Volunteerism, White Saviours and Child Sponsorship – a few thoughts.

I’ve been thinking lately:  How do I decide how to help children needing help.  From vigorous research and observations of charitable organisations I have concluded that child sponsorship adverts may distort our image of developing countries and perpetuate many negative stereotypes.  Children are often depicted in deprivation and degradation, with passive parents that are unable to provide or cope.  Mostly, all I have found through researching is a photo of one ‘poor’ helpless child or family and never given any explanations of the causes of their poverty.

I’ve watched numerous videos on YouTube and feel that often the narrators phone captured video and description describes how ‘poor’ the people in the area are.

This makes me feel really uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable because to those people who are living in the ‘poor’ area this could be seen as completely labelling that community.  A community that is generally a close knit group of people that live and work together and are happy.  ‘Poor’ by label is subjective by those living ordinarily in the western world.

It strikes me that whilst in the western world there is a call for returning to nature and teaching our children about the world, naming our youth as suffering from nature deficit disorder; the very people that are being labelled as ‘poor’ are already living that existence, with children growing up surrounded by a community of all ages, learning to care for young and old alike, naturally learning respect and taking responsibility for duties.  Now do not misread my thoughts as thinking developing countries are in a better position than the western world, this is all about perception of what constitutes needing help.  I am horror struck by stories of child labour, abuses of all types, lack of the basic Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, lack of food and water and of course, the destruction following natural disasters.

Through my research I have found that the Philippines (and other countries) for example receive a tremendous amount of financial support from the World Bank, targeting low income families and encouraging health care, education and other positive support. (Details here: http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2016/02/19/world-bank-approves-new-funding-for-philippines-social-safety-net ). This support has been delivered over the past few years and something I knew nothing about until digging through the internet.  From what I have researched, it appears there are many kind hearted ‘non poor’ people in the Philippines who try to organise and help those less fortunate, it just makes me wonder where the huge amount of CCG’s are distributed; the same selfie culture appears to exist within these people whilst continuing to live a ‘non poor’ lifestyle.  I suppose it’s the same in any country really and I do not have the answers.

It also strikes me that those who volunteer and set off to do some voluntary work (having raised a large sum of sponsorship money for the charity/organisation planning the trip), whether building a school or teaching some English is actually beneficial to the local community within the wider picture.  Are those involved in building work essentially taking paid work away from the local people?  Would teaching be better taught by providing training (and therefore a job) for a local person?  Again, I feel uncomfortable about these differing thoughts – is the best way to support a community by providing training and finances so they can look after their own?  Do we as Westerners feel we are simply more adept at delivering a service than those who live and work in their own country and community?  I guess there are two sides to the story on this one, the rise on Instagram of white saviour Barbie highlights the selfie taking ethos of many people, yet inside they believe they are doing good and having an experience.  But… and this is a hard one: would it be better both environmentally and local community wise, to raise vast sums of money to set up or support something within the UK?  Why do we feel compelled to travel thousands of miles (leaving large carbon footprints) and project our heroic western ideals on communities in person?

The rise of the term ‘voluntourism’ and ‘white saviour’ complex is getting a lot of attention lately, particularly following the rise in funds derived from gap year (or similar) people wanting to go and do some good in developing countries.  Whilst the fact that through media communications the availability of information about horrors in the world is inspiring, I do think personal and individual thought considering whether it is ethically appropriate to be placing our westernised ways on cultures that were ok before.  This opens up a huge can of thoughts and feelings within me.

I had been speaking to a local school about setting up a pen pal type scheme with a school in a developing country, purely for the thought that it would provide a good English exchange learning experience (through letter writing) and to enable English children to learn about education in a different country, with a possibility of fund raising events and awareness; this led me to start thinking (dangerous) about how to help children that really need help – anywhere.  At this point in time, I have become confused.  Why?  Well, from spending a few days reading different articles, I am inclined to think that by a simple action, or by taking it further with fundraising or sponsorship of a child, the chosen few may receive extra food, education, clothes, medical treatment and gifts which others do not. Brothers, sisters or other families may become jealous. And parents can feel humiliated because outsiders are providing things which they cannot – or frustrated that only one of their children receives help, I know I would feel terrible if I was singled out as a person that couldn’t provide for my family and was plastered over leaflets and advertising media, suggesting I needed help.

The child who is sponsored is constantly reminded that they are the ‘poor’ relation, having to show gratitude to the westerners on whose charity they depend.

The exchange between child and sponsor could be culturally insensitive to the child’s way of life. Children may know nothing about Christmas, say, but find themselves encouraged to send Christmas cards. Imagine you were a Christian and a wealthy Arab sponsored your child and sent them presents and pictures of their sumptuous lifestyle along with a copy of the Koran to read. (this is an example and absolutely no disrespect to any religion intended,  similar to missionaries being sent to Africa to spread the news).

Programmes which give education to individual children can isolate them from family and friends. They are educated to uselessness, unable to obtain well-paid white-collar work in their own towns or village and unwilling to do low paid ‘menial’ labour. As adults they either remain at home dissatisfied, or take their skills further afield, away from the community that needs them.

Child sponsorship programmes can create unfulfillable desires and expectations. A child who learns of a sponsor’s large house and reads about their skiing holidays or big cars can become dissatisfied with his or her own community and want to be taken away to that affluent world.

Therefore, I am concluding my thoughts with how to limit cultural confusion, frustrated desires, inequality, educational aspirations and similar thoughts.  I don’t have an answer.  The world is a vast and huge place, yet mostly accessible for those with the time and the money to travel rather than those who don’t.  I am a firm believer in altruism that is personal and non-self-serving, yet to try to bring this into an educational and positive focus is appearing difficult.

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