial Approach. University of Saskatchewan, 1(1), 45-57. Retrieved December 1, 2018, from https://usurj.journals.usask.ca/article/download/30/26/.

Shintaro Okazaki, Charles R. Taylor, (2013) “Social media and international advertising: theoretical challenges and future directions”, International Marketing Review, Vol. 30 Issue: 1, pp.56-71, https:// doi.org/10.1108/02651331311298573

Simpson, K. (2004)” ‘Doing Development’: The Gap Year, Volunteer-tourists and a PopularPractice of Development.” Journal of International Development 16, no. 5: 681–692.

Smith, M. (2015). The Cost of Volunteering: Consequences of Voluntourism. Anthropology Senior Thesis, University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved December 4, 2018, from https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=anthro_seniortheses.

Stein, Y. R. (2017). Volunteering to Colonize: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Impacts of Voluntourism. University Honors Theses. doi:10.15760/honors.410

Takamura, K. (2018). INTD 200: Introduction to International Development, week 2 notes [Colonialism and Development Powerpoint slides].

Takamura, K. (2018). INTD 200: Introduction to International Development, week 4 notes [Post- Development Powerpoint slides].

Veradi, C. (2013). Perceptions of Voluntourism. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved December 9, 2018, from https://curve.carleton.ca/system/files/etd/9555f4e4-156e-471a-a60b-b8267f599005/etd-pdf/37fac09309ec38cf36a562712b9ff7a1/verardi- perceptionsofvoluntourism.pdf

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