Good white poses with poor black for a few ‘likes’ on networks
A Spanish doctor in Ethiopia writes this allegation against the fashion of ‘voluntourism’ and the ‘white savior’ complex
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You are eating at home in Spain with your family when, suddenly, a person you have never seen invades the living room with a smile from ear to ear and a mobile phone in hand, shooting photos of your little daughter while she exclaims:
“How cute, I would take her home and give her everything!”
Then, without giving you time to respond, she stands in the middle, surrounded by your children and her friends, takes the girl in her arms and poses with her taking a selfie. She then uploads it to her social networks with the following phrase: “I just met them and they have already fallen in love. They are always smiling.»
What would you think?
Or that they told you:
“I can’t wait to go to Norway and take pictures of myself surrounded by children. They are so cute, so white, with such straight hair that I can’t stop touching…”.
I am referring to the increasingly widespread voluntourism.
Voluntourism and cooperaracism
Rolling up your sleeves for two hours is not cooperation. Painting a wall for an hour, cooking for half an hour, digging a ditch for 20 minutes… these are common tasks in a type of trip that is sold as cooperation. But none of that is. And these actions do not help; even harm. They can all be carried out by the local population whom you are underestimating and taking away work.
Rolling up your sleeves for two hours is not cooperation. Nor painting a wall for an hour, cooking for half an hour, digging a ditch for 20 minutes…
It may seem very exotic to spend a day without electricity, without water, without telephone coverage, urinating in a latrine and eating rice with your hands. It’s easy to idealize poverty knowing that next week, in complete safety, you’re going to catch your plane back to comfort. But they don’t need it because «they are happy like this», «they are happy with nothing». Now then, that they risk their lives crossing deserts and seas… That’s another story too complex for two weeks.
In one or two months it doesn’t help. Voluntourism engages in cooperracism: it imitates cooperation, but the practice ends up being harmful.
Voluntourism can be posturing if what you are looking for is to take photos with poor blacks to gain a few likes. Or ignorance, if someone believes that the world can be changed in four or five weeks, without training or experience. Or arrogance, if he sees himself as a savior. Or racism, if you consider yourself superior. They are children of colonialism.
Voluntourism reinforces the stereotypes and prejudices elaborated by the daughter of colonialism and racist gaze, perpetuating the superiority of a race with the well-known white savior syndrome.
The profile of those who practice voluntourism is, for the most part, that of a young student with little or no experience who is going to “help with whatever is needed”. But you don’t have to help with anything, you have to help with what you know.
reinforces the stereotypes and prejudices elaborated by the daughter of colonialism and racist, perpetuating white superiority under the well-known white savior syndrome.
The culture of immediacy
The profile of the person who does voluntourism also corresponds to the urgency and immediacy that invade us. We are in a hurry, a lot to do: challenges, events, videos of different themes. I’m interested in helping and saving the world, but now and in two days, the third I have to move on to the next trending topic. In two days it can really change your life, but hardly anyone else’s.
Four summers ago, from Ethiopia, I published a series of tips that I would have appreciated before «going for cooperation». Because misunderstood solidarity can harm more than do good. Three years later, I was still seeing short-stay volunteers pass by month after month. The cooperators change; those who don’t are the local people, who remain trapped in time.
This spring he published, with irony, how to carry out health cooperation in Africa and how to tell about it when he returned. And now, in the middle of summer, the networks are filled with young influencers. The message does not arrive. Racism is winning.
Cooperating is a privilege
“I want to go help and they have told me no” is one of the phrases that I usually come across. Good intention is necessary, but it is not enough. Being an aid worker is a profession, it requires training and experience, having specific knowledge in professional fields. It is also necessary to have prior knowledge of the country that is going to welcome us, of its cultural, social and economic context. There are master’s, postgraduate, courses and different entities that can advise. Cooperating is a privilege.
When I first arrived in Ethiopia, as I landed at Adis Abeba,
I was shocked: the first thing I saw was a well-paved highway full of cars, 20- and 30-story buildings. Well-dressed people, some in suits and talking on a state-of-the-art mobile phone. And you know what I thought then? «Ah, this doesn’t look like Africa.» She did not correspond to the preconceived and stereotyped image that she had in mind.
Arriving at the hospital, I introduced myself saying, “Hello! I am a doctor, I come from cooperation to help in whatever is needed. I can visit children, adults, pregnant women, attend births, I can help clean, cook… You name it!” I imagine that my cover letter is not surprising, with the desire to help, without accrediting training; it is already known that in Africa good will is enough.
But now imagine
that instead of arriving in Ethiopia, I arrive in Norway and introduce myself to the director of the hospital with the same words. From the outset, it would not even cross my mind to present myself at a Nordic hospital without the approved title, but we think that in Ethiopia it is not necessary. In addition, I would not present myself in the European hospital as a «cooperator», but as a doctor. So, I ask myself, why, if I go to a country like Ethiopia, am I a cooperator? Do you mean that I am labeling and qualifying the country as inferior?
As a Spaniard, in Ethiopia they call me “cooperante” or “expatriate”. On the other hand, we call an Ethiopian in Spain an “immigrant”. This is racist and colonial language.
During these years living in Ethiopia, I found myself in a country that I had never heard of: newly opened hospitals with cutting-edge technology, excellent doctors and professionals who graduated every year from the most emblematic and prestigious Ethiopian universities…
I invite you to look at Ethiopia not only as a vulnerable country and recipient of aid, but also as a country from which to learn and share experiences. Poverty is not in Africa, but in my gaze towards it. I also understood that stereotypes separate and divide us. We live in a world full of borders like a fence or a sea, but the most dangerous border is ourselves, our prejudices. We must work without paternalism, with humility, with respect, professionalism and excellence.
Guide to working in a developing country
- Treat all people with dignity and consideration, always respecting their labor rights. It avoids any discrimination based on race, sex, nationality or religion.
- Act honestly and exemplarily. Take into account the consequences on third parties, especially the most vulnerable, of their actions and decisions. Don’t do in another country what you wouldn’t do in your own.
- Do not deceive or deceive yourself. Inequality exists. To fight against inequality, the first thing is to recognize it. The cooperant starts from a position of superiority.
- He recognizes the mistakes made, do everything possible to solve them and prevent them from repeating themselves.
- Do not cooperate with a tourist visa.
- Do not take a photograph without first asking for consent, preferably in writing. Prevent the minor from being identified. Avoid any kind of denigrating images. Avoid, whenever you can, taking photos.
- Don’t be the white savior. You’re not going to save the world. Be humble. It promotes the empowerment of people and their autonomy and independence. It establishes a relationship of equality and avoids any attitude of superiority towards the third parties with whom we interact.
- Do what you know how to do. If you are a pediatrician, the best thing you will know how to do is pediatrics. Don’t do in another country what you wouldn’t do in your own. You are not going to “help with whatever it takes”, you are going to work with the professional knowledge and training to do so.
- Always work with dedication, dedication and commitment always seeking excellence and quality, do not settle for less. Excellence and quality are not limited to rich countries. What we demand in a country with high resources, we must also demand in those with fewer resources.
- Don’t posture, don’t voluntourism, don’t influencers, don’t youtubers. Or what is the same, discretion.
- Always respect. There may be cultural aspects with which you do not agree, you do not have to accept everything, but you do have to respect it. Learn, understand and respect the local culture, traditions, languages, history, customs.
- Do not impose your thoughts, opinions.
- Do not carry expired medications. Do not bring medicines or medical supplies that can be purchased in the country you are going to, nor bring them into the country without the proper permits.
- Do not think that in a month you will change the world. Not in three…
Iñaki Alegría is a pediatrician specialized in international health and cooperation. He is also coordinator of child health programs in the rural region of Gambo, Oromia, Ethiopia.