What instagram account @barbiesavior teaches us about White Saviour Complex

With a satirical touch, @barbiesavior shines a light on the oppressive sides of Western volunteer culture. Karenita Haalk gives tips on how to avoid becoming Barbie saviour yourself — and actually help people.

“You inspire me to be the best person. One of the happiest moments in your life was definitely when you met me. You asked me when I was coming back. I am sorry to tell you that there is a very small chance we are ever going to meet again. I have a lot of other children to take selfies with. It keeps me busy. Something you may not know about saviours is that we can see the future...in two years you are going to meet a grown-up man that you have never met before, you two are going to have a child. And then, a white woman will come to your child and give her the best day of her life. Just like I have given to you. Ah, the circle of life.” 

With fictional stories like these, @barbiesavior offers an exaggerated version of the stereotypical — and often self-serving — intentions behind short-term volunteers in developing countries. 

Although meme culture might not be the ideal medium for challenging bigotry, the account is surprisingly eye-opening. Aside from the entertainment value, the posts capture the problematic, swept-under-the-carpet dynamics of white voluntourism. Voluntourism is shorthand for the voluntary work privileged people do in foreign countries. Their missions have an aftertaste of sensation-seeking — especially when they crop up on social media channels. 

Neocolonialism, White Saviour Complex, and volunteering

Hidden beneath @barbiesavior’s humour lies a serious issue – neocolonialist attitudes. Neocolonialism, in the broadest sense, is the result of Western interference in developing countries. It implies the superiority of ‘first world’ countries – through enforcing their economics, education, or infrastructure – disguised as a token of generosity. Ignorance is cloaked under good deeds and improvement plans, which tend to cause more harm than good: because a one-size-fits-all approach rarely works. 

We see this play out with some volunteers. Their social media accounts suggest they’re contributing to the salvation of an entire country— all through a temporary, self-serving volunteer experience. @barbiesavior perfectly captures ‘White Savior Complex’ —“It is not about me but it kind of is” a term coined by Teju Cole in 2012. 

White Savior complex stems from the racist, brutal history between Western and developing countries. While the intention of voluntourism itself might not be demeaning; like colonialism, White Savior Complex dehumanizes and infantilizes third world countries. The term doesn’t criticize the work itself — which may fragmentally eradicate poverty — but rather the power dynamics that it represents. 

The dark side of volunteering

In the West, charity revolves around the idea that even the smallest acts are worthwhile. While volunteer work certainly contributes to the bigger picture, its fugitive nature is often counterproductive. The crux of the matter lies in its inconsistency. I.e. teaching children English might improve their language skills, but the continuous rotation of caregivers can leave them with psychological dents, like attachment issues. 

Lack of professional skill is sidelined by the carte blanche (quite literally) of being a Westerner: “Who needs a formal education to teach in Africa? Not me! All I need is some chalk and a dose of optimism. It’s so sad that they don’t have enough trained teachers here. I’m not trained either, but I’m from the West, so it all works out.” 

Voluntourism has the dangerous side effect of encouraging charities to focus on money; favouring profit over doing good. It deliberately maintains poor conditions to create ‘tasks’ for volunteers. Blatantly put: projects are created to appeal to volunteers, who are willing to pay money for the ‘experience’ of seemingly selfless acts, rather than to help people.

We can reverse this harm by closely examining charities with volunteer opportunities. Consistency and long-term improvements are hugely important for the evolution of local communities.

Drawing the attention away from the foreign saviour who rushes to save a seemingly doomed land is another way to cure this dynamic. As the Instagram Account @nowhitesaviors run by Olivia Aalso and Kelsey Nielsen puts it: “We never said no white people, we just know you shouldn’t be the hero of the story. If you are not uncomfortable you are not listening.” 

How can I volunteer without encouraging white saviourism?

The crux lies in intention. Sincerity, integrity, and most importantly respect should be the driving force behind philanthropy – rather than self-development, self-presentation, or seeking a ‘calling’, ‘purpose’ or ‘mission’ or a feeling of superiority.

As @barbiesavior says: When I first walked through the gates of the orphanage, a flood of children ran to me. I have never felt more loved or needed. My cup is full and I am forever changed. These precious little ones, who laugh in the face of much trial, who choose joy despite their circumstances, inspire me”.

But sincerity, integrity and respect are fragile subjects. Relying on someone's moral compass can nourish self-justification, personal biases, and ‘not all White volunteers … ’ narratives. Here’s how to do it right:

1. Inform yourself about volunteer dynamics in developing countries

Evolving from outdated beliefs always starts with a reset of ideas. Reading up on topics surrounting voluntourism and White Saviour Complex (like neo-colonialism), questioning your views and dogmas, and educating yourself with reliable sources, is a step in the right direction. You can’t go wrong when you reflect upon and reevaluate former decisions.

2. Realise there is more than one picture of third world countries

It’s easy for volunteers to reduce countries and communities to a picture drawn by the media and the charity world. But these places are just as rich in culture, traditions, beliefs, and values, as everywhere else. Communities have their own unique perspectives and visions. They’re not ‘in need’ of helping hands to civilise, industrialise, and digitise them. Denying countries sovereignty (power to govern themselves) is a form of oppression, just as we saw in colonal times. 

3. Don’t spread images with (unironic) @barbiesavior vibes

Instead, share content that communicates the purpose or root causes of a project. This can take on many forms: collecting money through posting donation links, sharing first-hand information from local communities, or highlighting their stories, missions, visions, and accomplishments — instead of your own. 

4. Support charities that work closely with local communities

Charities that do well in Kinder's evaluations fulfil this criteria. They have long-term plans, and are closely inspected for the presence of local spokespeople — who work with the kind of endurance and urgency that no temporary, foreign volunteer could match. 

Evaluations ask charities to examine their intentions. Is there evidence that the solution they're offering will actually work? Is there a Plan B? Have they asked the locals if they even consider this a problem— or do they have other priorities? For those wanting to dedicate their time to a cause: charities on this platform are a great place to start. 

Written by Karenita Haalck

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