Service Trips, White Savior Complex, and Voluntourism Revisited.

A question to all those going or have gone on international service trips – if you could go with no camera, would you? If you weren’t able to share stories from your trip with people back home, would you still go? If you knew that the people you’re going to help may not want you there, would you still get on that plane?

I’ve gone on service trips before and I’ve spent a summer in Kenya volunteering so I do have some involvement in the voluntourism industry. And I’ve been really thinking about those questions and how much I got out of the experience versus the people I was supposed to help. Who benefited more? Whose life is better because of my trip – me or the people I worked with?

The white savior complex reaffirms so much of the existing status quo and really just seems like necolonialism in sheep’s clothing. And as I’ve written before, because the voluntourism industry makes billions each year, actually ending real problems might not be on the forefront of service trip businesses. Voluntourism businesses can’t sell or make money off of legitimate ways to end poverty or hunger – they sell experiences to people from wealthy backgrounds who want to feel better about traveling abroad.

Looking back on everything, I don’t think that I would have gone on that trip to Kenya several years ago because I realize now that the entire experience was selfishness masked in wanting to do good in the world. Yes, you can have all these wonderful and great intentions as far as these trips go but how much of it will actually help the community you go to? How much harm are these trips perpetuating so that you could have a new Facebook profile picture and a cocktail party anecdote?

I’m guilty of all of this as much as any other person but I realize now that my trip wasn’t as sustainable or great as I thought it would be. Instead of going on these trips or feeling guilty that we have, I think it’s important to challenge the status quo and systemic institutions that perpetuate global inequality. I don’t have all the answers or know where to go next and maybe what I’m saying is wrong – I’m up for being challenged and learning. But I do believe that these trips aren’t helping the right people and it’s time that those of us who have gone on these service trips really reflect on the direct and indirect harm we’ve participated in.