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“Voluntourism” mocked by satirical Instagram users with Barbie photos

“Voluntourism” mocked by satirical Instagram users with Barbie photos

The new pop culture term, “Voluntourism”, is a portmanteau coined to describe the earnest but ineffectual approach many take to volunteering in foreign nations. Two women who identify as former ‘white saviors’started an Instagram account, Barbie Savior, to lampoon and bring attention to the problems Americans create when we try to insert ourselves into the fabric of foreign places.

Of course, many of these initiatives come from religious organizations with good intentions, so a distinct theme of Christianity  runs through the account. For example:

SO exhausted and filthy from working all day in the village! A sweet friend caught this candid of me and I realized that no matter how much of a mess I look, my true beauty lies within. Thanks, friend, for capturing this unexpected, raw, authentic moment. “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Proverbs 31:30 #ivegotallthree #nomakeup #exhausted #totallycandid #haventshoweredindays #coincidentalcleavage #hotinmorewaysthanone #humanitarianhotty #witdatbody #babyimworthit #mybodyisawonderland #cutetoboot #stunningsavior #dropitlikeitshot #fetchinglyfabulous #oops #imean #humble #truebeautylieswithin #storeupyourtreasures #beautifythesoul #ihopeitsstillclearthatimhotthough

A photo posted by Barbie Savior (@barbiesavior) on

Does your church do mission work overseas that you feel uncomfortable with, or have you managed to avoid this type of approach? Even professionals can unintentionally make situations worse, as the devastating cholera epidemic in Haiti, linked to the UN, demonstrates. Do you know any faith-based organizations or churches doing overseas work that avoids these problems? What do you think sets them apart?


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David Weitzel

Servant ministry comes in many forms. Mock if you must. But each of us should look in the mirror to examine what we’ve done to serve others. Done right short term mission trips help those who need help and brings broader perspective to many who only know ‘first world’ problems. I know of many orphans in former conflict zones who would not be fed, housed or educated but for the work of short term missionaries helping locals to create stable environments for the children. God bless them all.

Bill Simpson

The problem with “voluntourism” (and volunteerism generally) is that it substitutes individual virtue for collective social responsibility. One example: pointing to a “hero” who spends a couple hours a week at a homeless shelter shouldn’t be a pretext for failing to fund governmental antipoverty programs. That’s like saying you don’t need a fire department because your garden hose is endowed with greater moral purity. Congratulations to the Instagram satirists for dragging the neoliberal ideology into the daylight.

Cynthia Katsarelis

Blanket statements are problematic.

1. In the international area, often times it is the church engaged in collective action to respond to the pain, hurt, and problems created by governments. For example, Haiti’s extreme poverty is due largely to the legacy of slavery in the West and exploitation that continues to this day. I was there in 2004 when gangs armed by the US (GW Bush) showed their muscle in “manifestations” shooting off their guns and intimidating the nation. The US armed and trained these guys to destabilize Aristide to make an excuse to get rid of him. The long history of interventions has always been for some version of “making Haiti safe for the City Bank boys” (Smedley Butler, general of the occupation of Haiti and Dominican Republic back in the day). It has never been to “help” the Haitians.

People who go there to do the work get our eyes opened. And while we can write, call, email, etc., federal officials and representatives, there isn’t a lot that we can do in the way of “collective action” that would make this barbaric exploitation stop. The best we seem to be able to do is apply our skills (by invitation) to empower Haitians with education and skills to change their paradigm. And Witness to Westerners when we can (and it often isn’t received well).

2. Locally. It’s quite possible that the volunteer at the homeless shelter is the very person who can Witness to the need for collective action. I’ll never forget working the mail room one February and handing out hundreds, if not thousands, of W2 forms to homeless clients. The realization that 45 percent or more of them had jobs blew my mind. That was an education on living wage and affordable housing (near work).

Most of the volunteers I know are exactly the people voting for a more compassionate society, some are advocating for it.

So I don’t really appreciate the volunteer bashing. Now let’s talk about why Episcopal parishes aren’t collectively more engaged in social justice (i.e. advocacy, not only charity). That is a much more interesting conversation than bashing the people who are engaged in our Baptismal Ministries.

Scott Wesley Borden

It seems totally uncontroversial that some of what passes under the heading of mission work is tourism. I doubt it does much good, but I doubt it does a lot of harm either.

And it seems uncontroversial that some of the work done under the heading of mission is really marvelous and life changing for all involved. I think especially of the work done by YASC – but many others as well.

But the most damaging sort of work done under this heading is not the tourist sort of work, but the highly destructive (in my opinion) stuff done by fundamentalists. This includes fanning the flames of homophobia, spreading ignorance about HIV prevention, fighting against family planning work, and other such things.

This snarky web site is perhaps entertaining, but it lampoons the wrong thing. I’d much rather see Rick Warren’s work in Uganda (which he publicly now backs away from) lampooned.

Helen Kromm

Years ago, I was employed by the largest Wireless Communications Company in the US. A hurricane swept through Florida, which was devastating. Three weeks after the disaster, word came down that all Executives and Managers, to include those at the branch level, could “volunteer” to fly to Florida and assist in the rebuilding effort over a long four day weekend. It was clear that the “voluntary” part of this was meaningless. To decline would have been interpreted as disloyalty, and would carry with it real career implications.

Hundreds of people were flown from all over the US for this weekend. The costs for transportation, lodging, food, logistics, etc. were astronomical. You could probably count on one hand the number of people in this group that had any experience in manual labor or building. If anything, all these people accomplished was to get in the way, and use resources that could have been used by legitimate disaster relief and recovery people.

The trip did have one purpose, at least as far as the company was concerned. It was a photo op. A chance for the company to establish its charitable and humanitarian bonafides. Photos were taken and released to the press, and were even used in advertising. So much more could have been accomplished had the company just written a check. Real good would, or could, have come from that. Precious little that was good came from what we accomplished.

My initial reaction to the Instagram page was distaste. I don’t think it’s appropriate to level scorn at those who do humanitarian work. But I also remember that trip to Florida. And of the many things that trip was about, doing real work and achieving a beneficial result was not the objective.

I have to think there are other organizations that yield occasionally to a similar motive. And perhaps their efforts yield a similar result. I hope they are rare. There may even be individuals that participate in such works that have similar motivations, as in the effort is about their personal aggrandizement. I hope they too are rare.

But it’s clear “Barbiesavior” has struck a nerve. Only 58 posts and 70K followers, which at least to me is pretty remarkable. And who knows how many more not following, but viewing it regularly. And I wonder how many of those viewing the page will dismiss humanitarian or mission work entirely.

That’s the sad, unintended consequence of this. Snarky, hip social media pages like this have real influence. I wonder if Barbiesavior understands that. I wonder if they care. Yes, there may be a kernel of truth to be had there, but there certainly is no balance. It’s possible a page like that, and others, could potentially do more long term harm than those they call out and ridicule.

Cynthia Katsarelis

That corporate “humanitarian” effort sounds dreadful and like exploitation.

The enormous strength of the Anglican church is the many opportunities to partner with distant parishes to actually meet real needs, and to develop lasting relationships. But this is opportunity is available through interfaith work as well. One of the strongest panels I went to at UNCSW was something like Side by Side and Interfaith group. I heard from women leading interfaith groups, including with Muslims in Africa, to address Ebola, domestic violence, etc.

Real partnerships can accomplish so much more that one off visits to places with minimal relationship or superficial ones.

Leslie Marshall

‘A scoffer seeks wisdom and does not find it.’ proverbs 14:6

…just a reminder to me, that it doesn’t take much thought or brain power to criticize (admonition in the Word is a different matter.)

It takes wisdom, patience, compassion and self control to build each other up. No wonder God asks us to focus on that!

Christians cannot help from giving, the Holy Spirit is like an overflowing spring. Being in prayer is helpful for discernment as to where to serve. And then we don’t need to worry about it, or second guess God.

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