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Orientalism and the Neo-Imperialism of ‘Voluntourism’

Photo: Barbie Savior

Edward Said’s criticism of exoticized and patronizing Western views of the East that he claims drive historical “Orientalist” study is echoed in the way that Western development approaches the “developing world,” especially Africa. The millennial trend of “voluntourism” encapsulates this neo-imperialist approach.

The term “voluntourism” has emerged as the practice of high school and college-age students spending vacations volunteering in Africa or other parts of the developing world has become more popular. Low-skilled, enthusiastic, well-intentioned Westerners travel to impoverished areas of the world that have long been the losers in colonialist, imperialist, and first-vs-third world orders.

Dr. Catherine Weaver, an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, is critical of such efforts: “There’s been an immense amount of damage done by voluntourism and NGOs working under the best of intentions, but despite those good intentions, doing some very, very bad things.” In an interview, Dr. Weaver describes the dependencies created by foreign aid and private philanthropy. In many cases, she says, aid groups can enable in-country governments to “sidestep some of the more proactive roles that they need to be providing [to their populations].”

In response, Dr. Weaver studies the way that international aid is distributed in developing countries. She and her students work with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to coordinate efforts and promote transparency throughout development industries to make the money given by the U.S. government or international organizations more useful to those who are receiving assistance from abroad.

“It’s just really insulting in a way – they [volunteer groups] just don’t even try to understand the problems they’re trying to solve. They just go away with these presumptions about what’s wrong, and their presupposed solution,” Dr. Weaver says.

The assumption that relatively unskilled Westerners can drop into a community and do good simply by being well-intentioned implies an inherent superiority in their identity and culture. Within the spirit of voluntourism is the underlying assumption that it is exposure to Western culture that will, by nature of its being Western, solve the problems of “undeveloped” nations.

Said describes this assumption of cultural superiority and the power that the culture holds as the driving force behind Orientalist thought: “It is hegemony, or rather the result of cultural hegemony at work, that gives Orientalism the durability and the strength I have been speaking about so far.”

An extension of the assumption of cultural superiority is the focus on the individual “helper” instead of the humanity of the “helped.” Nigerian novelist and essayist Teju Cole observed the narcissistic nature of humanitarian work in the developing world in a series of tweets that he authored in 2012 after the release of the NGO Invisible Children’s documentary entitled “Kony 2012” about a warlord in central Africa. “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice,” Cole writes, “It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Rather than respecting the humanity and agency of the people subject to voluntourists’ whims, the industry overemphasizes the importance of the experience for the privileged helper.

This hijacking of human agency can also be described as a failure to attribute human traits to those that the voluntourist is attempting to help. Said’s message was the same regarding the Orientalist and those subject to the Orientalist’s study: “I consider Orientalism’s failure to have been a human [one] as much as an intellectual one; for in having to take up a position of irreducible opposition to a region of the world it considered alien to its own, Orientalism failed to identify with human experience, failed also to see it as human experience.” Though the well-meaning voluntourists are often genuinely filled with compassion for the people they hope to “save,” the unending emphasis on the Westerner creates the same failure to see the human experience and the human agency of the “helped.”

Pippa Biddle is a self-described “little white girl” who took part in many voluntourism trips to Tanzania, the Dominican Republic, and others, and writes about the negative impact that these trips can have on communities. The nature of short-term volunteer trips leads organizations to treat “long term issues as if they were immediate needs,” Biddle explains in a phone interview. She’s full of examples: “No teachers in the schools? The volunteer’s solution is to be that teacher.” In reality, a lack of teachers speaks to more systemic problems that can be overlooked when the symptoms are treated by outsiders.

After years of participating in short term trips to do work that she was ill-prepared to do, Biddle concluded that the charade of sending young, idealistic, unskilled Americans to do the complicated work of international aid was the wrong way to do it. “Long term development isn’t easy,” Biddle explains. The tendency for volunteer travel companies is to give these “unskilled children” singular projects that are easy to complete and can be repeated over and over. For example, tasking volunteer groups with painting walls in the Caribbean, a humid climate where poorly applied paint will begin to peel quickly. The following year, the organization can book another group to swoop in to add another layer to the peeling walls.

Biddle also writes about her unease with the cultural impact that the “white savior” can have on young minds receiving aid from Westerners: “I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes.” Her reflections combat the narcissism of voluntourism. “Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.”

Biddle pushes back against the Western-centric nature of voluntourism and international development aid as a whole, but stops short of discussing the cultural implications of this new form of Orientalism as it relates to Africa and the developing world. Cole pushes further: “I deeply respect American sentimentality,” he writes, “the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.”

Weaver argues that these independent development projects can undermine broader development frameworks at the national level. “There’s a lot of dependencies on foreign aid and private philanthropy that enables governments to sidestep some of the more proactive roles that they need to be providing for,” she explains. “Unless you’re a private foundation with millions of dollars to give away, if you’re going in with drips and drabs of money and you’re building the occasional school and etcetera and not fitting it into a broader framework of development in collaboration with other actors, you are doing more harm than good. And that needs to stop.” She goes on to push for more “naming and shaming” of these well intentioned but ultimately destructive volunteering efforts.

The Peace Corps is an organization often heralded for it’s altruism, and volunteers are generally more highly skilled than those taking high school and college trips to paint walls. Yet, the same problems of reinforcing an asymmetrical cultural order are present even within a more expert, less comfortable version of voluntourism. “It’s inherently neocolonialist or condescending,” says Rusty Rothenbuescher, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Côte d’Ivoire. “You’re automatically inferring that there’s something wrong with the place you’re at,” he continues. “You’re conveying that you are above the people that you’re ‘helping.’”

Rothenbuescher works for the U.S. government now, and describes the “white savior complex” as “rampant” in government. “There’s a fair amount of pretention in our interactions,” he says. “We make a spectacle out of ourselves.”

Many argue that regardless of the costs, there is an inherent value in the cultural exchange. Young people who may otherwise not be exposed to poverty are able to see it first hand, and face-to-face contact with those who live differently has the potential to create empathy where there might otherwise be ignorance. However, travel without the helping component has the potential to provide these benefits without the costs inherent to voluntourism. The global reach of American cultural hegemony intoxicates young idealists with the myth that their cultural superiority itself is a gift to the communities they sacrifice their time and money to serve.

Edited by: Elizabeth Petruy

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