An increasingly cyber-literate world brings us heightened consciousness, but also the need to prove it. We’re a generation of ‘show-and-tell, or it didn’t happen’.
This tendency to broadcast our lives is particularly true of Westerners who travel to nations they consider impoverished. In between (admirably) digging water wells, they place their personal life journeys against a backdrop of sand, tents and orphans, declaring their #humbled #gratitude and passion for equality. But whether it’s a well-meaning aid worker roaming a refugee camp or whiter-than-white Gwyneth Paltrow declaring ‘I am African’ in the name of AIDS awareness, it seems to do more for the do-gooder than the people they are trying to help.
Nowadays, the answer of course is not to ignore, but to point at the problem and, if you’re particularly creative, to mock. Instagram has unleashed many stars in its short life, but arguably the most memorable are the ones that have a salient point.
‘Socality Barbie’ is an example, brilliantly satirising the women who publicly display a carefully curated life of humility and #blessedness. And more recently, ‘Barbie Savior’ takes on the white saviour complex, using idealised Westerners as its cast – Barbie and her counterparts, whose unrealistically shiny lives and physical proportions make them ripe for parody. More specifically, 20-year-old Savior Barbie is a child-saving volunteer in Africa, whose selfies are more self-serving than of service.
The impact on the volunteers may be life-changing or short-lived, but it’s the country they visit that really sees the most change, and it’s not necessarily positive.
At the heart of its censure are the ‘white saviours’ who use the less fortunate like props in their social media profile pictures, as documented in Humanitarians of Tinder. And these critics have a point. The malady that Savior Barbie mercilessly mocks is part of a reckless trend of ‘voluntourism’ – trips abroad that seek to combine tourism and volunteer work. The impact on the volunteers may be life-changing or short-lived, but it’s the country they visit that really sees the most change, and it’s not necessarily positive. As this 2014 report points out, volunteering stints at an orphanage in Nepal ultimately feeds the exploitation of locals. They unwittingly give oxygen to a business model that sees agencies exploit existing social issues in a country, while charging volunteers for the honour of being a ‘saviour’.
Reporter Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez offers a critical take on this ‘voluntourism’ in Vivala, noting that there is room for genuine help, but self-aggrandising selfie-takers are not welcome. Rodriguez recalls the white American dentists who gave her much-needed medical assistance in Nicaragua. But: “… they never asked me for a picture. They were too busy helping people. I hold these people who come to our countries and do that kind of work in high regard.”
The creators of the socially-conscious Barbie aren’t the first to recognise the trouble with voluntourism. Others include the ‘End Humanitarian Douchery’ campaign, and the ‘Gurl Goes To Africa’ Tumblr page.
While undoubtedly funny, these satirists have exposed an insidious problem that goes beyond the silliness of selfies with orphans. They propagate the attitude that the West is superior, knows best, and is so developed it can spare lots of young people to fix others’ problems. The voluntourists can sit among a group of orphans of colour and get ‘likes’, demonstrating that they’re not racist. Yet it breeds a dangerous condescension that feeds the idea of ‘West is best’.
There is room for genuine help, but self-aggrandising selfie-takers are not welcome.
This fuels the perception that problems in so-called developing nations are easily solvable; they just need a well-meaning volunteer to stop by for a few months. Author Courtney Martin argues this trend is “the reductive seduction of other people’s problems”.
“It’s not malicious. In many ways, it’s psychologically defensible,” she writes, adding that there is an entire “industry” actively nurturing “these desires and delusions”. In fact, 1.5 million non-profit organisations are registered in the U.S. alone.
The rising interplay between such charitable endeavours and social media means the waters only get muddier. But if we’re to criticise the self-absorbed white saviour, we must also consider the angry activist. Sadly, neither are equipped to deliver a long-term solution. Only cultural change can rid us of this need to see the world in shades of privilege and goodness, but that change won’t happen while the social media monster demands its food on the end of a selfie-stick.