Religious Voluntarism Is Doing More Harm than Good

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In August, 2013, Heather Ruiz traveled through West Africa as a journalist for ADRA. After working in development for nine months, Ruiz moved to a village in the Western Sahara to find answers for her questions about responsible volunteering and empowering communities. The following article is her insight on constructive service:

It took me a while to find it. The taxi driver and I were shouting over each other in French about whether the orphanage was another street down or already behind us, but finally the crooked sign “Grace House” appeared in dripping, painted words. The driver lost no time in depositing me on the lonely street, and I felt more orphaned than ever before marching through the creaking gate.

Dirty floors and dim lights welcomed me inside. I did my best to prepare myself for what might come next — coughing invalids or stray chickens or skeleton babies — and I nearly stepped on top of bright red Sanuks.

“Who are you?” The voice caught me first, unmistakable in her accent.

“The journalist from ADRA. I called earlier about stopping by?” I found myself looking at… well, a stereotypical American College Student in all her glory: pink tank top shouting Abercrombie like a tag line to her expressionless face; Ray-Bans slipped into a highlight-streaked ponytail; I almost expected an iced Starbucks to appear in her hand.

“Oh, I’m just here for a week before we go on the safari.” She shrugged. “I came to volunteer with a group from my university.”

I followed her through the halls and corridors to her squad in the main room, and there I found the chaos.

Some children were dancing, others scaling volunteers’ laps and arms, still more were jumping in place as the uncontrollable excitement pummeled through their slender bodies.

“Green dress?” A volunteer was pulling clothing out of a cardboard box.

“Miiiiiiiine!” screeched every girl voice and, honestly, a few boy voices. They tore and clawed through the crowd, arms flailing out.

“Blue t-shirt? Yellow socks?” The voice continued.

“Hey, I have candy over here!” Another volunteer contributed. Even the walls seemed to be quivering with pleasure.

I discovered the director in the back of the room, smiling wide.

“How many volunteer groups do you get here?” I shouted over the din.

“Sometimes two a month,” he beamed proudly. “The volunteers cover almost all our staff.”

“You aren’t providing jobs for any local workers?” I repeated.

“Well, no.” He paused a moment, sensing the need to make it sound better. “We have so very many children here at Grace House. They need food and a home. They need help. Here, they get help.”

“Where do they come from before here?” I encouraged, reaching for my notepad.

“Terrible families. No food. So poor, you know.”

“Wait, they have families?”

“Half of them have families.” I was frozen for a moment, but the sad truth is such numbers are typical in African countries. After the wave of volunteers to orphanages in Ghana began to show signs of an abusive business enterprise, the Social Welfare Department organized a survey revealing that 90% of Ghanaian orphans have one or more living parent.1 The presence of volunteers visiting so many orphanages created “jobs” for children from families that could benefit from a few less mouths to feed.

“Some of these children have lost their parents and are emotionally susceptible at this stage,” I gently said. “Isn’t it damaging to further their never-ending cycle of abandonment from a revolving door of volunteers?”

“This is just the way it is.” The director crossed his arms. “We do this to make a difference the best we can, and you need to remember, this is for the volunteer, too. This experience is life-changing.”

I glanced at the group of college students, taking selfies with the animated children. No doubt this will be a series of profile pictures. For a moment, I wondered if the unidentified, romping, homeless children seemed reduced to the same status of elephants and zebras on the veld.

“So your grandfather sells shoes on the street so your sisters can eat?” I asked again to make sure I had gotten the French right.

“Yeah.” Hassan traced a stick around his bare toes. “As far back as I can remember. Can I have your watch?”

“No. I didn’t tell you that you could have it.”

“But the other volunteers give me things,” Hassan insisted.

“Well I came here to play with you.” I stared back stubbornly into his grinning eyes.

“Do you have an iPod in America?”


“Can I have it?” He had such lust in those small eyes.

“No, Hassan. Keep telling me your story about your grandpa.”

“When I grow up, I’m going to America, because I want to buy things like what the volunteers have.” He pointed a stubby thumb at his bare chest. “I’ll be a rich man, like in the movies.”

“Hassan, has anyone told you about Jesus when they visited?” I knelt down on his level.

“Yeah,” he shrugged. “I know about him. I pray to him when the volunteers come. Do you have Angry Birds on your iPod? The volunteers showed me that game. I know how to play that game.”

“What else do the volunteers show you?”

Hassan began to mumble, not understanding the concern on my face.

“The last volunteers gave me things,” he said hopefully.

This is the classic White Savior Complex, the worship of the land of the White Man. Somehow, despite hearing that Jesus loves him, the message of material goodness has swept him further in devotion, and he will worship the white saviors for the spectacular contributions to his development rather than the ostensible Jesus fellow. Will Hassan wake up tomorrow thinking about his grandpa, selling shoes in determination to provide and sustain, or the next group of regaling volunteers?

It became clearer to me over time that it is necessary for collegiate volunteers to re-prioritize and re-evaluate our approach to aid so that we use our resources to empower countries to develop themselves according to their own standards and not continue to hinder them with our own.

The “mission trip model“ has been praised for the individuals willing to sacrifice their time and money for impoverished communities, doing as Christ would. However, without knowledge of language, local culture, societal nuances, and the economical framework of the community, this type of “voluntourism” is sometimes wasteful at best, and possibly destructive to the community at worst.

The development industry, which previously consisted of agencies and governments giving and spending aid, is now joined by masses of enthusiastic college-aged hopefuls, wishing to change the world while knowing little to nothing about the complexities of the country. In 2010, $211.77 billion was spent on international volunteering,2 creating an industry devoted to the volunteer’s personal experience. The temptation to swoop in and fix a village’s hunger, poverty, and disease seems simple enough and personally fulfilling, but it presents Africa as “victims” and creates a feel-good spectacle for the volunteers. By sending out untrained volunteers, we are essentially saying that development work is “easy,” that our skills as middle-class twenty-somethings are so valuable that they can save a village, and that just because we are from the U.S., we are superior to the third-world countries that we aim to serve.

The complexities of Africa’s social and economic development remain unconsidered, and questions about how and why poverty exists are overshadowed by the aesthetic pleasure of the experience. After just a few months, the volunteer will come to realize their shortcomings and a part of them may give up, realizing that it’s not a simple answer.

It’s time to recognize that in pursuit of a service experience, we may be salving our own consciences without fully examining the consequences of the people we seek to help.

Teju Cole, a writer on the topic of responsible volunteering, tweeted: “The White Savior Complex is not about justice. It’s about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”³

Cole has a point. Individuals fundraise for Africa, do a little good, experience something that their affluent lives cannot offer, and return home with a full memory card and a story that places them in the ranks of the kind-hearted and worldly wise.

But can’t there be more than an experience? Can’t we redirect this “voluntourism” industry to be sustaining and empowering local communities, so that good intentions will carry into good outcomes?

As individuals from developed Western countries, shouldn’t we allow our role in international development to be defined not by our own interests but by the expressed needs of developing nations?

“Bring in the goat!” Cheikh Mohammed beckoned towards one of his wives. She returned a moment later with a blistering platter to add to the collection of feast foods. He motioned for me; we plunged our fingers into the meat.

After spending nine months with ADRA, I decided to leave with my unanswered questions about responsible third-world development and take a bush taxi deep into the Saharan interior. I wanted to see a community still relatively untouched from outside aid; I wanted to know how  people can withstand hardships and sustain themselves by themselves. I wanted to see inner empowerment working for myself, a community that hadn’t yet been crippled into dependency.

That’s how I found myself sharing dinner and conversation on the village chief’s rooftop each Thursday night, overlooking a cluster of low painted tents and the gingerbread-type houses breaking up the wide expanse of desert.

“Cheikh Mohammed, do your friends give you gifts?” I started in Arabic, breaking off a piece of village bread.

“Of course, it’s a friendly thing to do.” He adjusted his posture on the scratchy woven carpet.

“Now if I’m coming from America to give you gifts, am I your friend?”

His face darkened, and he chewed a great deal before he spoke.

“Heather, a donation is a very dangerous thing to give away. Your American world is filled with so many items and material goods, that you might not understand the gravity of handing something for free to someone who has never been handed anything.”

I watched him deliberately dip his bread into goat sauce and carefully chew, knowing that he would explain himself.

“Do you know what this village means? Generations of desert wanderers, learning and toiling for their bread and meat and homes. We are proud of this; we are empowered, by this. Now, give a village man a handout? You’ve just weakened him. You’ve increased his dependency; diminished his sense of self-esteem. One of the most widely-accepted notions is that Westerners are the solution to African problems. This requires portraying us as helpless and endlessly recirculating images only of abandonment and violence, or innocence and primitivism.”

I chewed on his Arabic words while he finished his bread.

“But poverty and hunger still exist, and our morality moves us to feed and clothe,” I broke into his silence.

“You asked me if my friends give me gifts,” he said. “Make sure that you are my friend. Make certain you understand me, first. Learn my strengths, my heart, my efforts. Once we are established in brotherhood, then yes, send me a present, one that won’t hurt me to open.”

“You see, Heather,” he set his meat down to look closely at me, ”We are not weak. We are not underdeveloped. If you believe we must be helped, look more closely. We are content in our hearts, affectionate to each other, and attentive to our souls. Perhaps the greater need is for us to be helping you.”

A reflex reaction to this critique may be, “At least they are doing something,” or “Wow, I guess we can’t really do anything,” but this would be lazy thinking. It’s not that our intention isn’t genuine, it’s that our analysis isn’t. As long as the West has the kind of economic, cultural and militaristic stronghold over places like Uganda, our hard work is still not targeting the root or causes of oppression. Our main goal should be evaluating foreign policies, which we play a direct role in electing, not short-term solutions that make us feel like we “done good.”

The Egyptian military receives $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid, and, interestingly enough, is also stomping out country’s movement for democracy and killing off activists. Nigeria is one of the top five oil suppliers to the U.S, and the American government was not interested in supporting the Nigerian protests against one of the most corrupt governments. After the U.S. donated a profusion of subsidized white rice, Haitian rice farmers struggled to continue on.3 And finally Uganda, our country of interest, suffered when the Obama administration recently halted or reallocated an estimated $9 million in aid, cancelled regional military assistance over rebel activity, and barred Ugandans involved in human rights abuses from entering the U.S.A.

Isaiah 10:1-2a: “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right…”

The greater need for involvement is where American policies are advocating for the crimes that motivated us to volunteer in the first place. This means setting aside our hero-thirsty ego and addressing with our votes the policies that shackle our foreign friends. This means accepting that our help is valuable for contributing with multi-person assistance, not just our own individual efforts.

For orphans, let’s provide resources to the capable families, donate for child sponsorship and feeding programs like the one Christalis is also running, assist at-risk mothers, and re-home children or develop a family model in orphanages. Let’s support vocational training and community-based initiatives. Let’s talk about this White Savior Complex and how to keep it out of ministry. Let’s match volunteers to their existing skill set and require them to be integrated with their host communities, learning and listening to real needs.

Let’s befriend these fighters, these strong survivors, and then let’s refocus aid to further empower our friends.