Poverty Porn and the White Savior Myth

Raise your hand if you’ve seen a charity add on TV with poor children, flies surrounding their bloated bellies, almost always black, begging for food with sad eyes and empty stomachs? Of course you have. This is referred to as poverty porn. 

But have you ever thought of why that is dangerous and how that perpetuates the myth that you, the viewer are the privileged, educated, oh so generous and hold the key to their ‘liberation’?  

In an age of globalization we learn more and more about the lives of people in other countries and more often than not, we position ourselves as more civilized and privileged. I hear this all the time when travelers are returning home to the "real world", their 9-5 cubicle, where they pay unfair taxes and purchase menial goods. All for the purpose of getting them through the next year of laboring before spending another week to two overseas. We are so systematized that when we see cultures which operate freely of the capitalistic chokehold it is not the "real world". 

Those who live differently to us, perhaps in the absence of a fiscal system or otherwise, are positioned as in need of freedom and liberation by corporations. In some places people don't pay taxes and don't work their whole life to pay for college debt. According to the US debt clock, on average, each citizen owes almost $212,000. We are saturated with images, of people needing help. They are situated as poor, probably black and always helpless. And we can make all of their dreams come true for just $1 a day.  From this model we make choices and decisions on who, what, where, when and how to help. Poverty porn is a brick in the pyramid we build which legitimizes our imperialism. This ideology has carved the way for volunteerism market.  

Want to get away from home?  
Want to see other cultures? 
Want to feel like you’re really doing something good?
Got a little extra $$$? 
Welcome to the world of voluntourism. 
 
Voluntourism refers to volunteer tourism where organizations compete to capitalize on privileged persons good intentions by monetizing social issues. This is problematic for a multitude of reasons.  

Firstly,  voluntourism is based on the repetition of the myth of Western superiority and colored inferiority. The dominant image of poverty is almost always people of color needing your help. This positions those who experience privilege as 'white saviors' which is not only racist, but a whole intersectional approach to discrimination. This myth has been hegemonized and naturalized time and time again by insisting these people who are constructed as 'in need' cannot help themselves and rely on you, your privilege and your good nature, which’ll look great in a Facebook profile picture. 

Secondly, volunteer tourists are more often than not, unqualified. Are you qualified to take care of orphans in your own country? Or build a house? How about teach children? At home, most of that is a 3 year degree. Therefore, being white and/or privileged does not make one qualified. By doing this kind of volunteering you’re taking jobs from skilled local workers who are far more qualified and actually speak the language.  

Thirdly, 'development' in the sector of voluntourism is more often than not, unregulated. This means that any Joe Blow can create a voluntourism organization, and more likely than not Mr. J Blow will not consult a development expert which means the organization more likely than not will be doing more harm than good. 

Fourthly, voluntourism engenders dependence. I recently completed a community development analysis for a grassroots, non-government organization (NGO) and came to the conclusion that volunteers were engendering dependence through solely their participation. They hindered all progress and benefits of the foundation. In fact, my analysis demonstrated that the only benefit from volunteers were the donations and advocacy they provided. Something that could be done from home. For successful community development, most of the work is going to have to come from the community.  

Lastly, according to Wilson Quarterly, voluntourism is a $173 billion per year industry. Resources, instead of being squandered on a volunteer programs could be better allocated to well established NGOS. These organizations teach empowering, sustainable skills to local populations. That means money is going into their community and staying in their community and from this, they are receiving long term benefits. Voluntourism overall is a giant waste of money where your good intentions more often than not, have pretty shitty results. 
  
Just by being Western and having the privilege and freedom of resources doesn’t make us qualified to do the job! If you don’t have skills, don’t volunteer. Your time is better spent researching a worthwhile organization to which you could donate the money that you would have spent playing with orphans, building houses or teaching kids. 

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JESS LEMIRE

Jess Lemire is a traveller, writer and social activist, sometimes simultaneously. I write about the things that I am passionate about and am passionate about what I write. I'm a cultural observer and linguist at heart.
I love good food and am a low key fruit juice enthusiast.