Voluntourism and the Conflation of Compassion with Colonialism

by Gaby Novoa

Voluntourism “at its best” can open opportunities for cross-cultural exchange of skills, knowledge and experience (Devereux 2008); however, the work of Western volunteers and organizations within “developing” countries, while veiled as compassion, also functions as a continuation of colonialism. Every year, more than 1.6 million youth from the “global North” spend over $2 billion to volunteer in countries of the “global South,” with these young volunteer tourists being predominantly white women (Bandyopadhyay and Patil 2017). The imbalance of power dynamics upheld by voluntourism is further perpetuated through its visual dissemination on social media platforms such as Instagram (Sin and He 2018). However, the emergence of accounts that parodize or offer critical commentary on the ways in which voluntourists display their “Third World experiences” online work to confront these practices (2018). No White Saviors is an organization with over 306k followers on Instagram, whose mission is to decolonize mission and development work, while drawing attention to issues such as “poverty porn,” imperial dominance, and white supremacy. Portrayals which construct “developing” countries as in need of external aid, amplified through social media, helps to sustain a narrative that upholds the imperative for a Western grip on global influence and affairs. No White Saviors (NWS) challenges these discourses through direct intervention within the very mediums where such narratives are perpetuated.

While individuals involved with volunteer work in developing countries are perhaps driven by the desire to make a positive difference, their participation nevertheless operates within a structure that sustains colonial histories. The imperialism – and thus, racism – embedded within these practices may be even more damaging as they are not glaringly apparent, or are concealed within the disguise of altruism, making it difficult to blatantly recognize as harmful. The NWS graphic of boats atop water, titled “The sea of white supremacy & How the White Saviour Complex stays afloat,” quite literally paints a picture of the actions that contribute to the manipulation, control, dehumanization and oppression of non-Western countries: voluntourism, exploitative social media posts, tokenization, appropriation and white leadership within spaces predominantly for People of Color (POC) (2018, Oct. 8). This call to attend to systemic white supremacy underlines how the practice of Western aid within developing countries maintains a binary of those with privilege and power, and those who are dependent on the former (Banki and Schonell 2018). These relationships are sustained through the normalization of power imbalances, wherein Western influence is deemed necessary.

To unlearn the ways in which perceived help can in fact cause harm, as is often the case with Western intervention in developing countries, it is necessary to examine the ways in which such narratives are formed. Bandyopadhyay and Patil (2017) apply a post-colonial theoretical framework to analyze voluntourism. In their article, the authors dispute the issues ingrained within the language of dominant discourses by calling into question terms such as “‘underdeveloped,’ ‘developing,’ and ‘the Third World,’” which they argue homogenizes peoples and countries, while positioning them as “other” in relationship to the “developed” world (646). NWS also challenges this narrative, stating how these terms restrain countries to a “state of perpetual ‘development’” (2019, Mar. 26). Maintaining the narrative of certain countries as “destabilized” and “dependent” subjects their communities, their land and their resources to the exploitation of Western powers (2019). Jack Lule (2017) also underlines the significance of words and metaphors within the construction of globalization – this term itself is ambiguous with “-ization,” implying both an ongoing process and a finished outcome. Similarly, applying the term “developing” to non-Western countries both situates them within an incessant social, political, economic flux while also cementing their place within this state. In her examination of peacekeeping and Western military intervention, Sherene H. Razack (2004) pinpoints this global narrative whereby labelling non-Western countries as disorderly “Third worlds” justifies the involvement and interference of the “First world.” Thus, the words we use pave way for the actions that ensue.

The notion that white individuals are the ones capable of solving issues within developing countries – “white saviours” – builds upon the belief that “Third world” countries are in need of saving. This patronizing attitude undermines and disempowers the aptitude and agency of locals within those communities. Moreover, voluntourists are largely made up of underqualified individuals, often lacking formal training, whose engagement occurs through short-term stints (Banki and Schonell 2018). NWS regularly tackles these issues in their work. In their “2019 wishlist,” they declare, “no more short term missionaries coming for 10 days on a glorified vacation they fundraised for” (2018, Dec. 30). In a meme, they parody the idea of one’s “whiteness” convincing them that their “presence in another country is inherently helpful” and then the offense at being questioned whether they have the appropriate qualifications (2018, Dec. 18). These attitudes function within the scope of white supremacy by deeming the ability of Western outsiders as more valuable than the local knowledges and desires of the host community. Additionally, allocating projects to foreign volunteers disrupts local economies by neglecting to hire locals for the work (Banki and Schonell 2018). Moreover, given the lack of skills training, work undertaken by volunteers tends to be “unsatisfactory and incomplete” (Banki and Schonell 2018, 1477). Therefore, voluntourism functions as a flawed structure that neglects the autonomy of those within developing countries and promotes dependency instead of the socio-economic sustainability of a community. Participation within the voluntourism complex is problematic with even the best of intentions – and, at that, evidence of self-serving motivations have also been called into question.

Without losing all sight of the optimistic belief in humanitarianism and compassion, much of voluntourism tends to operate in the realm of ego rather than ethics. Banki and Schonell (2018) underline such ulterior intentions, asserting that voluntourists expect a “fundamentally self-interested return on their investment, whether it be in the form of self-actualization, work experience, Facebook profile picture or college reference” (1478). Where there is a wide range of personal gains for the visiting individual, Peter Devereux (2008) argues that there tends to be fewer long-term benefits for ‘the visited.’ Analyses of the benefits of voluntourism largely overlook the impact on locals with focus instead placed on the benefits to the volunteer and their construction, broadening, and improvement of self (Sin and He 2018). Because of the “great sense of achievement” that is promised by voluntour programs and organizations, Bandyopadhyay and Patil (2017) ask whether the purpose is to do good or to feel good. The conflation between the two, with research and patterns pointing to self-serving motivators, is what probes Banki and Schonell (2018) to contest that “voluntourism paradoxically risks undermining global citizenry” (1478). Intentions aside, this “goodness” is consistently expressed through voluntourists’ photo-taking and selfies, with its subsequent dissemination through social media.

The prevalence of documenting volunteer work for social media is cause for criticism, particularly due to how technology and media plays a role in upholding power and privilege. Jil Dan Yong (2015) theorizes social media platforms as tools by which Western dominance and imperialism can be perpetuated within a global context. Where colonial control of developing countries by Western powers, particularly the United States, has operated through military, ideological, economic and capital functions, Dan Yong argues it is now further spread and sustained through digital technologies. Sardar (1999) believes “the real power of the West” is rooted not in its mass economic and technological controls, but “in its power to define, represent, and theorize” (Bandyopadhyay and Patil 2017). Sardar’s argument coupled with Dan Yong’s thesis underlines Western supremacy at the roots of globalization, which is exorbitantly amplified through digital media, where narratives can be constructed – and filtered – to fit the dominant discourse. Lule (2017) parallels these claims in his argument that media plays a central role to the evolution of globalization and that the two work “in concert and cohort” (10). Therefore, it matters how relationships within voluntourism are represented online, particularly because they tend to normalize the “white saviour” complex, maintaining power imbalances.

Photos of aid work within developing countries, otherwise known as “poverty porn,” on social media perpetuates relationships of the powerful and the powerless. The exploitative practice is explicitly denounced within two of the four items NWS published in their 2019 wishlist: “no more poverty porn” and “no more #selfies of white people surrounded by Black and Brown kids” (2018, Dec. 30). In another post, NWS challenges this visual culture, and asks audiences to consider if they would ever want their child “photographed, posted to social media and portrayed as an object of pity” (2018, Oct. 23). NWS further contextualizes this post in their caption, where they discuss how asking for a child’s consent to be photographed still operates within power dynamics wherein they may not feel comfortable saying no. Moreover, consent does not extend to the written message that may be attached to the photograph; NWS asks audiences to be mindful of the way we tell others’ stories and whether they are ours to tell at all. Sin and He (2018) contend that the practices of photo-taking within voluntourism and the ensuing sharing on social media are “never innocent,” for they operate within the unequal relationships between the one taking the photos and the one being photographed (2). Because technology is already domineered by those with privilege and power, the stories about marginalized communities, being disseminated throughout online platforms, are often told about– and not by – said peoples.

The conditions for perpetuating stereotypes are created when those outside of the communities being represented have control of the narrative. Dignity of one’s story is best harboured through self-autonomy and expression. International media has long been critiqued for its portrayal of marginalized communities as helpless and lacking agency (Banki and Schonell 2018). Thus, with representation, comes responsibility; although, Sin and He (2018) question whether portrayals of the “Third world” by voluntourists can ever be at all responsible. NWS asks audiences (particularly those who partake in voluntour projects) to reflect on whether the photos and stories they share respect the pride of the person being photographed, or feed into stereotypes (2019, March 26). NWS refers to these direct questions and thought exercises as “flipping the script;” by emphasizing how otherwise inappropriate actions are customary within contexts of developing countries, it reveals the inherent “white supremacist power structures” at play (2019, April 5).

NWS, alongside satirical media like Barbie Savior and The Onion, play an important role in resisting hegemonic, colonial structures. Their dissemination through the same forums where supremacist narratives are proclaimed function as visual interventions. Sin and He (2018) assert that the rise of media content that critiques and parodies the performative nature of voluntourists online “creates a separate sphere in which such behaviour becomes governed and sanctioned” (18). Barbie Savior is a satirical Instagram account that crafts posts inspired by voluntourist activity online, which depicts a white Barbie doll in her “missionary” work across Africa. Her presence and popularity (with over 165k followers on Instagram) are effective in questioning the tropes of young, Western women through humour that is based on elements of truth: “It’s not about me…but it kind of is,” Barbie Savior writes in her profile bio. Similarly, The Onion, an online media company, also uses satire to challenge culture; a 2014 headline reads “6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture” (Sin and He 2018, 1475). Mockery of the role that social media plays within people’s volunteer experiences helps to denounce these practices while inciting reflection and reconsideration of the “ethics and efficacy of voluntourism” (Banki and Schonell 2018).

Allyship work therefore necessitates questioning motives and outcomes. Voluntourism programs often entail rewarding promises, such as self-growth and even career advancement opportunities whereas emphasis and consideration are not as focused on the local communities hosting these volunteers. While NWS contends that there is “no exact formula” in dismantling the “white saviour” complex, they assert that it is equal parts challenging the narrative as well seeing the POC within the developing countries rise in leadership roles (2018, Dec. 11). One of the many solutions to challenging the “white saviour” complex, NWS suggests, is to support Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) led projects and businesses. Millions of dollars are spent annually in financing voluntourists’ trips to other countries, where they will work often for short-term stints. This money can be of more value and utilized more effectively by locally established organizations whose approaches center on long-term sustainability. Moreover, instead of attempting to tackle the complex issues of another country, NWS urges audiences to first look at their local communities, towns, or cities and begin their advocacy and activism there (2018, Nov. 15). Online media critiques, such as NWS, help bring attention to systems of white supremacy and colonialism, while championing for an ongoing process of unlearning and listening.


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