The (Not-so-White) Savior Complex
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
Pic: Barbie Savior
So much has changed in my life recently that I find myself thrown off my usual routine. I stopped working last Tuesday. What a big change that was already, after almost eighteen months spent working for that association. Many people would define themselves by their work. Even those that don’t, it still eats up more than half of their waking time. You cannot help but have your work shaped your entire life. It was the case for me. Working was giving me the structure I needed to get into action. It would help me get things done, but more importantly, it would motivate me to write.
I’ve also been switching homes, kind of. I have been going back and forth between both my parents’ houses, trying to collect all my belongings and sort them out. There are things to pack in my suitcases, things to put in boxes to be shipped later and things I will just leave behind. I have tried to sort out any outstanding administrative issue and made sure I would have access to any official document I might need abroad, ranging from birth certificate to criminal records.
I have been spending a lot of time with my friends and family too, of course. I have been trying not to say no to invitations, because soon enough I won’t receive those invitations anymore. It has been tiring and yes, I hadn’t taken so many naps in a long long time, but I want to enjoy the time I have left to the fullest.
In the middle of all of this, I didn’t take the time to write. I haven’t listened to as many podcasts as I used to when I was commuting, nor spent that much time keeping up to date with the drama that the Internet can produce these days. It is such a shame, because this blog has given me a lot already, and I should always be able to take the time for what feels right. That’s what I’m doing now, and it already brings me a bit of peace in this time of madness.
Last weekend, my parents' best friends came to dinner. I have known their family for all my life, or as long as I can remember. I have come to appreciate seeing them even more now that I’m older, to look at them as a second family. It was thus without surprise that my parents invited them over for dinner to discuss their latest family vacation: The Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It was a first for wife and daughter. While recounting their impressions of the country, I couldn’t help but notice similarities with my own experience ten years ago. Among all the memories they had made, one thing in particular caught my attention: the contrast between rich and poor, of how difficult it is to see so much luxury next to so much misery. That’s the reality of the country my father grew out in. Your breath taken away by the expanse of mansions and nice cars while emancipated children beg on the streets. It would be tough for anyone to see. It is heartbreaking when that country is yours.
I do not have pictures of the misery I witnessed the couple of times I went there. I do not have pictures of the children, the cripples, the hungry and the poor. I didn’t even talk to them, didn’t try and acknowledge them more than I would anyone I see in the streets of the industrialized world. It will forever be with me, but even at fifteen, I knew there was nothing I could do. Nothing I could say that would ease their misery. I knew they couldn’t care less about me holding their hands or me telling them how hard it must be. What they needed was money and opportunities, and I couldn’t bring them that.
Years later, I thought of joining an international volunteer program. I thought maybe, just maybe, I could bring a bit of peace and comfort to those I thought were most in need. I applied to a program while finishing up my studies, and I got accepted to volunteer in Uganda. I was going to help locals develop business ideas and try to make them sustainable. I liked the idea of supporting local entrepreneurship. I however turned down the offer. I realized that what I wanted was to travel, not help people in need. I felt like a hypocrite, because I didn’t want to go for them, I wanted to go for me. I packed my bags and I went travelling instead. I didn’t look back.
It sounds harsh, written down like that. It is the truth though, and I needed to be honest with myself. Many people should.
In the last decade or so, the sector of international volunteering has boomed. Young people from First World countries have seemed to have found a new way to bring meaning to their lives, by contributing their time to work for organizations in developing countries to conduct activities in health promotion, education and environmental conservation. The cause is noble; I cannot argue otherwise. Not everyone would be willing to leave the comfort of their homes to give their time to others, and that’s not even taking into consideration sometimes crossing the whole world to do so.
There are criticisms to the concept though. The outcomes of volunteering experiences are often negligible. Volunteers often lack the proper training and skills to actually make a difference in the region. Worse, it pushes local populations to become dependent on foreign aid instead of learning the skills they would need to make a living for themselves. Volunteering also often requires substantial financial contributions from the volunteers. They end up not only paying for their expensive flights, but also for food, accommodation and insurance.
And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. A more worrying trend has also emerged in recent times: voluntourism, or volunteer tourism. This form of volunteering is usually conducted by profit-making companies rather than charities, and allows young people to experience volunteering activities – most of the time under a month long – while also enjoying adventure and travel activities. This type of activities has been advertised in all sorts of wrong ways, promoting a neoliberal narrative that the helpless and poor Global South needs the help of the charitable Global North.
This narrative was what prevented me from joining an international volunteering program in the first place, and something that I think still remains unaddressed. Despite the cause being noble, I think every aspiring volunteer should ask themselves the question: why do I want to go? Do I want to go for myself, to give meaning to my life, or do I want to go because I have a genuine wish to help others? Joining an international volunteering experience isn’t selfless if it is for the wrong reasons. It’s wrong, because it only serves to promote the idea that the country the volunteer is in needs to be saved and that said volunteer is here to save it. Save it from what, I don’t think they care.
This trend is becoming a bit more common knowledge, but I realized last weekend that our parents didn't know about it. It has been coined – it is named the 'white savior complex'. Young fortunate people come to Africa, or to South America, or to Southeast Asia, with all their rightfulness, as a savior ready to lift a whole country out of its assumed misery. Saviors from First World countries use locals like props to be featured in their social media profiles. They take pictures with less fortunate children or cripples, all smile and benevolent. Look at me, it screams. Look at what I’m doing to save this world, it screams. I care, it screams. Truth is, it’s selfish.
More importantly, I do not think it is only a ‘white’ problem. I have seen pictures of black young people volunteering abroad too, posing with children in orphanage or filming the conditions of living in favelas. I have felt it too, the urge to go and save the world. I realized it wouldn’t have been selfless, but I thought of it. It isn’t right then, to call it a ‘white’ savior complex. It’s a Western savior complex. It’s a reflection of how Western societies cannot help but think of themselves as superior to the rest of the World, even if it takes the form of foreign aid and volunteering.
A lot of those young people would be better off actually working in those same countries. Sometimes I want to tell them: "Go on, study hard, and once you have qualifications, go to Africa, go and work there. Support their economies, contribute to building their societies." That would prove much more meaningful and have a much greater impact than building half a wall for a 'school'. Unfortunately, that's not what a lot of people are after. What they want, what they crave is meaning, is understanding their own little life a bit better. Well guess what? You don't need to go travelling, or to volunteer on the other side of the world to get there. You can figure it out from your own bedroom for that matter. Just keep learning.