Growing up, traveling with my family was the thing that got me motivated to finish the term on a good academic note. My family trips like to the Seychelles and Thailand, will forever be imprinted in my memories.
Another thing that really motivated me at a later stage, was volunteering on Wednesdays at a school for Syrian refugees to help support them with numeracy and literacy skills in remedial learning. Hearing the plight of these students was really emotional and educational and is what motivated me to want to pursue a degree in social policy and politics.
In my penultimate year of high school, I found out about a volunteering trip my school was organizing to Laos and it exhilarated me. The thought of combining two of my favorite activities, volunteering and traveling, seemed perfect. So in March of 2019, 12 other students and I, along with our principal and another teacher, made the 16-hour trip to Laos to participate in an eco-bungalow project: a project that uses only natural and available resources mindful of the environment, to provide a remote village in the Luang Prabang district the opportunity to generate their own alternative income from small scale tourism thus empowering them socially, economically, and politically.
And indeed, the trip was perfect, from the clean air in the village we stayed in and the crystal blue waterfalls we saw, to seeing how the monks wake up very early and walk through the village, and everything in between, this trip remains the best one I’ve been on. Furthermore, as there was no telephone service where we were staying, my friends and I had a digital detox as we disconnected from the internet, and connected with each other in a way we never had.
I also learned many lessons about Laos and Vietnam’s histories, the role of the US in the region, and about their sustainable development programs. The trip in addition taught me things like how to build a sturdy structure out of only natural materials, as well as teaching me to appreciate the little things in life that many of us take for granted. Especially after seeing how some children walk several hours a day to reach their school, when many of us complain about anything longer than a 10-minute walk.
But it wasn’t until later that I learned the biggest lesson. Looking back at the trip, I realized it was a lot about what “I” learned, like the value of simplicity and modesty. Or about how “I” felt accomplished and rewarded by participating in an eco-bungalow project to help the villagers accommodate tourists to generate income and long term growth. Or also about how “I” learned a few new words or Laotian customs. All this made me wonder, who was this trip really about?
This reflection, along with the plethora of posts I saw on social media of people from high income backgrounds posting about their trips to places like Tanzania with children in rural villages, made me wonder about some of the challenges that trips like the one I had been on, might create, and the culture of “white saviorism” and “poverty porn” that they might feed into and reinforce. In our attempts to help, might some of us be causing more damage than good?
White saviorism, or the “white savior complex” is a term coined by Nigerian, American writer Teju Cole. Essentially, it refers to making oneself feel better but disguising it as helping others. It does not only refer to “white” people, but can be applied to people from all groups. The term highlights issues such as travel privileges which allow people from certain socioeconomic groups to go across the world and aggrandize themselves under the guise of “helping others”. Such trips can be very imbalanced and one-sided and only continue to reinforce unfair power dynamics and neocolonialialism. Similarly, poverty porn refers to media which “exploits” the conditions of a certain group who usually experiences some sort of hardship and is often used for “entertaining a privileged audience”.
Ironically, some people will spend thousands of dollars to go on such a trip, but will not even drive around their own city to less privileged areas to see what conditions are like there, or how they can help in their own communities. This is harmful because it feeds into narratives and ideas that the “Western World” has all the answers and reinforces reliance of countries in the Global South on the Global North. Furthermore, these kinds of problems also exacerbate and are supported by the travel and tourism industry which often host tours and adventures of people from the Global North to be “inspired” from without actually educating tourists beyond surface-level issues, as well as sometimes supporting tourist agencies that are not even local.
Social media also plays a big role in supporting white saviorism and poverty porn. Often, tourists take and upload pictures of people they just met. It is true, sometimes people share pictures to just share their experiences, but other times, people share them for likes. And this raises ethical questions because at times these problems ignore the dignity of these people and these people with backgrounds, voices, and histories, become subjects of a picture rather than authors of their own stories and representation.
This does not mean that all volunteering trips are harmful or malintending, but rather, we should be careful and maintain a “woke” way to volunteering. A few key takeaways of how to avoid engaging in activities that promote white saviorism and poverty porn I feel I have learned:
- Researching the place you would like to go and dedicating time to understand its complex histories, cultures, and contemporary issues
- Reflecting on what your intentions are. Are you going because you’re on a quest for self-gratification? Are you going to learn about a new culture? Or are you going because you believe you can create meaningful positive impacts
- Realizing it is not your job to “save everyone” and that being from the Global North does not necessarily mean you have all the answers and best solutions
- Reading about long term-impact. What happens after you leave? Will the community be self-sustainable? Or did you help for five days only? How do you know that you might actually be doing someone good? Is it based on a reliable source?
- Respecting new ideas and commit to keeping an open mind and accepting that you do not have the answers for other people’s problems as well as respecting the differences in culture
- Raise and amplify the voices of the people, IF that’s what they want and avoid misrepresentation
There is hope, however overall, as times are slowly changing. There is a growing emphasis on more local-led tourism and on locals finding ways to become less reliant on foreign money coming and moving away from a culture of exploitation of land and people. There is also a lot of hope as we, a generation that prides ourselves on being “woke”, continue to support movements for change and battling injustices.
Although my trip and my motives were incredibly well-intending, as I’m sure are many others’ when they engage in such programmes and trips, or they simply do not know about potential adverse effects on host communities, it is very important to remain mindful of the nuances of this kind of work. Whether in our own communities or continents away, we should work to challenge the notion that saviors might be from a certain group and work on becoming conscious travelers who empower others and support long term goals (if that’s what they want) while being understanding of the fact that helping others should come from a place of genuine kindness, rather than self-gratification.
Sojourner. “How to Avoid a White Savior Complex • Sojournies.” Sojournies, 1 June 2021, https://sojournies.com/how-to-avoid-white-savior-complex/.