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Volunteerism and the "Savior Barbie"

Updated on May 31, 2016
My class of Vietnamese Children in Sapa Village, Northern Vietnam
My class of Vietnamese Children in Sapa Village, Northern Vietnam

Volunteerism and the "Savior Barbie"

An article titled Savior Barbie was recently published by the BBC discussing the increasingly popular trend of white middle class backpackers volunteering in a third world country, taking a lot of pictures with the locals, blogging about it, and then heading home to a stocked fridge, fresh warm sheets, and a privileged lifestyle.

While traveling the Southeast Asia “loop” (Thailand to Laos to Vietnam to Cambodia) I met many travelers that spent time volunteer teaching or helping at an orphanage in Cambodia or poor areas of Thailand and Laos. I myself spent a week teaching english to village locals in Sapa, Vietnam (pictured above). Many of these travelers explained how ‘sad’ it was that the kids were so poor, that their clothes were so ragged, that they couldn’t even spell their own names. They then went on to explain how they stayed for a week, but couldn’t handle the blistering heat and lack of air con so they moved on to the next touristy beach town.

While I do agree that their is a huge problem with the volunteerism industry in that untrained idealistic white westerners go to impoverished countries to “fix their problems,” I believe with proper training these idealists could actually have some positive impact (both for the volunteer and those they are working with). I think the most important part of this training should be about how to reflect on bias and to always be open minded. We need to understand that while this is a temporary exchange for us, it is the reality for others. We (the volunteers) are not the majority. Poverty is everywhere. We just happened to have been born into circumstances placing us in an english speaking home with money and a passport. We could just as easily have been the young, confused, hungry Cambodian child we are repeating english vocab to. But more importantly, our culture and way of life is not “better” then these non native english speakers. It is just different. We MUST enter these situations with absolutely no bias. No feelings of superiority.

The point is that while we (volunteers) forgo the comforts of running water etc. for a few weeks or a month, these are things that we will always have access to. And this is because we are white. We are native english speakers. We have passports that allow us to travel wherever we want to go. We do not have to cross borders just to work to send money home to our families. We have access to higher education and well paying jobs. To people who can teach us how to apply for a credit card or write a resume. And this is simply because our modern world has been structured with an extreme unequal distribution of wealth based on greed and capitalism. While we are lucky that this distribution favors us, we are not special. And we are definitely not more deserving.

I believe that while these young idealistic volunteers may do it for the wrong reasons (Facebook pictures, resume boosters etc) as long as they are TAUGHT to observe bias, to reflect, and to be open minded, they may learn something positive from the experience. They may learn another language themselves, they may learn other customs, dinner recipes, ways of life. They may begin to understand that their language is not better, their clothes are not more stylish, their humor is not funnier. It is just DIFFERENT. We all have something to learn from each other.

While volunteering at a Cambodian orphanage may not save the world (And in fact, many of these orphanages, schools, and volunteer centers actually serve as a ploy to get money from westerners), these experiences can build mutually beneficial lifelong relationships. They can provide a means for language exchange, culture exchange, and customs exchange that brings us a small step closer to understanding and appreciating each other, so that maybe one day we can learn to share our resources and live in a world of understanding and love.

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