This article is from RAZZ’s most recent print issue ‘Indulgence’ which is available for free around Exeter University Campus now. You can also email Charlotte Forrester at firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a copy.
We joke at Uni about stereotypical ‘gap yah’ students who leave their privileged homes to travel to faraway places in the hopes of “like totally finding myself”. It’s claimed to be the best year of their life, but there is a problematic side to these ‘gap yahs’: the harmful aspects of voluntourism.
I am not accusing you of being a bad person because of that “life-changing” year you had before University, but I’m suggesting that the month you spent laying bricks for a new school in a village in Malawi or teaching kids in an orphanage in Thailand, was probably more rewarding for you than the community you were trying to help. The idea that developing countries need westerner’s charity perpetuates the damaging single-story stereotypes of helpless African and East Asian countries. Is adding voluntourism into a gap year just a self-indulgent trip that fosters a white saviour complex?
It might seem that anything is better than nothing but students who temporarily engage in volunteering programs often ironically contribute towards larger systems that produce inequality and poverty. Of course, I would like to believe that most students have honourable intentions in helping vulnerable people, but voluntourism sustains harmful practices and institutions.
Currently, the way many student’s volunteer is more self-indulgent than selfless and the wider implications of their aid are not thought through. The campaign group No White Saviors, aims to decolonize missions and development work, describing white saviourism as a symptom of white supremacy. The phrase refers to white people helping non-white people in a self-serving manner, subconsciously believing that the west is the saving grace of the world. It calls you to check your privilege before entering these communities and remember we are all equal. Western culture is not superior, although the legacy of colonialism suggests otherwise.
Google ‘white savior’ and you will likely see the celebrity name Stacey Dooley. Controversy arose after she posted an instagram with a young black child, captioned ‘obsessed’. She was criticised for using a child as an accessory. Was consent given for the child’s image to be used in this way? MP David Lammy rightfully responded to the post with “the world doesn’t need more white saviours”; Dooley’s defensive reply showed her ignorance of this problematic complex.
The No White Saviors group put it simply in their own insta bio, ‘We never said “no white people”. We just know you shouldn’t be the hero of the story’. The problematic nature of voluntourism does not mean we should abandon noble volunteering entirely, but we must understand how our activities fit into the greater system of a decolonised developing country.
A post like Stacey’s could easily be found on the social media of a ‘gap yah’ student. I have seen them on friends’ accounts, with captions like “the cutest” and “my favourite”. These are often condescending and uncomfortable, especially when their profiles return to aesthetically pleasing shots of all pink cafes in London.
What is your aim in posting these photos? The mentality seems to be that it didn’t happen if it didn’t appear on social media. Regardless of your intention, be aware of the impact. Sharing images like these continue to dehumanise and infantilise Africans.
Illustration by Hollie Piff
These are developing countries that want their children to be educated, but what makes you qualified to be teaching them? Companies profit off gap year schemes where students can pay a lot of money to teach English. The more beneficial and sustainable route would be to use this money to train local people as teachers.
Choosing to volunteer with an organisation supplying unskilled labour means a charity does not have to spend money on hiring locals but gains money from the volunteers who pay to be there. If a student with no prior experience can build a school, there are definitely locals that are more than capable and could earn a living. This is far more sustainable to the country’s economy. In this case maybe it really is better to stay at home. A student’s impact is so limited.
The damage done can also be more direct. As Journalist Jacob Kushner points out in “the voluntourist’s dilemma” caring in an orphanage for a short period of time, to children who have lost their own parents in a crisis, can leave children with attachment disorders. It is much easier for you to leave the children then them see you go. Kushner says it encourages orphanages to purposely keep children in poor conditions to attract more volunteers and money.
This superficial engagement requires no long-term involvement and has no lasting impact. Temporarily treating the symptoms of an illness without finding the cause is useless. This kind of volunteering fails to consider the structural issues that create poverty in the first place.
Rather than abandoning volunteering altogether we need to reshape the way we volunteer. We need to be more sensitive, thoughtful and educated before choosing to volunteer. Are we actually listening to what people in these countries want, or are we just stepping in thinking we know best? Not all charity is good charity.
Be diligent when choosing the organisation you volunteer with. Charities that prepare you with adequate information before going, and that open critical discussion during the trips are much better. Learn about the political, social, economic and cultural histories of the place you visit. Always think about the long-term impact of your volunteering. The organisation should be working towards a structural change. For example, empowering people in the community who will contribute to the economy after you leave. It is impossible to be a good volunteer without actually understanding the needs of the community.
When you return to your comfortable lifestyle and western culture, be cautious of the way you share and speak about the places you visited. Are you putting yourself at the centre of the narrative? Is the story you are telling one-dimensional and limited? Why are you posting that photo?
It would be impossible for gap year volunteering to be completely selfless. It will always involve personal gain simply because it makes us feel good about ourselves and that is not a bad thing. But our own self-indulgence should not be the driving force. If volunteering mainly alleviates your white guilt or boosts your own profile, then please stay at home.
The most beneficial volunteering actually becomes a more balanced exchange. The people you are working with are really people, not just objects of charity. Help them to help themselves, whilst learning about their culture and the bigger picture.
Ridding the world of white saviours does not mean getting rid of white people’s aid altogether. As the No White Saviour campaign group explains, “We are saying that if you want to help, first listen to us and provide what we need – not what you think we need,” and not just what best serves you.