The Problem With Little White Girls (and Boys): Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist

White people aren’t told that the color of their skin is a problem very often. We sail through police check points, don’t garner sideways glances in affluent neighborhoods, and are generally understood to be predispositioned for success based on a physical characteristic (the color of our skin) we have little control over beyond sunscreen and tanning oil.

After six years of working in and traveling through a number of different countries where white people are in the numerical minority, I’ve come to realize that there is one place being white is not only a hindrance, but negative –  most of the developing world.

Removing rocks from buckets of beans in Tanzania.

Removing rocks from buckets of beans in Tanzania.

In high school, I travelled to Tanzania as part of a school trip. There were 14 white girls, 1 black girl who, to her frustration, was called white by almost everyone we met in Tanzania, and a few teachers/chaperones. $3000 bought us a week at an orphanage, a half built library, and a few pickup soccer games, followed by a week long safari.

Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.

Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level.

Tying friendship bracelets during my first trip to the Dominican Republic in 2009.

Tying friendship bracelets during my first trip to the Dominican Republic in 2009.

That same summer, I started working in the Dominican Republic at a summer camp I helped organize for HIV+ children. Within days, it was obvious that my rudimentary Spanish  set me so far apart from the local Dominican staff that I might as well have been an alien. Try caring for children who have a serious medical condition, and are not inclined to listen, in a language that you barely speak. It isn’t easy. Now, 6 years later, I am much better at spanish and am still highly involved with the camp programing, fundraising, and leadership. However, I have stopped attending having finally accepting that my presence is not the godsend I was coached by non-profits, documentaries, and service programs to believe it would be.

You see, the work we were doing in both the DR and Tanzania was good. The orphanage needed a library so that they could be accredited to a higher level as a school, and the camp in the DR needed funding and supplies so that it could provide HIV+ children with programs integral to their mental and physical health. It wasn’t the work that was bad. It was me being there.

It turns out that I, a little white girl, am good at a lot of things. I am good at raising money, training volunteers, collecting items, coordinating programs, and telling stories. I am flexible, creative, and able to think on my feet. On paper I am, by most people’s standards, highly qualified to do international aid. But I shouldn’t be.

I am not a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a scientist, an engineer, or any other professional that could provide concrete support and long-term solutions to communities in developing countries. I am a 5′ 4″ white girl who can carry bags of moderately heavy stuff, horse around with kids, attempt to teach a class, tell the story of how I found myself (with accompanying powerpoint) to a few thousand people and not much else.

Some might say that that’s enough. That as long as I go to X country with an open mind and a good heart I’ll leave at least one child so uplifted and emboldened by my short stay that they will, for years, think of me every morning.

I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.

After my first trip to the Dominican Republic, I pledged to myself that we would, one day, have a camp run and executed by Dominicans. Now, about seven years later, the camp director, program leaders and all but a handful of counselors are Dominican. Each year we bring in a few Peace Corps Volunteers and highly-skilled volunteers from the USA who add value to our program, but they are not the ones in charge. I think we’re finally doing aid right, and I’m not there.

Before you sign up for a volunteer trip anywhere in the world this summer, consider whether you possess the skill set necessary for that trip to be successful. If yes, awesome. If not, it might be a good idea to reconsider your trip. Sadly, taking part in international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is not benign. It’s detrimental. It slows down positive growth and perpetuates the “white savior” complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches. Be smart about traveling and strive to be informed and culturally aware. It’s only through an understanding of the problems communities are facing, and the continued development of skills within that community, that long-term solutions will be created.

Further Reading: 2+ Million Views Later – That Time The Internet Broke Me

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931 comments

  1. I don’t think you analyze correctly the problem of the “white savior” complex, which is real enough. Limiting development work to teachers, doctors, carpenters, and other people with specialized skill sets won’t solve the “white savior” problem, and might even exacerbate it. Skilled specialists are more likely to inspire, or even—as my wife and I have seen a couple of the doctors working (in Tanzania) with our own small nonprofit try to do—demand the debilitating awe of white people that you worry about.

    But what you do exactly right is to insist on projects that empower poor people in the developing world by making both project implementation and project choice reliant on them. Not only can they do much of the work better than outsiders could, they know better what work needs doing to help them. And, often, the work that the people want done is so basic that even people without specialized skill sets can indeed lend a useful hand, as long as “an open mind and a good heart” are there to motivate the non-expert.

  2. 100% agree with what you’re saying here Pippa…..I’m a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, West Africa ’02-’03… Those who dont understand haven’t been there…

      1. The ones who even dare to respond critically are actually, in my experience, the ones who may possibly someday even give a crap. The ones from whom you are likely to get even a read, let alone some response at all. After whatever the response, it is up to you to decide whether or not continued mutual experience/growth/development is something towards which you feel motivated.

    1. This type of things happens in what is now known as Canada; well meaning missionary come to our communities (reserves) to teach us about Christianity, try to save us from our selves ……. at the same demeaning the very culture (our own) which is our life breath, our way life, and the only way we as Indigenous people will survive.

  3. A lot of what you wrote resonates strongly with me. In the last 6 years of mostly living outside of the USA, I see many people who pat themselves on the back and speak of themselves in the same light as a Mother Teresa or a Gandhi crossed with a rock star just because they managed to swing a hammer a couple of times and snap some pictures of them giving local kids candy while they weren’t partying their asses off or sleeping off hangovers on their mission trips. I am also a huge advocate of grass roots empowerment, and am currently in a major struggle to be less of a leader and more of an ally to groups of underprivileged (and mostly minority) high school and middle school students with which I work. Malcolm X talked of his aversion to whites being involved in the Civil Rights Movement by making an analogy to the effect cream has on coffee–something along the lines of how you can dump so much cream into a cup of once-black coffee to the point you never knew it was black to begin with–and I fear that whites often do this when they get involved in minority communities (and that Americans often force their ways of doing things on the less powerful countries they “help”). In addition to that, I can appreciate the practicality of what you say in regards to the efficiency of just sending resources to people in need rather than sending inept “voluntourists” (clever term!).

    All that being said, I would encourage you to take another trip. While many lack it, you obviously have the social/cultural consciousness required to truly connect with people regardless of their culture. Many volunteers/missionaries go into areas with an air of superiority and impure motives (they view it as a vacation, they want to boost their extra-curriculars for college, or they want to have something to add to their resume), and thus fail to have a positive impact, but you are not one of these people. And while you may not be of much use on projects, and while you may not be a licensed teacher, and while you may often lack language skills to have strong conversations with natives in foreign lands–and while the money it would cost for you to travel to these places would yield more positive measurable results by just sending the money to said places–people like you have a measurable impact by traveling to places in need of aid. You have the opportunity to bridge cultural gaps and establish positive relationships and goodwill with people you would otherwise never meet. Don’t sell yourself short; you can teach others a great deal when you travel, as you bring a foreign perspective into their communities–and this is a good thing to know as long as you also always keep in mind that your white, American ass can learn just as much from others.

    You’re a great writer. No wonder this thing got millions of views!

  4. Most of friends who volunteered for peace corps in Africa and South America, spent most of their time having sex with each other or locals.

  5. Hmmm..refreshing to hear a relatively non-Eurocentric perspective from a European… I say relatively as the attributes you assign yourrself ‘as having on paper that would make you an ideal volunteer candidate as well as those co-ordinating skills to organise from here’ are NOT uncommon amongst non-Europeans -only that your skin allows you to be better PLACED to utilise those attributes -being instantly conferred upon you by your European counterparts whereas such attributes in ourselves too often have to be additionally highlighted else the everyday European is apt to miss them…hence why I make the distinction here as can’t be certain the inference would be made otherwise & what I’d say that as a ‘little girl with white skin’ you are ACTUALLY very good at – your other attributes not with standing- is bringing another level of impact to white people when conveying the rudiments of white privilege that would NEVER be possible for us… hence, Pippa- I applaud your efforts still!

  6. Let this be one of the comments that make you feel like you are doing this world a lot of good :) You speak with wisdom, knowledge, and an acute understanding of WHO and WHAT you are. As a fellow “young white girl”, you have encouraged me to help where I am actually helpful, not where I wish I was helpful. Keep it up!

  7. Growing up in Barbados, I had my first encounter with a group of teenaged volunteers (from Oregon) around age seven at a summer camp organized by a local church. Through the eyes of a seven year old who had never travelled outside of an island (21 miles x 14 miles) it was a new and exciting occurrence. Perhaps the first time I thought that it was indeed a great big world. Overall I would say that their impact was a positive one. Would I say that their contribution was an earth-shattering, ground-breaking transformative one? …No. At seven years old I was just happy to have someone to sing with me and to do crafts with me.
    Now in my late twenties I am a professional woman, well educated, well travelled. I wouldn’t attribute any of this to an early experience with a ‘white savior’ but I thank them for a fun summer.

    1. I want to thank you for your comment, it is one of the realest and most personal ones I’ve seen in this comment section.

      So many people are so caught up in race sometimes. It leads us to forgetting that we’re all just humans in the end.

  8. I too have stopped volunteering at a hospital when I felt that I wasn’t making any contribution but imposing on the patients, which they could do without.

  9. I congratulate you for your answer. You have a point and it is great to share it with us.

    But I have one big objection. Your article builds on the wrong assumption that all whites are like you and that the countries where aid is needed are all non-white. By “like you” I mean educated, not used with working with her/his hands and stuff like that. I am very much aware of the fact that people in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, tend to think like that. It is a preconception that we have to fight against and not reenforce. Unfortunately your article does reenforce it because it associates “your kind of people” with the skin color white. It is not a question of race, it is a question of culture or even of personal characteristics of individuals.

    So I have two things I would like to ask from you:

    1) Please stop thinking that all individuals who want to help disadvantaged people are Americans, English, French, Germans, Dutch, Spanish etc. (I think you got the point). Also Romanians, Brazilians (some of them white), Iranians etc. want to get involved in humanitarian aid and do so. And they might have a different approach than the white people you describe in your article.

    2) Understand that cultural exchange has to work in both ways if you want it to be beneficial. Not all American, English etc. people are as naive and unskilled as to go to a foreign country to work something they have no training for. The problem is not that hey are white or come from France but that some of them behave like they think they know everything. If you approach a Tanzanian person with modesty and in your head you are aware that you can learn from her/him as much as she/he can learn from you, and you don’t TEACH her/him stuff, but DO things together, combining your knowledge with his/hers, than that person will not feel inferior and ashamed of his culture anymore, and it will also be much more constructive. It is not the contact between Americans and Tanzanians that is the problem, but the way this contact takes place, the attitude that this “kind of people” have because they think they are better. Because they make the assumption that their culture is the right way and that the others have to adopt the same values and reach the same levels etc.

    In conclusion, it is the arrogance of many people from some Western countries that turns the contact into something negative. A kind of arrogance that most are not aware of having.

    1. I think it’s important to note that Pippa is discussing the sort of organized trip packaged and sold to the economic (white) elite of the US. This isn’t the sort of thing where an individual is seeking out cultural exchange–they are living out a well planned, micro managed experience set up by a third party.

      The other larger issue is that it’s a manifestation of the white savior complex–a cultural narrative that is alive and well in the US mindset. This sort of experience doesn’t cure those students of the white savior notion–it feeds it.

      So while you are absolutely right–that sort of exchange isn’t going to happen in the set up that Pippa is discussing.

      1. I don’t think that Pippa is talking about Africa or non-white regions! She is addressing an entrenched attitude from the West as related to volunteerism in the developing countries where most whites or dark skinned people from the capital West run to quickly get credentials of working in a foreign country and or claim some sort of expert knowledge! It is unfortunate that most of commentators take this to be race biased. But to be more precise, Pippa did not just pin the point that Whites like to be the Saviours of community members in the developing countries (aka communities in the global south) but also took her own example as a white skinned young adult from the West! Cuts like a knife to you’all pale skinned people, eh! In Africa we have a saying that states that “spears are for pigs” I believe that if what Pippa has written was on Africans I believe Pippa’s critics would be happy!

  10. So Pippa, I don’t want to be too critical, I really think you are one of the persons who understood much more than others. But I felt that your article sends the wrong message somehow. Don’t stop going out there, just do it differently. Do it the real way, the hard way, putting a lot of effort. Be ready to change yourself also, not just to change the world.

  11. While your points are valid, your conclusion is short-sighted, and doesn’t take into account many intangibles. You are correct that the skill set of 14 high school girls consists of gossip and bracelet weaving, and that a $3000 fee that primarily funds the administrative costs of these “humanistic” volunteer organizations would go much further on the ground. However, these are the same young people who will become engineers, physical therapists, carpenters, and doctors. Their skill set may not have matured, and may not do so for many more years. There will always be people less fortunate than yourself, and there will always be opportunities for you to lend a hand. An experience serving underserved individuals is invaluable in that it is so rewarding, that something inside you tells you to go back again, maybe next time with a few more tools in your bag.

    1. Short sighted…. don’t think so…
      re read your post. Then re read hers…
      It’s misguided mindsets like yours that perpetuate the problem.

    2. Jason, thanks for your comment. It touched on why my then 14 year old daughter and I went on a mission trip to Haiti two years ago. Pippa stated, “I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes.” On the flip side, I very much wanted my daughter to wake up every morning after our trip thinking of the orphans that we spent time with in Haiti. To pray for them and hope for them. And to know that there is a much bigger world than the one we have lived in most of our days. My expectations of our trip were to freely give and receive love. And I saw her stretched on that trip–as she sought to accommodate several kiddos who wanted the space on her lap, as she tried new foods, as she recognized real need, as she worked to overcome language differences. Because of that trip, she is seeking to hear from God and figure out during her high school years what tools she can hone to go back and be a greater help. Love, the greatest tool in her bag, coupled with new skills, will make a difference in people’s lives. Even so, the simple love those kids gave us drew my beloved, if self-centered middle schooler, outside herself for long enough to change the course of her life.

      Thanks, Pippa, for spurring good conversation and thinking with your article!

    3. Nicely worded. Even if a volunteer’s first trip is just a learning experience, it still can change that volunteer’s life and goals for the better. Maybe that volunteer originally just wanted to take a fun trip with their friends and brag about it…but maybe what they got instead was a real look into another culture and the true meaning of life and love. Maybe it changed the way they do things forever. Maybe others will see their change, and want the same. Little by little, others will realize how important it is to not just volunteer, but donate or support in other ways. If no one volunteers anymore, (or if only the highly skilled volunteer), less will have a chance at a true change of heart.

  12. I hope that my daughters grow up as self-aware as you are.

    Patting yourself on the back as a savoir and then using it to write the same college admissions essay as every other voluntourist isn’t broadening, nor is it particularly meaningful. Thank you for saying something I’ve been thinking about for the last few years.

  13. Unfortunately, many of these countries’ governments and civil services are so dreadfully corrupt that giving them funds directly would result in absolutely nothing. You raise valid points, but the inherent reasoning for these programs is GOOD not bad.

  14. This kind of makes out that everyone who volunteers thinks that they are saving the world, which I don’t think is really fair.

    Of course there is absolutely no point in high school students building a library. Pointlessness aside, it’s completely unsustainable.

    However there are many ways you can help. I’ve taught English in Ghana, Uganda and Myanmar as a volunteer. Yes, I am a little white girl (not that I really see why that matters). In these situations I got to learn about the cultures of my students whilst teaching them a skill that has boosted their income. I didn’t ‘save’ them, they helped themselves by attending classes, working hard and practising their English with me whenever they had a chance.

  15. After a Facebook debate today regarding the article below, it was such a coincidence to stumble on this post! I couldn’t be more in agreement with you and this whole issue reminds me of a similar high school trip to your’s that I undertook in Vietnam. A group of 15 or so private high school city girls visiting an orphanage, attempting to paint walls and dig a soccer field. At the time, I had been convinced that as a group, we were all doing such a great deed, but in hindsight, years later, I realise we did the job badly and inefficiently that would have required amending once we had left, and it cost us several thousand each dollars to do so. Despite having good intentions, I feel like our money and efforts could have been used more efficiently.

    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/encounter/5341384

  16. You are wise and your post was refreshing. One thing to remember though: You would not now possess this wisdom, and the knowledge of where best you could contribute going forward had you not gone at all. Your trips were not for naught, for you learned how best to use your skills and passion from those experiences, and now are involved in supporting humanitarian efforts structured in a new, more beneficial way. This may never have occurred without your earlier experiences. You are the best kind of humanitarian because you not only did what you could with the tools you possessed at the time, but you changed the system for the better based on what you learned. Kudos to you!

  17. Funny but i thought your article was more about having a lack of viable skills then being white. I am so tired of hearing about racisim

  18. This has come up recently because my husband and I are working closely with a charity and we’re white (fyi, I’m growing to hate my white skin). We’ve had a lot of discussions with our “native” co workers about this, because we’re considered long-term, but there are also a lot of short-termers here. We host a lot of teams from around the world. And, sometimes I think how long one of our orphanages could last on the money it takes to fly here from the US. However, I also wouldn’t want them to stop. I don’t want them to have the attitude that they are changing the world, but one thing that’s important is what change is happening in them. They will come here, have an amazing experience, and be a lot better informed about an oft-misunderstood country (hopefully). However, the down-side is that church people, instead of donating to lifelong or indigenous ministries, donate to a short-term thing, which, for the money, doesn’t really give much to the actual mission :) However, none of the ministries we’ve worked with have advocated stopping short-term missions. :)

  19. I would agree with the hero comments … as long as you believe you are going into a community to “save” them …you are doomed. However … if you go into a community with the mindset that we are all one … then, you can make the connection needed to give of your heart the skills they truly need. Even if that is only to witness their own progress and to empower. The most important lesson for us all …is that we … nobody… is better. Help empower others with those skills or things that THEY want … not what we want for them.

  20. There’s plenty of people by your side needing lots of help. You don’t need to get to the end of the world to find where you can be helpful. That’s the point.

  21. Just because the author of this is not good at doing the things she complained she wasn’t good at doing does not mean that no white “girls” or “boys” are good at doing those things. Lots of white people in the USA (and other white countries like Canada, Australia, Great Britain, France, Germany, etc.) are very good at doing regular jobs like building things and other concrete actual work. If they aren’t volunteering to go to these other countries and help them in ways that the author sees fit, then perhaps its because those regular white folks are working too hard in their own countries to do that kind of stuff.

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