I’ve always found myself being very aware of the inequality and unfairness in our world. Together with my endless interest in other cultures and my longing to travel this is what made me decide to volunteer in Kenya last February and March. I’ve been thinking for a long time, both before and after my trip, whether volunteering is a good thing or not, and I still haven’t figured it out. It is a very complex topic. A while ago I wrote down some thoughts about it all:
“I say it is hypocrite to ‘just’ travel through countries in, let’s say, Africa. To go on vacation while there are people living in the most poor circumstances, who might not even have something to eat or a roof over their heads. But the thing is, I now see: what have I to do with it? Yes, I am rich compared to the majority of the Africans, very rich. But there are also rich people in Africa, as well as a middle class. And there are poor in the West, too. In the Western world I am not rich. And in none of these cases it’s my fault. In none of these cases I have to do something with it. I was born in the Netherlands and that is great luck, and a total coincidence.
We have to improve the living conditions for a lot of people in this world, and there has to come equality, but that aim doesn’t have to come along with a feeling of guilt. For some people it probably should, but for most of us not. We should help our fellow humans as much as we can, but it is by no means our duty to make our life goal out of that. We’re simply living our lives. Just like people in Africa also simply live their lives. And I have strong belief that they’ll be fine. They’ll get there. Developing work should focus on something completely different, namely on the opposite site: it should prevent that the West holds back developing countries developing.
The collective feeling of guilt towards the poor, ‘third world’ countries that exists in the West is also called the White Savior Complex or Messiah Complex. It basically means that we’re all left with a post-colonial feeling of guilt towards people in developing countries.
Yet I also have a different theory: it’s not about feeling guilty, but about a boost of our ego and most of all about retaining our powerful position. We claim the opposite, but with all that we do we only confirm it – it is an apparent contradiction, a paradox. With volunteering and developing work we claim that we want to help and make a difference, but in fact we’re retaining our strong position through it: the rich, the white man, the leader, the one that matters opposite the poor, the black man, the follower, the inferior. I wonder if volunteers would be happy if there was eventually done so much volunteering work that it wouldn’t be necessary anymore and we would have reached a point of wellfare all over the world. For we would have lost our autocrat position then.
I feel sick when I think of this.”