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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Volunteers abroad need to be more willing to learn

    With medical and graduate school applications looming, programs like the Peace Corps and UA Study Abroad that offer volunteer-elsewhere opportunities suddenly seem like excellent resume-boosters. You’ll seem diverse, tolerant and well-rounded. Best of all, you’ll grow!

    Yes, perhaps. But only, I would argue, if you’re willing to learn — not just from the systems and institutions of your homeland, but from the people and traditions of your temporary home.

    Because, while they may produce excellent physical results, so often volunteer-abroad trips provide no mental or spiritual growth for their participants. Instead, they promote an insular environment where white savior complexes may be acted out.

    Good intentions are not enough.

    Last year, Nigerian-American author Teju Cole took to Twitter and vented about what he called the White Savior Industrial Complex, the “banality of sentimentality,” in which the world exists only to satisfy the needs of white people, the privileged volunteers.

    “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice,” Cole tweeted. “It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

    The white savior complex could further be described as a kind of self-congratulatory volunteerism, where the goal is not really to experience a distinct culture or to assist in its liberation but, through ignorance and imposition, to remold it in America’s image.

    Jennifer Roth-Gordon, an assistant professor in the School of Anthropology whose work revolves around race, said that when privileged people find out about unfortunate situations and power struggles abroad, they want to help, but ignorance and misguided intentions stemming from their privilege can prove a stumbling block.

    “There is the risk that white people can reinforce exactly the power hierarchy they are trying to correct,” she said. “In their desire to help, they don’t ask enough questions, listen enough or want to start at the bottom of the pecking order.”

    No one is asking the people of the host country for their input. It’s presumed they would not have a clue of the best methods for improving their own country. These programs seem to say, “Look where these third-world denizens are at now after we, the first world, left them on their own. Look how much they need us.”

    This, of course, is a very simplified version of how the world works, ignoring globalization and the effects that American policies and interventions have had on the resources and infrastructures of foreign countries.

    But it serves its purpose, preserving a neo-colonialist picture of why we seem to have so much, at least materially, compared to the countries designated “third-world” — and thus, why we feel obligated to endow these countries with our wisdom.

    By treating our gracious hosts like children — without hopes, dreams, ideas, knowledge or skills of their own — we backslide into a stagnant world without respect.

    In a recent TED Talk, Ernesto Sirolli, an expert in sustainable economic development, discussed his experiences as a young man volunteering in Africa in the ’70s.

    Every project he set out to accomplish failed, Sirolli said.

    In one, he and his group of Italian volunteers found a fertile valley that had not been sown. Assuming the Africans did not have the intelligence or ability to do so, Sirolli and his friends planted Italian vegetables and watched as they flourished.

    After the tomatoes and zucchinis had reached the peak of ripeness, hippos came into the valley and devoured all of their hard work.

    Had the Italians asked the Africans why there were no plants in this land, they would have quickly learned about the hungry hungry hippos, and saved themselves time and resources.

    But they didn’t.

    Such experiences inspired Sirolli to “become a servant of the local passion.”

    “What you do — you shut up,” Sirolli said. “You never arrive in a community with any ideas.”

    When we enter another country, we are guests. We go to unfamiliar territory to be taught and to learn, not to minimize and demean the hosts on their own ground.

    Roth-Gordon advises that programs and individual volunteers with a white savior mentality change their tactics through education if they really want to make a difference.

    “Realize that you do a lot more good by listening, supporting and using your white privilege in service of others,” she said, “and not always by trying to run the show or show someone what they are doing wrong. Good intentions are great, but great practices and sincere respect are better.”

    If we could convince our volunteers to instead empty themselves, to act as vessels to exercise the creativity and cultural wisdom of the host country, there would not only be physical progress for the inhabitants of the country, but also a humble blossoming within the volunteers abroad, as they realize the value of people both like and unlike themselves.

    Katelyn Kennon is a sophomore studying journalism, creative writing and anthropology. Follow her @dailywildcat.

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