The summer after my freshman year of college, I had what felt like a major existential crisis. I broke up with my long distance boyfriend, chopped off my hair, donated half of my belongings to Goodwill and decided that I would change my major. I basically laid around my room for two months thinking about life and what on Earth I was going to do with mine.
Luckily, near the end of the summer, my parents indulged one of my short term dreams to go on a mission trip. I went to Nicaragua to help build a school in the community of El Trapiche and the two weeks I spent there were two of the best weeks of my life thus far. I learned about the area, about privilege, about social justice, how to lay a brick and to mix concrete and about just how much heat my body could withstand.
I often question, however, just how much or how little impact I had in the community there. As soon as I got back and even to this day, people praise my “bravery” for going to a different country and my “selflessness” for donating my time to the poor people in that poor country. Looking back, I know that the two weeks I spent in Nicaragua made little difference in the lives of the people in El Trapiche. That is something that many if not most voluntourists, people who travel to volunteer in other places, get wrong: we think that we are making a big difference.
Now, that’s not to say that voluntourists aren’t making any difference. Volunteering is important in many instances and there are organizations that would tell you that they could not function without the help of volunteers.
However, the extent to which volunteers help is often exaggerated. This makes sense because the groups that do need volunteers want to encourage people to come back by telling them that they are making a huge difference. By earning your loyalty as a volunteer, they hope to earn your loyalty as a donor. This helps nonprofits to obtain the resources they need but it also contributes to something less beneficial: the savior complex.
The savior complex is something that many voluntourists develop. People who go on these mission trips where they volunteer in other areas can sometimes start to see themselves as the incoming savior for the people they are supposed to help. And although help is appreciated, viewing oneself as a “savior” can lead to seeing the people being “saved” as lesser than you, helpless and in need of assistance from the middle class, educated American.
Before my group even got to El Trapiche, the community had worked together to obtain and install a water tank that would provide them with a clean and regular water source that they didn’t have before. They did that themselves. These communities don’t really need voluntourists. They need people who will stick around, who know the area and the issues facing it and who are willing to commit to solving structural problems.
Sadly, voluntourists are usually just looking for a good thing that they can do fairly quickly that will make them feel like they did something worthwhile. I know because this was my perspective too. Due to my limited contribution, I’m sure at this point, no one in El Trapiche remembers me. Not the kids, not the construction worker and contractor that we worked with, not the teacher now using the school. And that’s okay because for me, the point of the trip was to figure out myself and my priorities, and I learned more than I ever expected to. In the end, I think it “saved” me more than I saved anyone else.