White Savior Industrial Complex? To Volunteer or Not


Katie with Ms. Joyce, a friend who works at a local infirmary.


written by: Katie Warner | John Carroll University ’13 

Editor’s Note: Katie is currently serving as a year-long volunteer with the Passionist Volunteers International in Mandeville, Jamaica.  This post was originally posted on Katie’s blog entitled “The Jamaican Experiment.”

More often than not my bouts of access to the Internet are consumed with long overdue correspondences with friends and family. Recently, however, as I procrastinate writing articles for the Diocese of Mandeville at my desk job, I took time to scroll through my Facebook newsfeed. Quite frankly I was left curious but most of all concerned.

I came across three or so articles referencing in some way or another a latest upswing in the “trend” of our millennial generation and its propensity towards “volunteering” (yes I am using air quotes as I write this).

Entering the closing month of my own year of volunteer service, I was initially intrigued with an undercurrent of defensiveness. I was disgusted and saddened at the commentary the articles highlighted, yet I could not help but nod in agreement throughout.

Needless to say, after much deliberation I felt compelled to respond.

All three articles in some way or another referenced the concept annoyingly yet aptly dubbed as “voluntourism” (The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism, Huffington Post) defined for the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves not what they actually bring to the communities they serve. I was educated about the latest “#instagrammingAfrica” (#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism, Pacific Standard), the Western Savior narrative as well as the “White Savior Industrial Complex” (The White-Savior Industrial Complex, The Atlantic). Objectively I discovered that the authors made a convincing case, some seemingly more biased than others, yet nonetheless thought provoking.

In all honesty I was disappointed to admit that in many ways my first two experiences of volunteering, first twelve days in Ecuador followed by a similarly brief stint in Guatemala, mirrored these authors points fairly closely. These experiences were life changing for me, I have numerous pictures and profile pictures highlighting my experiences and the relationships I wanted to remember from them, I shared poignant moments from the days work at our nightly reflections of whatever experiences of poverty and simplicity struck me that day.

However in hindsight and with full transparency I am forced to admit that much of the work and the service provided in those weeks would have to be thoroughly rationalized in order for me to justify the “help” that was really provided to those we “served.”

DISCLAIMER: this is not to say that my short-term volunteer experiences were all for naught.

Did they shift my world perspective? Alert my perceptions of justice and injustice in our world? Impassion and enliven me to commit my life to finding solutions to social inequality and disparity of resources? And most fundamentally lead me to committing one year of my life towards a long-term experience in Mandeville, Jamaica?

Heck yes they did.

Now I realize that those are all I-statements, Me-focused concepts. What is the point of a “Volunteer” experience if the only person I am truly aiding is myself? Well there in lies the trap of voluntourism, which I will (somewhat begrudgingly) agree is becoming a disturbing trend promoted through the propagation of social media which despairingly for some results in a narcisstic, self-centered form of service in which people with time and money take it upon themselves to “give” simply for the potential of a new profile picture and a pat on the back.

I committed to one year of volunteering in a third world country subsequent to my graduation from college not simply because I was putting off entering the real world and a 9-5 job, I wanted to defer the inevitable onset of student loan payments, or because I wanted to see the smiles of the children amidst the poverty and feel good about myself for helping them in some way. Truthfully, it’s because I felt a call from God; I had these questions deep in my soul upon the conclusion of my time first in Ecuador and then in Guatemala. I asked myself what this experience would be like if I lived it everyday? What are the problems and issues that I don’t notice during this whirlwind tour of poverty and disparity? What does this picture paint without the romanticism of this “voluntourism” concept? Wouldn’t it be nice to know the name of each child in my photos? Truthfully I felt compelled in my heart to search for these answers, I felt called to put myself in the midst of it all in order to discover them. I wanted to sit comfortably in the grittiness of it all and discover why God was calling me to this.

I was fortunate enough to find the perfect program, which allowed me to live and walk amongst the people I would be volunteering with, day-by-day getting to know them as persons and not just a population in need, listening first with open ears and restraining my hands from action. As PVI’s we are actually forbidden by contract of falling into this “white savior complex,” of imposing our western ideas and offering handouts that would not be sustainable to the communities we minister to.

In my missions here I have lived in their homes, been in the middle of their arguments, seen their tears and cried with them, witnessed the stress of financial problems and felt the terror in the lack of basic resources and amenities. Can I perfectly empathize with their struggles? No, because I don’t know what it’s like firsthand. After 11 months though I do know it pretty damn well secondhand.

Do I fly in with my Western knowledge, college degree and bank account to save them from these? No. Quite frankly none of those would help these deep running issues, the real plight they face and when I leave here in one months time where would that leave them?

No, I come here to listen, to understand, to encourage, empowering them just as I would strive to empower any of my friends, family members or people that I love. What makes me so qualified to do this? Well, not much besides the fact that God has asked me to. I think it is important that there is someone here to listen with a sympathetic and objective ear to their problems, that they feel the time and attention given to them and discover their worth. To have that consistent presence with them to help them brainstorm and discover their own talents and gifts that will lead them out of a rut. To use my own talents and gifts to increase their faith, their knowledge, their worldview.

Living as the minority in this culture it is difficult not to fall into the white privilege complex, to become the white savior that people on the street beg me to be when they ask me for food, money and the clothes off my back simply because they associate the color of my skin with power and wealth. But where would that leave them? I have been blessed my whole life, I have lived a life of privilege and comfort, so should I just sit and bask in that the rest of my life? Or do I abandon my bank account and rather rely on the abundance of spirit, strength and resources that have yet to be tainted by suffering in my own life, to try and bolster another’s spirit, somehow enter into another’s suffering with a renewed strength to walk them through it.

In selfish defense of my own volunteer efforts I strive with renewed commitment to not provide the immediate fix, to not impose my western ideals of efficiency and wisdom; but rather to embolden and empower those people who I have walked with and who have touched my heart, who I have entered into a mutual exchange with. I strive to let God lead me, and to take pictures of relationships, not people.

So basically what I’m saying is this blog post has unintentionally turned into an advertisement for a long-term service commitment (Passionist Volunteers International anyone??). I would encourage you and your friends and family to participate in any type of service or missionary experience whether overseas or domestic, I myself am a testament to the life changing powers they can have. But before you embark on said trip I simply ask that you examine your motives and the motives of the program you are traveling with and look for God’s guiding hand in it.

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