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How volunteering abroad can go all wrong

by Sabine
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At a very young age, I knew I wanted to travel the world and volunteer in Africa. That one day I wanted to live abroad. Helping people. My dreams came true. When I was 20, I left for Ghana for 3 months to volunteer and learn about the country. A fantastic time from which I became much wiser. In which I also experienced things that were less fun and opened my eyes. For a long time, these experiences were hidden somewhere in my memory. Until I read the book “As Promised” by Renata Moi and everything resurfaced. An impressive story about wanting to do good but achieving the opposite. In this article, you will read why I would never volunteer this way again, explain the White Savior Complex and tell you in what way you do can do something good in developing countries.

As promised: the story about how good intentions in Kenya gone wrong

As a little girl, Renata Moi felt a connection with dark-skinned people. As a teenager, she wrote with a Ghanaian boy whom she also visited seven years later. A confirmation of what she actually already knew: she felt at home in Africa. Yet it was not until 20 years later that she took the step to pursue her passion. After a documentary about a children’s home in Kenya, she writes founder Celia and visits Kenya for five times. Renata is making plans to raise more sponsorship money and is making a lot of improvements in the Kenyan village and children’s home. For example, there will be a medical room complete with equipment and medicine. Anything to help poor locals out of their poverty.

But will all her efforts, the great passion, the love for the people of the village, the friendships and the many gifts she brings with her be properly received? And what really happens to the many sponsorship funds the foundation receives?

A suitcase full of good intentions

Each time Renata travels to Kenya with a suitcase full of good intentions to help lift the village out of poverty, warning signs and strange situations pile up. Still, the good feeling she gets from helping people dominates. The happiness of her neighbor and friend when she bought him and his family a cow. The reactions after she had herself put braids in her hair. The smiling faces of the little kids and the gratitude of her Kenyan friends easily fueled her urge to do even more. To continue.

From dream to reality

Only later does she see the many missteps she made. The signals that at that moment did not let her see what was actually happening. The insight that she was mostly helping the wrong people get more money and luxuries. In the book, you recognize these things that make you wonder why you see it and they don’t. And showing you what deep-seated passion and ideals can do to someone.

After each visit, the unpleasant feeling upon returning home became more intense. Despite this, she still wanted to show her husband and children what she had been doing all this time in Kenya. This intense and frightening visit was the end of her time in Kenya.

Years after that last visit, Renata has wondered again and again how her good intentions could turn out so wrong. By writing the book As Promised , everything became clear and she was able to process this traumatic experience.


Doing good for whom? The White Savior Complex

Giving is a magical sensation, like Renate says. After she wrote her book did she hear about the White Savior Complex: Western people who go to poor countries to “solve a problem” without really understanding the history, culture, actual necessities and current state of affairs in the country. The desire to help poor people is sometimes more about yourself. You get a mega good feeling from giving something to poor people who are so grateful. You are convinced that by volunteering in Africa or South America for a few weeks, you are really contributing something positive to a country. The feeling of being needed and important dominate; they can’t do it without you. You take immense pride in having done something good for the world, doing your part. And you are very happy to share this with beautiful photos of you with poor kids on social media.

Wikipedia also gives a good definition of the White Savior Complex: a white person who helps dark people to benefit themselves. This is often not something you do consciously. The book Renata wrote also exudes good intentions, the passion she has for the country and its people. You get sucked into the thoughts of someone who just wants to help and is convinced that she does. Only at the end of her travels to Kenya did she realize that the opposite was true.

Renata is not the only one. Especially many young people volunteer through a large organization with good intentions without contributing to the development of a country, and sometimes even doing more harm than good.

This does not at all mean that you should immediately never do volunteering in Africa, Asia or Central and South America. It just means that if you really want to contribute, you better read up beforehand about how to actually do that.


My experience volunteering in Ghana

A few years ago, I wrote this article about my volunteer work in Ghana. In that, I already stipulate that I would not do it again, at least not in this way.

I was young and inexperienced. It was not only my first backpacking adventure, but also my first time teaching, even to young children. A girl in her 20s who had just finished a degree and went to Africa before starting university.

Teaching at a little school

I went to Ghana because I wanted to see and experience for myself what life is like there, and because I wanted to contribute to development of a poor country. Without knowing it beforehand, however, I came back with a coffer of life experience, a much more open mind and a backpack full of eye openers.

In Ghana, I lived with my then partner with a host family and worked at an elementary school. While the actual teachers sat outside sleeping, I tried as best I could to keep the kids quiet and teach some English and math. Difficult, because in retrospect, those kids probably have a different white teacher in front of the class every 3 months without the right skills. The teachers get the kids quiet with caning, so why should they be quiet with me if they don’t get caning?

We had brought all kinds of things for them. Toys, colored paper, pencils, balls and much more. This often resulted in very funny moments, and I really enjoyed the happy little faces when I took colored paper out of my bag. They drew on it and let their imaginations run wild. Although this is not the best way to do development assistance, the children certainly experienced very happy and carefree moments. And during these drawing sessions, they were indeed silent.

When good intentions don’t reach the right place

The host mother where we stayed was a teacher of my class (but slept all the time, after all, I took over) and without my realizing it, she determined things that really scared me.

Thus, most of the toys we had brought with us ended up not at all with the little kids who were running around with broken shoes and T-shirts full of holes, but with her and the other teachers (who often did nothing). Who, unlike the parents of the poor kids, had pretty good jobs.

At her home, our belongings were not safe either, and several things disappeared from our suitcases. From the organization, we learned that you should not just accuse people if you are not sure about something, and so as a young and inexperienced girl, I did not dare to open my mouth.

Had I really helped the children?

I soon realized that the children were not helped by my arrival. Far from it. Because although there were a lot of fun moments, I contributed nothing to improving education. I can so imagine that the teachers felt rather useless. Or just found it convenient that they could sleep under a tree. I was doing unpaid work that they could have just done. I also wondered how many Westerners had been there before me. With love for the little children who had to say goodbye again and again. And with many gifts and perhaps financial contributions that did not reach exactly the families who really need it.

Happy with this experience

My Ghana adventure I would never have wanted to miss. It taught me a tremendous amount, made me stronger and more assertive, and fueled my desire to explore the world and to want to help others in dire straits. So I myself have learned a lot after this experience. And that’s exactly the point. After all, what did it bring to the locals? I hope that at least a fond memory was left with the little ones.

Walking in a clinic: a very different kind of volunteer work

After teaching at the little school, I also spent a few weeks in a clinic and a at a prevention project. That was very different, where we watched how they worked and they explained to us how they handled everything. The local doctors and nurses took us with them, which was very interesting (and sometimes very shocking).

We also went to a very poor village where the parasite Guinea worm was prevalent. Since the people there could not read, prevention workers went to explain how the people should use a water filter. Through proper use of the filter, they were able to prevent this parasite, which is no fun. I got to help explain and demonstrate and watch the prevention workers work. This was much better suited to me since I was specializing in prevention work. A very nice experience and again I hope I saved at least a few people from this miserable worm.


Volunteering in a developing country: 8 tips to avoid the White Savior Complex

While I wanted to move on with my life after my Ghana experience, to see more of the world, Renata held on to her deep-seated passion for years. She did not see the signals that were being sent and what was actually happening at her hands also passed her by for a long time. Something I understand very well from my own experience.

Do you also want to volunteer in a developing country, or helping with a certain project in another way? 8 Tips:

1. Immerse yourself in the culture and background of what you want to do

First ask yourself what is the impact of what you want to do. And whether that is what the population needs. Immerse yourself in the other culture, the people and what is actually needed in the place you are going to. What do these people themselves want? Do they want to be helped at all? In what way do they want to be helped? What do you have to offer that they can’t or can’t get done themselves? What will be the real impact of what you will do? Is that negative or positive?

Also remember that the problems vary by country and continent. Not all countries in Central and South America, Africa and Asia have the same level of development. For example, countries in Africa are among the poorest in the world, and many countries in South America and Asia are much more developed, but where there is still poverty or people living in slums in many places. Here is a list of developing countries according to the Index of Human Development. You can clearly see which countries are more and less developed.

Volunteering in one of the poorest countries in the world is very different from volunteering in, say, Colombia, which is actually a pretty well-developed country but where millions of people still live below the level of poverty. Think in advance where you want to make yourself useful and what is needed in the country you want to go to.

2. What is your intention?

You have in your mind to help poor people toward better development, but do you still want to if you can’t share it on social media? Are you going purely for the people or actually for your own development? To get a job faster at home with this experience? Indeed, this certainly helps with that, but whether it then helps the people you want to help is the question. This also applies, of course, to volunteering with animals.

3. Do you possess the skills to do the work?

In other words, can you apply for this in your home country? If not, why would you do it in another country? I really was not and am not fit to be in front of a class full of small children. I estimate the chances that they, their families and the local teachers would have benefited from this to be low. Except for the fun with the kids, though.

4. Is it good for the local economy?

It is likely that the country you want to go to has a lot of unemployment. Then it doesn’t help when Westerners who even pay to be allowed to work there come and take jobs away from the locals. Building a house or well can also be done by local workers. Who can probably also do that much better since they have the experience. Ask yourself why you need to do what you want to do. Do you have a specific expertise that you can use there? Or can the work be done just fine by locals as well?

5. What happens to the money?

If you read Renata’s book you will notice how much money she and other sponsors give to the foundation that she herself helped set up. The money was always for a specific purpose and was overseen with receipts and all. However, their implementation did not always go according to plan. The money often did not end up where it should have. Volunteering through a large organization also costs a lot, think 2000 to 3000 euros. An amount that can be used to do a lot with in that country. But does that happen?

6. Helping versus empowering

There is a big difference between going to help solve a problem yourself or teaching locals to do it themselves. Helping is a one-time solution that therefore often does not really help, while the second offers a long term solution. See if you can do something that will help the local people themselves move forward and not feel useless because they are apparently not good enough themselves.

7. Be extra vigilant if you want to volunteer at an orphanage

While doing research to write this article, I came across some pretty shocking information about volunteering at an orphanage. I have no experience with this myself, but I would like to mention it anyway. Orphanages in developing countries appear to be a source of commerce, with a whole business behind them to get more money. Many children are not orphans at all, but are put there under false pretenses to attract more tourists. And as a volunteer, you keep this terrible commerce going. There is even a website full of information about this. If you want to know more check out stopweeshuistourism.com (change the language in your browser).

8. Support charities that work closely with local communities

There are numerous charities dedicated to the development of a country or specific community. These can be found all over the world, in both Africa, Central and South America and Asia. Four good examples that I myself am familiar with:

Dominica | The Breadfruithouse

Marieke van Asten left for Dominica in 2016. When Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017, Marieke decided to set up a foundation to help children (re)build their emotional resilience. By providing an inspiring, encouraging and safe place for creativity to express their emotions and develop their creativity. Her goal is to turn these children into courageous adults who can take care of themselves and lead good lives.

Check out The Breadfruithouse website for more information and how you can help.

Colombia | Children of Medellín

One of the best-known charities in Colombia working directly to improve the lives and especially the future of children in Medellín. The foundation supports about 500 children with their activities, whose main goals are education, social integration and broadening their future prospects.

Read all about Children of Medellín Foundation and how to volunteer.

Colombia | Volunteers in Colombia

Andrea Gonzales, adopted from Colombia, founded Volunteers Colombia to recruit professional volunteers for appropriate projects. They think it is very important to achieve real results and are against volunteer tourism because of the negative impact on Colombian society. Do you want to volunteer in Colombia? Then Volunteers in Colombia can help you find a suitable and appropriate project where your expertise can be put to good use.

Learn more at the Volunteers in Colombia website.

Ghana | Ghanacoach

Patricia Zoer has lived in Ghana for more than 11 years and helps others who want to live, travel or (volunteer) work in Ghana. If you would like to do something good in Ghana, you don’t want to be the Western savior, and you realize that volunteering mostly enriches your own life, Patricia is happy to help you put your good intentions to work for a positive impact. Actually, the perfect example to avoid the White Savior Complex.

Read more about Ghanacoach and what she can do for you.


Have you ever committed to volunteer in a developing country? How would you handle that?


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