Picture it’s the 15th century, and a Spaniard is coming to the New World for the rumored riches to be found in “India.” However, he instead uses the purpose of spreading his religion as a coverup for his less-than-spiritual intentions. Once he arrives, he takes out his iPhone and takes a selfie with an indigenous child, only to post it on his Instagram with the caption “so humbled <3.”
For a long time, we’ve seen third world countries become marked by white people as prime places to go and “save,” or as I would consider it, “conquer.” This ego of entitlement isn’t too far gone with our past. However, it carries on into modern missionary work overseas today.
I am not trying to diminish the concept of volunteering altogether. Charities and ethics groups fight every day to bring positive change across the world. Unfortunately, they still fall victim to the bad wrap given by a few rotten apples.
What exactly do “voluntourists” want out of these experiences?
Among the most honest of the well-meaning answers, “wanting or needing to be humbled,” would stand out as number one.
This mentality, intentional or not, is selfish. This experience shouldn’t be about you in any way, shape or form. Instead, it should be about the effects on the people you’re helping.
If your intent is solely to find your own humility or gratefulness, why travel to a different country when you can see poverty first hand in the U.S.?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 estimates, 12.3% of U.S. citizens live in poverty. Even worse, the poverty rate in Louisiana is 7.3% higher than the national average. Nearly one in five residents of the state lives in poverty.
You can help people who are less fortunate than you by volunteering at local soup kitchens, homeless shelters and food banks. This notion of needing to go overseas to get this type of experience creates an “otherness” of the people there. This disconnects and distances the volunteer from the humanity of those being helped.
Maybe you are aware that this experience isn’t about you at all, and you do want to make a difference in someone’s life thousands of miles away.
You go overseas and spend your time building schools and homes while learning about the stories and lifestyles of those you’re helping. There is no doubt that the people you came in contact with were mentally affected by your generosity. However, a structure built by a college student, who more than likely has never built anything more than Ikea furniture, isn’t what this community needs.
In Teju Cole’s 2012 piece, “The White-Savior Industrial Complex,” he said “those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”
A nicely built school isn’t going to defeat poverty, save a failing government or overcome the lack of law and order. What these third-world countries really need is activism for social changes, government reformation and the installation of democracy.
You may have built a beautiful school, but the community has no teachers or even a system of ensuring that the children show up to class. This doesn’t even guarantee the admittance of women into the community’s schools.
Volunteers can begin by staying at home and making a difference. Any citizen can play a role in voting in elections and protesting for Uncle Sam to use his leading-country power for good.
People on mission trips have the motive of evangelizing people who didn’t ask to be evangelized. This is essentially religious colonialism.
Before you go on that mission trip across the globe, take into consideration your reasoning. At least make sure your exploitation of the less fortunate isn’t with the intent to gain social media engagement or to add to a future job resume.
Gabrielle Martinez is an 18-year-old mass communication freshman from Gonzales, Louisiana.