The White Savior Industrial Complex and Voluntourism.

I do want to clarify that I am a privileged white US citizen – for years, I donated to many organizations where I could perform in a white savior way (sponsoring orphans to go to school, adopting endangered animals, etc). I dreamed of saving Africa and spent years building my life around that dream (something I now realize is not only incredibly vague but also super problematic).

I uncritically donated my time, energy, and money to organizations that made me feel warm and like a do gooder. But I realize now that there was plenty of work that I supported that didn’t got straight into developing sustainable solutions but instead to make people just like me feel a little better about the world’s problems. I also spent several months volunteering in a rural community in western Kenya and it wasn’t really until the last couple years where I realized my own active participation in the white savior industrial complex.

Andrew Hernann wrote about his similar experiences of participating in the white savior complex and the ways in which the work abroad actually reinforce the same oppression it’s trying to fight. He addressed the fact that he spent time volunteering in Kenya and eventually did research about the work done by outsiders (read: wealthy white folks) impacted local communities.  At one point, he acknowledges the fact that:

Despite the presence of so many outside charities, though, the livelihoods of most of the community members remain unchanged.

And the voluntourism/white savior complex is a growing business, one in which has been said to spend roughly $2 billion each year and very much supports the existing status quo. (After all, in the face of capitalism and US greed, why would you try to actively end a problem like poverty and children losing parents when these are issues that literally bring in billions every year in voluntourism?)

The big business side of this isn’t the only issue at hand – there are plenty of ethical questions about the market of voluntourism, like creating a market for orphans in the town, taking away work that could have very easily gone to a local person, etc. Plus there tends to be this othering of people living in developing countries where voluntourism is big.

I don’t think that people who participate in voluntourism or the white savior industrial complex are all inherently evil people, in small part because my own actions make me one of those people. But also because we as a society within the US have this way to not checking privilege, of not talking about the racial privilege that white people have in the US. These are systemic and individual problems – we have to address both.

Additionally, I don’t think that people who participate in this industrial complex and business should get off free and clear of criticism – it’s important that we address the fact that people who participate in these systems are also complicit in the problematic natures. Plus, we need talk about the issues with the white savior complex and voluntourism but that we also start to actually address it through concrete actions that actively deal with all of the issues at play.

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2 thoughts on “The White Savior Industrial Complex and Voluntourism.

  1. I’d be interested to see you unpack this topic more, if you’re planning on writing about it again – especially the impact of the voluntourism movement on local communities when those help and dollars are going to communities halfway across the world, instead of the person’s own backyard (so to speak).

    • Thank you!! I’m actually super excited to look into this and write more in the future (particularly based on my own experience in Kenya). And at least to me, the biggest outcome of these voluntourism trips seem to be the feel good experience for the wealthy travelers than the local communities but that’s my own take.

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