The White-Savior Industrial Complex and Voluntourism

Today in class, we examined two articles titled “The White-Savior Industrial Complex” by Teju Cole and “The white tourist’s burden” by Rafia Zakaria which both focus on the negative consequences of voluntourism. This term refers to privileged, first world citizens gallivanting around the globe “helping” poor people in variously afflicted parts of the globe in various ways. The motivations of these helpers vary across every individual participant in every individual voluntourism program and range from altruistic to self-seeking. In Evelyn Mendez’s blog post titled “Volunteer?”, she references another article, “The Trouble with Medical “Voluntourism”” which sheds light on the damaging effects of institutions like “Doctors without Borders Alternative.” Groups like this are tasked with performing clinical surgeries such as delivering babies and pulling teeth without the proper experience and oftentimes, sanitation or equipment (Sullivan, 2017). These risky practices by incompetent students acting as unqualified practitioners of medicine often lead to more harm for patients than good (Sullivan, 2017). Mendez explains that these students are often going on these trips only to make themselves appear better on a resume to get into a better medical school for their own personal gain. However, the students themselves do not stay in the area abroad long enough to see the damage they potentially cause, but rather only long enough to feel good about the short term relief they provide. This, both the moral and selfish motivation to help people whose culture and problems the helper are not privy to, embodies the “White Savior Industrial Complex” Cole and Zakaria refer to in their articles.

What makes any institutional problem an “Industrial Complex”, whether it be the “Prison Industrial Complex” or the “Military Industrial Complex” is that the system in question is profitable as well as self-sustaining and justifiable through rhetoric. In the case of the WSIC, Americans are given a challenge or palatable enemy, like Joseph Kony or “hungry mouths, child soldiers or raped civilians” (Cole, 2012). Next, they take the moral high ground as people who are “going to ride in on a white horse and resolve it.” (Cole, 2012) So when someone like Kony is stopped or any amount of children are fed by privileged white people, they gain satisfaction not out of the resultant happiness their help lead to but by the implication that they are better people because of it.

Cole’s sequential tweets are spot on in describing how privileged whites do good deeds that have no real lasting impact not to achieve “justice” but to simply satisfy “sentimental needs” and have “a big emotional experience” (Cole, 2012). Not only are the roots of the problems often ignored, but other problems are created as a result. Cole later explains in the article that Nigerians who were protesting their corrupt government were noticeably not aided by the US government because of oil interest Yet the US government released a statement “supporting” the protesters right to protest in order to give off the image of preserving democracy and individual rights without making an actual change (Cole, 2012). A way to make actual change would be to import more expensive oil from non corrupt regimes to bolster them instead of empowering corrupt regimes simply because they produce a cheaper product. When money is on the line for privileged folks, morality is almost always tossed aside.

Meanwhile, Zakaria explains that there is a specific voluntourism program in South Africa that actually creates orphans. Because the American workers have economic backing, they resultantly “crowd out local workers” which leads parents to send their kids away to these orphan centers where they can actually afford to go to school (Zakaria, 2014). The question of whether it is better to be an educated orphan or non educated child living with their parents in poverty is irrelevant. The point that it is unjust for foreigners to be dictating the lives of native inhabitants at their own convenience for reasons independent of their plight is relevant, however. In class, Frank raised the solid point that most people participating in these programs are students on vacations which means a lot of the “help” might come seasonally. While I must be careful not to generalize all voluntourists as being unwanted and ignorant to the causes they are supposedly fighting, Zakaria explains that the participants should pay their “due diligence” by attempting to assimilate themselves with the culture as well as gain a real understanding of the native peoples’ and their plight (Zakaria, 2014). Both writers articulate the problem that many voluntourists simply go on these trips to feel good about themselves and bolster resumes as well as gain “good party stories” and “Facebook profile pictures” instead of for a more altruistic reason such as a desire to help people in need (Zakaria, 2014). These intrinsic motivations for white people to help non white people are more often than not self-serving and epitomize the WSIC.

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