As social media provides an opportunity to hear voices previously unheard, it is hard to escape discussions about the “white saviour syndrome”. The most popular definition for “white saviour” on Urban Dictionary is: „White saviour refers to western people going in to “fix” the problems of struggling nations or people of colour without understanding their history, needs, or the region’s current state of affairs.“ The example given is: „Invisible Children aims to hold the solutions of three American filmmakers above the African activists who have lived and worked in the affected communities their whole lives. Talk about white saviours. “
White saviour syndrome describes a situation in which a person from a rich country, usually racialized as white, goes to a developing country for a short period of time and attempts to solve the local community’s problems, often for the purpose of presenting a positive image of themselves. These situations have certain characteristics. The projects are often planned short term or rely on certain expertise that does not exist locally. The solutions are often not fitted to the needs of the local community, e.g., houses are built that don’t fit the local climate or are built even though clean water is needed more urgently. People working in the projects have little expertise or experience in the specific area and do a poor job as a result. Finally, the people who are helped by the projects are often infantilized or seen as incapable, in desperate need of outside help or painted as a victim. As a result, they often lose their dignity in the process.
Unfortunately, many volunteering projects show similar characteristics. A service with the European Solidarity Corps is inherently timed, the volunteers are rarely experts in the area they work in and the presentation on social media often evokes images of the white saviour.
Does that mean helping people in other countries is inherently morally bankrupt and should therefore not be attempted? The social movement “effective altruism” suggests otherwise. Founded by Toby Ord and William MacAskill in the late 2000s, the movement defines itself as „the project of using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking actions on that basis “. It is a movement that aims at using the resources at hand the optimal way in order to do the most good for the most people possible with them. As an example, effective altruists always ask themselves when donating whether giving the money to people directly would benefit them more than the projects they are donating to. If a project e.g., vaccinates the local community, it is seen as an additional benefit because locals often do not spend their money on health care or have limited access to it. But if a project spends half their money on advertising, the donation would be more effective as cash-only directly into the hands of the benefited. Effective altruists also have a rule of only bringing experts or goods into a country if they do not exist locally. And if there is a local deficit, they try passing on their expertise or build up a local supply of these goods where possible.
What does that mean for us, the volunteers, specifically? It means that we, as people who have been overwhelmingly born into fortunate circumstances, have the obligation to support others. And to do so in the most effective way possible. Effective altruists acknowledge how hard this task is. But also, how important. The movement argues that we have been blessed with resources we can use to benefit others and that we therefore have the obligation to do so. In the case of us volunteers it is mostly our time we can give. Which is not a resource to be underestimated. Furthermore, a lot of young people use their voluntary service as an opportunity to find a career they want to pursue further. A big focus of the effective altruism movement is on the 80.000 hours the average worker spends at their job. Volunteering has two big benefits regarding this aspect. Firstly, a lot of volunteering projects are in the social or ecological field and by participating, volunteers get to figure out their individual strengths and whether they would like to stay in these fields during their future career. And secondly, regardless of what job volunteers work at, they gain a strong awareness of both the problems present and possible solutions to aide them. This gives them a unique perspective when choosing which career to go into.
Volunteering is therefore an action with both potential good and bad consequences. But is there a way to make sure that volunteering has a baseline positive effect? One approach to volunteering is to focus on cooperating with the clients instead of trying to help them. Cooperating with someone puts them into an active position instead of a passive one. This approach suggests that the client already know the best solution to their problems and just need support in order to implement it. Cooperating means respecting clients and seeing them as equal partners instead of petitioners. It means ensuring that the implemented projects can be continued long term by strengthening local structures. Cooperating instead of helping also means a mindful approach to social media. It can sometimes be hard to find the right balance between raising awareness and falling into the trap of white saviourism. But the goal is to preserve the dignity of the clients also in the images presented and making sure posts highlight the humanity and resources of the clients.
Furthermore, it can be argued that volunteers do in fact bring resources into their project countries that do not exist there already, as is requested by effective altruism. International volunteers bring an intercultural perspective to the problems they face. They also bring their motivation, energy and, most importantly, time to the projects. All of these things often lack locally because personnel is tight, and people are busy. The intercultural perspective is shared with the community and that way, expertise is preserved locally. Volunteers also bring resources back to their home country: new perspectives, skills and ideas and connections that will hopefully enable future projects.
Finding the balance of cooperating instead of helping is no small task. But as effective altruism tells us, it is our duty to approach it with as much thoughtfulness and deliberation as we can muster.
Sources and further reading:
1: MacAskill, William (January 2017). "Effective altruism: introduction". Page 2. Essays in Philosophy. 18 (1): eP1580:1–5. doi:10.7710/1526-0569.1580. ISSN 1526-0569. Retrieved 2022-03-31.
https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=White%20savior retrieved at 17.3.22
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effective_altruism retrieved at 18.3.22
picture: https://i1.wp.com/strasburgfilm.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/shenwk1_whtsavior2.png?fit=1200%2C628&ssl=1 retrieved at 31.3.22