5 Things We Can Learn from Barbie Savior

We now live in a world where Instagram accounts can provide sharp social commentary. Or, at least, they can try. Barbie Savior is an Instagram parody account with a mission: to start a conversation about the actions (and potentially negative consequences) of voluntourists of the world. Voluntourism, for those not yet in the know, is the act of flying out to a foreign country to work on a volunteer project. It blends exotic vacationing with humanitarian purpose.

The creators of the Barbie Savior Instagram account are currently anonymous, identifying themselves as two twenty-something white women who have done aid work in East Africa and (sadly) committed many of the faux pas that Barbie Savior chronicles on her Instagram account:

“Barbie Savior, we hope, is an entertaining jumping off point for some very real discussions, debates, and resolves.”

Jumping from just over 7,000 likes to over 75,000 in a matter of days, it seems people are getting the joke. Thousands of news outlets have written about the parody account, and those in the know got a good laugh out of the ridiculous images and clever hashtags at Barbie Savior’s expense. But among all of the articles, one in particular got our attention:

“ Maybe some will see the account and think twice about the images they share. Others might see the account after going on a trip and realize the error of their ways. But for the most part, the problem will persist and the next clever way to make fun of the white savior complex will emerge to the acclaim of the already-converted. It is not known how to cause needed changes in attitudes. Barbie Savior makes a worthy attempt, but let’s not overinflate what it can do.”

We humbly beg to differ. Barbie Savior started a conversation in the non profit and foreign aid sectors, and got us asking ourselves some important questions. Here are five things you can take away from this account:

1) Intention isn’t everything

No one is saying you shouldn’t volunteer. Volunteering is a wonderful thing to do, and plenty of people volunteer abroad and make an impact. What should be considered, however, is what you’re doing and how your work will impact the community you’re aiding long-term.

Plenty of reputable organizations, like Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam, take on volunteers with specific professional skills and do a lot of good. If you’re interested in volunteering abroad, we are happy to connect you to our network of partners in the field. One such partner is our grantee, The Kilgoris Project, who can provide you with meaningful experiences that can create deeper connections with the people you visit and strengthen a network of international philanthropists and humanitarians.

2) Voluntourism can take jobs away from people.

As we learned with TOMS shoes, well-meaning but misguided aid attempts can crush local industries. As is the example with TOMS, giving a large number of free shoes, shirts, etc, to people in a developing area can reduce demand for the items and deflate local employment in that sector. This has also been documented with Habitat, which takes away jobs from local construction workers. A number of Peace Corps Volunteers end up living in the Habitat houses, and often the families that know how to apply aren’t always the most needy — they are the most educated.

Gathering resources and showing up to build a school for orphans is an extremely noble sentiment, but consider that perhaps the money you spent flying out to that country could have been donated to a local NGO so that they could hire someone in the area to do that job? This isn’t always the case, which is why it is so important to thoroughly vet any organization you wish to donate to or volunteer for. Good NGOs are transparent about where money goes and the impact that they make. This leads in to our next lesson…

3) In many cases, organizations need your money more than your help.

This is an unpopular idea, primarily because people have an enduring fear that their money will be misused. However, there are reputable organizations on the ground in these countries that need donations, not volunteers. They have good ideas, are running good programs, and often need a boost of financial support to help expand a program or provide more services. Supporting leaders from reputable organizations in these countries can often be more effective than spending money to fly out and volunteer. We are very proud that 100% of our donations go directly to vetted, locally-led projects with rigorous due diligence.

4) There are no quick fixes.

No country, no region, no culture, and no community exists without problems. In the United States we continue to debate about how best to address problems with education (common core, testing, teacher retention and compensation), environmental issues, and civil rights, just to name a few. The problems we tackle here are deep rooted, and couldn’t possibly be fully addressed by a single NGO project.

That same thinking applies for issues faced in the global south. Change requires more than money and hard work. It requires teamwork, dedication, resources, and community buy-in; these are problems that cannot be solved by a short-term volunteer stint.

5) Everyone Deserves Respect.

This, above all things. If you do plan to go abroad and volunteer, it’s important to approach the experience with sensitivity and respect. Caren McCormack, Co-Founder of The Kilgoris Project wrote an excellent piece last summer titled “6 Reasons We Don’t Do Poverty Tourism”. In it, she writes:

“ I’ve heard travelers come away from a scripted experience with one of two thoughts. These people are poor and sad. Or these people are poor, but happy. Both get the first part right; neither hits the truth. The lives of the world’s poor are not different than our own. They are complex. They have high and lows, good days and bad days. They have best friends, embarrassing uncles, family baggage, funny anecdotes and inside jokes. When we don’t really connect with people, we miss the intricacies of real life.”

That’s where people behaving like Barbie Savior get it wrong. The people in her images are elaborate accessories, not friends or new colleagues. Pictures are often hashtagged with “#povertyporn”, which is a real and pervasive issue in the Non Profit and Volunteer sector. If you choose to take photos with and of people (at home, or abroad) get their consent, and consider whether you are showing these people in a way that preserves their dignity and humanity. Ask yourself, if you were on the other side of the lens, how you would feel about the picture being taken?

Africa is a densely populated continent made up of 54 ethnically and culturally diverse countries, and it should not be defined solely by the areas that need aid. There is a lot we can learn from the gaffes other people (or in Barbie Savior’s case, imaginary people) make. Should you be interested in going abroad and volunteering, it is important to choose a project that has long-term benefits, with a reputable NGO (and it’s best if you have a desirable skill, vocational training, etc.) If you’re interested in learning more about these kinds of opportunities or how you can get involved with foreign aid, we encourage you to contact us.

June 01, 2016/ Diana Gray/

Originally published at www.paperseed.org.

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