Do white girls (and boys) do more harm than good in the developing world? In a recent article on The Huffington Post, the author shares her experience as a volunteer in various developing nations and how her presence was at best benign, but often more of a hindrance to those she was trying to help. She had been led to believe that she would be a godsend, but honestly, she was not. She argues, “It turns out that I, a little white girl, am good at a lot of things. I am good at raising money, training volunteers, collecting items, coordinating programs, and telling stories. I am flexible, creative, and able to think on my feet. On paper, I am, by most people’s standards, highly qualified to do international aid. But I shouldn’t be.” She once hoped to mentor little brown girls; now she wants them to have mentors who look more like they do.
Our organization is an American one operating in Thailand. One could look at our staff and leadership and conclude that it is run predominantly by little white girls. Clearly, we think we can and should help, right? We should be offended by the position she takes.
Well, let’s take a closer look first. The author seems to be blaming race, especially with such a provocative title and opening paragraphs, but as one reads further, it becomes clear that what she is really talking about is not necessarily race. It’s partly class, in the global sense of who has access to resources, which is so closely interlinked with race the two can easily be conflated. Mostly, however, it’s attitude. The problem starts with a predisposition to a ‘white savior complex,’ not whiteness itself.
At our organization, The SOLD Project, we have seen examples of voluntourism, the assumption that we in the first world have so much to offer we have a moral imperative to bestow our worldly knowledge and material goods upon our recipients’ open and (better be) grateful hands, and volunteers who honestly care more about their own experience here than what they can offer our students. Truthfully, if you approach developmental aid like a shepherd come to bring order to a wayward and indigent flock, then race is an issue. There is a presumed superiority there, a lack of humility and respect, and one will quickly discover that a little 3-week stint in the tropics where you talk about your experience and tell all the local Thai staff the “right” way to do things or tell the kids, “The world is your oyster! Find what you love and go do it!” is not going to bring change or encourage students to connect with you the way you hoped. You will not leave them feeling inspired. The world, for so long, has been our oyster, not theirs. But times are changing, and every human being has the right to meet the world on his or her own terms.
At The SOLD Project, we believe that it is critical to approach developmental aid as collaborators, as partners, as friends. Our organization is run by Americans and Thais alike, as equals, because we wouldn’t know how best to serve if our Thai staff didn’t have a strong voice. We couldn’t connect to the local communities so well, if our Thai staff weren’t there working along side us. We wouldn’t have the trust or legitimacy we need to really be heard ourselves.
If one doesn’t read the article carefully, one might come away with the conclusion that maybe whites don’t belong in developmental aid. We don’t think this is true (and I suspect the author doesn’t either, as she still works in aid). I reflect on the community we serve and imagine what it would be like if a few “little white girls” hadn’t come along — the needs are so great armchair theorizing about race becomes moot. When I started with SOLD, some of our kids were in such dire need of love and attention they would crawl into the laps of complete strangers in search of a hug. Are we saviors? No. Plenty of people have the skills and the drive to make change in their community, but there are barriers of various sorts in the way. Our job is simply to help remove those barriers and to occasionally provide a different point of view for them to consider. Some kids come from very loving families and just need a little boost. Others need someone who can tell them they have a right to the privacy of their own bodies. They have a right to basic decency. They need someone who will say this over and over until they begin to believe, and before SOLD, they simply did not have a person like this in their lives.
One of my favorite quotes is from Rev. Desmond Tutu. He said, “Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realize our need of one another.” Differences not only define us, they help us grow as humans. If we are going to combat the larger evil, the trafficking of children, we can’t let race become an excuse to not step up to the plate. We need brown people, we need white people, we need women, we need men, we need the young and the old, the religious and the secular. In short, we need each other.