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Opinion: At What Point Do Volunteering and Mission Trips Become Purely Performative?

“Giving back” was a pillar of my primarily white, Catholic high school, but I found that this mentality was not truly followed through with. 

Gaining service hours was often a competition for overachievers at my high school; another medal to put around themselves at graduation. Of course this was not the motivation of all and many students truly wanted to help others, but there was a population of the student body that purely volunteered out of necessity and personal gain. There was an even bigger population that may be volunteering for the right reasons but did not truly understand why the people they were helping needed it. It’s at this point where volunteering can become performative and where people help others because it makes them feel better about themselves.

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Although volunteers are needed no matter what, there is something to be said about the importance of understanding why you’re volunteering. 

Volunteering for the sake of personal wants can be an example of performative activism or having a  white savior complex. The news source VOXATL explained that people partaking in performative activism are focusing on themselves rather than the people they are trying to help. In many cases, volunteering without a real understanding of those your helping could be performative. 

Despite the fact that volunteering is helpful to those in need, it does not solve everything  for society as a whole.

Sammy Yasmin explains this in an article for The Grass Route stating “The lack of any clear objective to eliminate poverty and help these communities flourish and progress is for a clear reason – the West requires these countries to stay derelict.” 

Volunteering is simply a bandaid fix for issues such as poverty and systemic racism. Of course it is key to note that volunteering does have some impact on the individual being helped, and this shouldn’t be disregarded. However, some types of volunteering can truly end up doing more harm than good. 

Further in Yasmin’s article, the idea of voluntourism is outlined which directly corresponds to white saviorism. This style of volunteering is when travelers go to a certain place specifically to volunteer. Voluntourism is a clear example of the performative activism as these trips often consist of high school students. Many times they are simply working towards a better resume, or want to look “charitable” to those around them. In addition, the volunteer, who is usually white, feels superior to those they are helping. They typically have the mind set that they are “saving” someone who is less than them; hence the connection to a white savior complex. 

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Volunteering also generally correlates to imperialism as it is common for a nation that was a former colony to be the host of mission trips and volunteering for the nation that was once its colonizer. Although this may seem like giving back, it is not a real solution to the issues colonizing has caused and often helps the more powerful country more. 

Yasmin outlines this idea explaining that “[v]oluntourism feeds directly into neo-imperialism, as the locals are provided with no useful skills in order to continue development on their own.” This explains the concept of volunteering being a “bandaid” fix. If a society is not helped in a way that will enable progress in the future, then the aid was not useful for the long term. 

The UN outlined in February that decolonization must “be guided by the aspirations and needs of the communities living in the Territories.” Colonies were set up to be far behind the rest of the world specifically because colonizers did not decolonize in a manner that would help the colony. This caused a perpetual relationship between colonies and colonizers that can be shown through performative volunteering. 

There are some charity organizations that provide sustainable help. One in particular is the organization One Drop which builds wells in nations such as India, Burkina Faso and Colombia. One Drop not only builds wells but educates the community on how to use it and have a continuous source of water. There are many other organizations like this that are truly making an impact. But it is necessary that former colonizers recognize the problems they created and make an effort to create long term solutions.

One must acknowledge that the action of volunteering is not inherently harmful, especially if the participants are consciously trying to educate themselves. The actions that are usually classified as that “bandaid fix” can be helpful if coupled with long term changes as well. Deterring people from volunteering or donating is not useful for society, however, encouraging education along with volunteering is the best way to ensure that the action is actually helpful.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

Photos: Her Campus Media 

Jordyn Habib

American '24

Jordyn is in her second year at American University double majoring in CLEG and Arab World Studies. She writes about anything in terms of politics, DC news and history, as well as pop culture. She is also a section editor for Her Campus and involved with American's high school model UN conference.
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