The internet has produced some truly excellent satire lately making fun of white girls going to Africa. Maybe you’ve seen this story in the Onion “6-Day Visit to Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture” or this advice article on the “Four Best Ways to Photograph Yourself Hugging Third-World Children.” I also stumbled across this tumblr the other day: gurlgoestoafrica.tumblr.com.
A common point among all three: these white girls taking trips to Africa all fall into the white saviour industrial complex, where white, wealthy Westerners feel like they have the power and the entitlement to “save” the poor, helpless Other who cannot help themselves…yet the end result is far more about making ourselves feel good and moral and altruistic rather than about having any impact in development, poverty reduction, or social justice. (For a less-satirical explanation of the phenomenon, read The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys).
It’s something I’ve struggled with since I began planning this internship last fall. Is this trip really about more than my own self-image? What impact do I truly have here, and can I really separate this trip from hundreds of years of history in which white people travelled to other places in the world to interfere in the lives of non-white people? Am I anything more than a cliché?
These questions have grown roots in my brain, so much so that I decided to look at it from an academic perspective and write my co-op report about the ethics of volunteering in international development. While perusing the scholarly landscape, I came across some pretty interesting critiques and viewpoints that I’ve been ruminating on for a while.
The first is that volunteers largely choose placements in the “developing” world for selfish motivations, and so the benefits of a volunteer placement mostly flow back to Western volunteers, for example in the form of career advancement or personal growth. These experiences become more like commodities that we as students from the developed world buy and then cash in as “international experience” when we return home, perhaps to beef up a grad school application or to open doors to new job opportunities. We may leave behind token projects and some little pieces of trivia about our home countries, but what we contribute pales in comparison to what we gain; it’s really all about us in the end.
The second argument is that volunteers don’t build formative relationships with people in their host countries, and thus the “Other” remains just that: a group of people who are different, unknowable, and strange, open to our interventions because they are not really fully developed like us. That’s why we can pick up cute African babies for pictures in ways we would never do with children at home. We expect the people we visit to speak English to us and we fail to learn their language; we spend our time with other expats and remain separate from the local community at large. In the workplace, we exercise our privilege without recognizing it: we perhaps make demands on our host organization’s time and resources while our local colleagues have no equivalent access. Our voices are always the ones heard at meetings.
And finally, some academics note that international development volunteers often don’t reflect on the structures and systems that allow them to travel to the Global South to coach, educate, or train people, but prevents those people from the host country from ever travelling to the volunteer’s country to do the same. Volunteers may talk about how “lucky” they are to be Canadian after a stint abroad, though that means that somehow low-income countries have simply been “unlucky.” But it isn’t a question of luck—instead, the world as we know it has been built on power imbalances and unequal wealth distribution, and those systems have been maintained since the time of colonialism through exploitation and domination. To not reflect on that—how we as Westerners are complicit in and benefit from those unfair systems—is, quite frankly, to miss the point.
So, am I more than a cliché? The best I can answer is: maybe.
I did come here for selfish reasons of personal growth, and I know that my placement has impacted me more than I have impacted my host organization. But maybe, as somebody wise recently pointed out to me, the biggest way I can make change will be not here in Malawi but as a catalyst in my networks back in Canada.
While I struggled to make deep connections with Malawians while I was here, I treasure the connections I have made and I will always be optimistic about the potential of human friendships and cross-cultural understanding to lead to greater change. It can be difficult to build relationships in contexts where differences of language, wealth, power, and privilege exist, but it’s possible.
As for reflecting on global systems of inequality: it’s hard to see these systems clearly sometimes when we’re wrapped up in them, but it’s something I think about a lot. Recognizing and reflecting on how the West is complicit in global poverty, and how I benefit from privilege in many ways? Sure, I can do that. How to go about changing it? Much more difficult.
Above all, I can say this: Malawi isn’t the backdrop for my journey of self-discovery. (Though, awkward: it is the backdrop for my Facebook profile picture.) Malawian people I’ve met here are not tools for me to use to grow personally and professionally. The reverse is true: I am a visitor merely passing through this country, an extra in the background caught on camera for one glimpse as Malawi forges ahead with its own story, its own struggles and triumphs. And maybe, just maybe, my time in Malawi has given me better skills and understanding to participate in a movement to make this world one based on justice and solidarity.