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  • Georgia Rodgers

The White Saviour Complex. Stop Trying to 'Save the World'.

Updated: Feb 8

During my three years studying International Development, I have not shied away from sharing the detrimental impacts voluntourism continues to cause. However, still to this day, I have friends who go on university and school trips abroad and teach English to vulnerable communities; knowing well and truly of their potential impacts.

When these people have been challenged for their choices, many respond with excuses such as 'this program is different'.

But I can assure you, it is not.

I am aware a lot of this understanding (or rather, lack of understanding) comes from education. And I can acknowledge my privilege in receiving such knowledge and understanding. However, it's 2018 and there is a multitude of information online providing us with a diverse range of facts and information.

Simply put, a lack of knowledge before an individual now embarks on a trip, is nothing more than an ignorant excuse.

It is hard not to argue that a lot of people's choices to participate within these programs continue to be a result of intentions stemming from self-gratification. Such desires can come with genuine intents, however, each and every one of these intentions are simply ignorant if you do not do your research beforehand.

It is important to emphasise that good intentions should not outweigh the potential negative impacts, when discussing this issue.

The Concept of White Saviourism

'No White Saviours' is a brilliant organisation who use social media to challenge the concept of the 'White Saviour Complex'.

The White Saviour Complex refers to "a white person who acts to help non-white people, with the help in some contexts perceived to be self-serving."

Within an article written by No White Saviours, they describe the issue of volunteering as such:

"The problem is this persistent narrative that passion and goodwill are enough to solve complex problems in vulnerable communities".

The White Saviour Complex focuses primarily on the 'helper' opposed to those receiving the service. The concept is centred largely around the 'helper's' gratification, and assumes the 'helper' knows what it best for the focused community.

Whilst engaging with this complex, it excludes the value of understanding direct lived experiences of the focused community. It also ignores the injustices and imbalance of power and privilege between the 'helper' and those being 'helped'. Ultimately, the White Saviour Complex, excludes the ability for individuals within host communities to practise empowerment and self-autonomy, and does not acknowledge the need for sustainable, long-term change. (Adapted by Rosetta Eun Ryong Lee)

The White Man's Burden

A concept that supports the foundations of the White Saviour Complex, is that of Rudyard Kipling’s idea of ‘The White Man’s Burden’. A poem written in the late 1800’s, Kipling encouraged the United States to assume colonial power over the Philippines and its people.

'The White Man's Burden' suggests that the 'white man' (very gendered language), has a moral obligation to rule people of colour. Through this perceived obligation, there is an expectation that the white race must influence the progress of all aspects of coloured communities; including, economic, social and cultural influence. Such power was implemented through settler colonialism; which at the at the time was primarily based upon religious missionaries displacing indigenous communities and culture.

Through these colonial and often dominant narratives and concepts, a multitude of serious development issues and concerns have arisen. Such concepts and dialogue needs to be readily addressed and challenged in order to change this narrative and address the West's disposition to dominate and determine a majority of the global communities' narrative.

A narrative that suggests people who are not of the white race, are in need of ‘saving’, and it’s the duty of the more ‘civilised’ to help.

With such influential concepts and practises, there is a dangerous tendency to undermine and dismiss an entire culture of people. Thus, the ability to implement programs such as voluntourism within these communities. Which includes the West’s continual influence through volunteer travel programs.

Below, you will find a few questions to consider before embarking on a volunteer trip. For a more indepth list of considerations, we have also created a detailed list over at:

Inspired and adapted from John McCollum's interview by Asia's Hope:

  1. If it isn't acceptable for individuals within your own community, why is it good enough for people within over exploited nations such Nepal?

  2. Am I qualified? Such as speaking the language, or having a qualification in the focused specialised field?

  3. Before embarking on my journey, do I have an in-depth understanding on the nations cultural, political and social aspects of society?

  4. Can I commit long-term and develop an understanding of the community’s needs?

  5. Does the organisation align with my ethical and moral views of the world?

  6. Is the organisation legally registered within the country?

  7. Does the organisation meet the minimum standards for child care and/or working conditions?

  8. Does the organisation have long-term, trained staff who are of the same nationality as the nation I am working within?

  9. Does the project I will be embarking on have long-term strategies? If so, how effective are they?

  10. Does the organisation require child protection policies that cover all staff and volunteers?

  11. Does the organisation have realistic strategies for stable, long-term funding?

  12. Does the organisation have effective strategies put into place to transition children into further stages of their lives?

  13. Does the organisation have a system that shows it can be financially accountable and transparent?

  14. Do my intentions out way my overall impact within the community? And will that impact be negative or positive?

  15. Is my impact necessary and needed?

  16. Are there any volunteer opportunities within my own community that I can consider instead?

  17. Is my contribution creating a sustainable impact?

  18. Am I taking the potential job of someone who could be employed locally?

  19. Would donating funds be of a greater use to the community, than my time and presence?

  20. How will my impact be received long-term?

If you cannot answer all of these questions prior to your volunteer trip, then that is a clear indication that you should not be embarking on it and that your impact would be one with nothing more than detrimental concerns.

When society feeds you nothing but praise and reverence for all your 'good' benevolence, it can be quite challenging to receive a critical analysis. However, with privilege comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes the importance for education and adhering to creating and contributing to a better and safer world for everyone; not just for our own self gratification.

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