By Olubanke Agunloye
Today, with the onset of social media becoming its own world power, the development of institutions give untrained travelers the platform to participate in foreign aid. International volunteers, or voluntourists, have been satirically caricatured with allusions to white saviorism and its presence on the web. Pages like Barbie Savior, Humans of Tinder, and Jaded Aid attempt to discuss the self-serving, ingenuine nature of the modern-day White Man’s Burden phenomenon.
Aspects of foreign aid have become a social and economic commodity, and the currency is self-righteousness. Voluntourism is not a new concept. It’s been around since the guilt from colonization began to metastasize in the conscience of those who sought to conquer the “undeveloped,” “unmarked,” “uncivilized” world. The implications of colonization are an age-old argument; however, vestiges of it still shape the ideologies of saving the less fortunate. We can all wish for a change in subject during our cathartic rants about what is wrong with the world, but as of late, colonialism is still a literal and figurative cancer. Ironically, often the contributors to the immortality of colonial ideologies are the same folks who get a kick out of engaging in academic jargon surrounding the issues of folks whose lives they are impersonally involved in. The context continues to change, but the foundational issues still remain the same. Voluntourism has become an institution that has allo travelers from privileged backgrounds the chance to “help” countries fix their institutional issues.
Oftentimes, the interventions enacted in this (not so thoughtful) form of foreign aid are band-aid solutions that aren’t always informed by the actual needs of the community they aim to help. Ernesto Sirolli’s Want to help someone? Shut up and listen! TED Talk discusses the lack of attentive listening and community efficacy that manifests when projects are developed without providing community members with the platforms to state their needs. Program participants are often untrained students and general travelers who stay in these foreign communities for short bouts of time to “make a change.” Concepts of sustainability, community, self-reliance, self-efficacy, and alliance often fail to be explored. To assess these trips from a monetary and social economic lens: there is a disparity in who benefits the most from these trips. The voluntourists both directly and indirectly gain social capital and—down the line—economic benefits.
The issue at hand is not the curiosity and compassion that comes with being human, but the lack of ethical, intentional aid given to these disenfranchised countries. Anybody can see a facebook post about malnourished children in countries with less access to healthcare and have feelings of compassion. However, these emotions alone are not enough to decide whether you’ll be going on a mission trip to help with issues abroad. Sentiments aside, you must think logically and constantly ask yourself why you want to intervene, and how you can intervene without causing harm to the populations you aim to help. In this thought process, also consider the disenfranchised populations in your own country. Oftentimes they don’t have the luxury of getting airtime on TV or even your Facebook timeline. The same compassion that drives you to want to play a role in uplifting populations with poor health outcomes abroad can be used to aid in domestic issues as well.
Additionally, institutions that exist to serve populations domestically must assess the roles they play in white saviorism. The white majority of the senior staff in public health and policy departments across the nation is disproportionate to the demographics of the populations being served. The social factors being studied in these spaces represent the circumstances of people of color and low socioeconomic status groups, but little to none of them are there to represent their communities. And even when people of color are in these spaces, their voices are disregarded or overpowered by the voices of the majority. Within academia, there are a number of buzzwords and statistical facts that inherently otherize minority groups from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses. Words such as “underdeveloped,” “underclass,” “low-income,” “urban,” and “inner city” can be disparaging to the groups being discussed. This language subliminally creates inaccurate narratives and biases that can be detrimental to breaking down the barriers that bind them from attaining well-being. Due to the nature of sociological research, and as statistics about these groups are stated in conversation, this diction is sometimes inevitable. However, one should always remind themselves that the groups being discussed are real people whose health, economic, and social issues do not exist to serve as another asset for one’s education.