SOLD TO RICH WESTERNERS FOR A LIMITED TIME.
(Until the human race slowly peters out during our own long foreseen downfall or whatever).
This has been really truly hard to write. I’ve attempted to research, I’ve watched documentaries, I’ve tried really hard to make this sound educated.
But there are already so many very educated, solid blogs/sources/creative ventures on this topic out there: here, here, here and here. So I’m just going to let my brain fart all over a page about a HUGE topic that I need to order my thoughts around:
Is it actually OKAY for me (or anyone) to be volunteering overseas as a white ‘Western’ person in the name of ‘development’?
If any of the following post is problematic in any way, feel free to call me out on it. I’m going to use some awful terms for lack of better ones in my vocab- ‘less developed’ is possibly going to pop up as I hate the alternatives more (under developed, third world) if you’ve got a suggestion for how I can expand my vocab please feel free to assist.
I’d like to just acknowledge to start that I’m a privileged little shit.
(Not so much of the latter half of that only sometimes do I display kinda shitty behaviour). I’m white, able bodied, middle class and cisgender. When I go overseas to volunteer I can leave whenever I want. I can spend money on whatever I want within SOME parameters (last time I was overseas my dad bailed me out many times); I can get medical attention faster; I can slack off on the job more; I can go on beach holidays to party; I can transcend local gender roles in some circumstances; I can have my birth language prioritised and even exalted. These are all privileges I’ve taken advantage of in the past.
I would also like to acknowledge, before I begin questioning what I am doing this year and seeming incredibly pessimistic at some stage (it’s bound to happen) that this job is different. My first experience was straight out of high school and as beautifully rewarding as it was for me I was completely out of my depth professionally. This year, there is a reciprocal relationship that has been carefully formed to not rely upon a power dynamic. There is an actual need for my particular skills (???? I have those somewhere I think) in the job I’ll be partaking in. The job is paid, I report back on progress, there is an expectation that I will be increasing the capacity of the business to give back to the community.
My concerns still remain. There are many reasons why Westerners probably shouldn’t physically volunteer overseas for the sake of development. These have been well articulated in pieces that are better than mine (as listed above). The gist of it is: Western volunteers take jobs from locals who could probably do them better (there are SO MANY great organisations that are run by local people to benefit their own communities already); Volunteers have the privilege of being able to leave (along with many other privileges); Local people should be empowered by other locals rather than us continuing the ‘Western hero/warrior’ troupe; Aid and volunteering are extensions of colonialism as it is almost always catered in some way to the needs of the richer country- it keeps others dependent.
Western volunteering commodifies acts of kindness. It makes them a sometimes thing that if done once or twice in ones life immediately makes one a ‘good person’ even if one continues to be a perpetrator in harmful systems (such as Capitalism) (Who decides what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ by the way? Can somebody enlighten me?) (So many brackets. Too many). This is often called the ‘White Saviour Complex’. Voluntourism also costs A LOT of money and this does not all reach the community that a person is intending on ‘helping’. The fact that it costs so much to be a ‘good person’ cements the idea that goodness, kindness, generosity and helpfulness are all attributes that belong inherently to the rich. Even if poorer people are helping out within their own communities, this is not advertised as often because in the West we like to think that our own countries are free from poverty. Volunteering often fits into a system that will continue to degrade and oppress those in less developed countries long after individual volunteers have jetted off. It often will not question this system as aid is basically just funding from those in power.
Our system works in a way that emphasises personal economic growth and worldwide recognition for this as having ‘made it’. As much as I feel like whatever I’m doing is headed toward my ‘life calling’ (whatever that is, it probably just means that I’m not currently talented enough to do anything other than use English words) it means that I, as a white body with my many privileges, am using the experiences and hardships of poorer people/people of colour/people in the area I’m working in to get to a sense of having ‘made it’. It doesn’t just happen in development but it is particularly ironic in this field. How have we made it ok to use people in order to claw to the top and leave them in a metaphoric pile underneath us- dismissing the fact that they have a unique contribution to the world and the richness of life on Earth?
Although development and volunteering from the outside seem selfless there is a large degree of individualism prioritised over the collective good. There are remnants of past colonialist and racist attitudes in some practise (how can there not be if we haven’t fully addressed this or dealt with reparations!?). There are ideas that volunteering for 2 weeks and then escaping back to comfort will perhaps make you a ‘good’ person for a long period of time.
I still believe that despite all this volunteering can be useful and positive. It needs to be done of as equal a platform as possible with the voices within a host country being met first and foremost. Most importantly (I tell myself every time my Western ego gets too inflated over nothing) the volunteer has to realise that they cannot and SHOULD NOT change the world for the ‘better’. Give back as much as you can but first sit down, shut up and listen to what is required of you in a particular context. Your version of utopia does not match up to everyone’s and you don’t know half of what you think you do (again, more a message to self but can’t hurt right?)
THIS IS MY BRAIN I KNOW IT’S STRESSFUL I’M SORRY. It’s in the progress of life-long growth, if you can contribute to that with any comments you have on this topic please do so.