On ‘White Saviour Barbie’ and why the conversation matters…

You may have seen the Instagram parody account ‘White Saviour Barbie’ – a  satirical account of a 20-year old service volunteer in Africa, documenting her journey to save children through self-sacrificing selfies. 

The creators of @barbiesaviour have purposefully remained anonymous while maintaining the account, not only to make fun of their own experiences as volunteers in East Africa, but also to be used as a “jumping off point” for real discussion and conversation about the actions and impact of voluntourism. 

Barbie Savior lampoons the “white savior complex,” a term used to describe white Westerners who travel abroad to swoop in and “save” impoverished people of color in developing countries. The account tackles “the attitude that Africa needs to be saved from itself, by Westerners,” which Barbie Saviour’s creators call “such a simplified way to view an entire continent” that “can be traced back to colonialism and slavery”.

While there’s nothing wrong with volunteering where aid is needed, it’s important to critique the context of every situation and acknowledge the history of other regions (colonialism, slavery, White Man’s Burden). Volunteers need to make sure their actions help communities in tangible, responsible ways — and aren’t just driven by a desire to feel good about themselves.

That’s at the heart of what the Barbie Savior account mocks. These volunteers go out of their way to post selfies with kids they don’t know:

They volunteer to do work they aren’t qualified for: 

Although the creators don’t think they were ever quite as bad as @barbiesavior, they have said in interviews that the account came out of their own realisations from their experiences and actions in their years of being ‘White Saviour’ volunteers. 

Having seen and been a part of that very same thing during my experience of ‘voluntourism’ I can definitely not claim innocence! It is easy to see why young volunteers fall into this trap. You start to buy into the illusion that what you do in your 6 to 8 weeks on a project is actully making a difference or a long-term impact. Barbie Savior pushes against that. She’s an amusing way to add to the larger conversation about volunteer culture, and how to more effectively and appropriately deal with those feelings. 

Very rarely do volunteers look at what they are doing and realise that much of their behaviour is self-serving and, in some cases, harmful to the communities in which they are working. I live and work in East Africa as a (fully qualified, experienced) teacher  within a region-wide group of British International Schools. Within the town I live, on a monthly basis, I see groups of volunteers arriving then leaving, working on various short-term projects and behaving in much the same way as the @barbiesavior satirises. 

However, on the flip-side of this is the impact on the communities – and this is where the conversation that @barbiesavior generates is crucial. Are the volunteers actually providing any benefits to the destination countries? More often than not, the answer is unquestionably no.  Rather than benefiting local communities, voluntourism can have negative impacts, as revealed in a number of studies. These range from volunteers taking local jobs to child trafficking, where young children are stolen from their families and placed into ‘orphanages’ to fuel the demand for volunteer placements. These kidnapped children are then subjected to deliberately poor living conditions to elicit higher donations from visiting westerners.  Even within more carefully selected projects, there can be negative impacts – take school and orphanage projects for example. The long-term impact on the children that short-term unqualified volunteers work with can lead to attachment issues, inconsistency in care, and lack of good education due to being taught by unqualified teachers. Children themselves start to believe in the ‘white saviours’ – leading them to believe they are only worth handouts and starting the cycle all over again for another generation. Then there are the building projects, where volunteers come out to build a school, in spite of the fact that they have never set foot on a building site before that trip. Meanwhile, construction workers and local tradesmen within the towns and villages they are working are left without work and pay when they could be doing the work. Often projects build structures that are difficult to maintain in the long-run due to no consideration for availability of resources  or consultation with the local community on the long-term plans for the structure. 

“I spoke to one girl who went to Tanzania to build a school,” says Mark Watson, the Executive Director of Tourism Concern, a charity campaigning on ethical tourism issues. “She told me the volunteers always gossiped about how lazy the locals were because they slept for most of the morning. It was only at the end of the placement that they discovered that every day, after they finished building a wall, the locals had to come and rebuild it again properly. So the whole thing was a completely pointless exercise.”

While volunteering is absolutely not always a bad thing, it is important for people to think about how they could do it in a sustainable way and for people to be held accountable for their actions. Volunteers going overseas should ask themselves the question, ‘would I be allowed to do this work in my own country?’ If the answer is ‘no’, then don’t expect it to be any different elsewhere.  Volunteering abroad can be beneficial to all concerned if it is done right.  A carefully placed, thoroughly screened, well-prepared, skilled volunteer can – and does – have a positive impact. While @barbiesavior is a wonderfully amusing parody –  the discussion and conversation it provides is so very important.  

You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful. 

— Marie Curie

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