By Aisling Moran
Look! Look! Here’s me, a white girl volunteering in India saving the day one breath at a time! Or would this work better for an Instagram caption: ‘Being here in India has made me lose the 3 stone I always wanted gone, while making a difference to poor kids lives xx <3’.
All sarcasm aside, volunteering has always been a complex and conflicting topic for me. ‘Voluntourism’ can easily capture the hearts of naïve volunteers who want to ‘make a difference in the world’ yet wish to remain in their own narcissistic and sheltered bubble. Over 1.6 million people go volunteering while on their travels making it a $2 billion industry. But at what expense does these so-called good acts come at?
Coined by Jorgen Lissner, ‘poverty porn’ is described as an ‘exhibition of the human body and soul… without any respect and piety for the person involved. It puts people’s bodies, their misery, their grief, and their fear on display with all the details and all the indiscretion that a telescopic lens will allow’. It doesn’t take long to think of fundraising campaigns of a near naked sorrow-eyed African child with a bloated belly and flies resting on their face. This unethical image of a famished child sustains the myth that material wealth is the very groundwork of a good quality of life. Yes, the money raised can make a substantial difference, but financial aid gathered with no consideration to what such advertising can do to the mindset, attitudes, behaviour, and politics of their intended audience can do more harm than good.
By portraying malnourished and sick children when they are most vulnerable and exposed counteracts the idea that their dignity is worth as much as the children of our own western countries. This leads to the artificial distinction between “us” – the ingenious and generous agents of change, and “them” – the inert and silent in need of our charity. The ‘white saviour complex’ introduced by Teju Cole explains it as those who support ruthless policies in the morning, creates charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening. Arguably there is an evident colonial outlook whereby we view the developing world as a place to loot, while simultaneously praising ourselves on our humanitarian worry for its people. Privileged folk or dominant companies sending off a handful of volunteers can use developing countries as a space in which white egos can be suitably projected. It is a space where no rules apply when satisfying their emotional needs and yet still be hailed as a God or a national hero. Planting white saviour ‘activism’ under the header of ‘making a difference’ encapsulates all that is wrong with quick, cheap, and cheerful volunteering where the end goal is to boast about it on your Instagram to appear like a hippy cultural God.
Okay so now comes the bit where I say, ‘I’m currently writing this while volunteering in India’ and you spit out your Starbucks coffee and goes “ugh what a hypocrite”. However, good news! There is ethical volunteering whereby volunteers work alongside grassroot organizations, offering their skills, expertise, and support in certain areas.
SERVE is an Irish organization where their mission is to work in solidarity, service, and partnership with marginalized and oppressed communities. Every aspect of their work is focused on creating sustainable initiatives with the community and never without them. As much as we are the teacher, we are also very much the student too in every experience. Ethical volunteering is making sure that we utilise our privilege to highlight the great work done by citizens and their communities, making sure not to sit on the throne on behalf of all their hard work.
Lastly, I’m not writing this to exclude myself from this critique. I am aware that even the minerals in my phone is most likely a product of mal-treated workers. But to ignore the privilege the colour of my skin, education, and passport offers would be a gross shame. To be of any help to anyone is better than being stuck in a bubble of luxury and ignorance.
- Check out the Instagram page called ‘barbiesavior’ for a satirical comment on the ethics behind volunteering.
- The Guardian, poverty porn & activism aid .