In the realms of global health, foreign aid, and human rights, there is so much backlash against people trying to do good. Volunteer-shaming. I will be the first to express the importance of doing research and working towards sustainable solutions. I have a whole section of my blog dedicated to doing this type of work ethically and responsibly (check it out here). But can we take this stance too far? So far that we end up doing nothing in fear that what we would do is not ethical or sustainable enough?
An Example in Global Health
Let me break this down a little bit further. Global health is my focus, so let me give you an example from this field. Going to a developing country to set up shop for a week can actually do more harm than good in the long term. You may be able to excise that abscess or diagnose diabetes, but once you leave, the follow-up care is lost. Diabetes is a chronic condition that requires continuous treatment. I&Ds have the potential to get re-infected and complications can arise. Healthcare is not about quick fixes. It is something that we need our whole lives. And you going in and providing a service doesn’t really put a dent in the problem. Places without healthcare need permanent healthcare providers and resources.
What does this mean
So, does it make you a bad person if you have gone on one of these medical outreach trips to provide temporary care? Absolutely not. That vaccine you were able to administer probably saved someone’s life (from being taken by that disease, at least). Might your time be put to better use if increasing access to healthcare long-term is your goal? Maybe. But what if everyone put a halt to short-term solutions because it is only putting a Band-Aid on the problem? A surgeon would not advise an EMT to just not worry about wrapping a wound in the ambulance because it’s not a long-term solution to surgery. Obviously this implies that there will be continuous care. But my point is that sometimes in that moment, short-term care is all we have figured out.
We need both.
And people should not be criticized for trying to do something good. For a long time (and still today), I struggled with this whole idea of ‘intentions’. My mind would tumble down rabbit holes filled with philosophical questions about good and evil, God and science, evolution, and why things are the way that they are. Why do some people (myself included) feel the need to want to make the world better? Why do I want people who don’t have healthcare to have it? Is it because I feel guilty for being so lucky with the cards that I have been dealt? Is it because I am selfish and want to feel like I have contributed something to the world? Honestly, it feels like a little bit of both. And that makes me nauseous.
Humans are Human
Why can’t I just want to help people get healthcare purely because I want to see them healthy and happy? Because we are human. Seeing other people healthy and happy makes us feel good. Makes us feel good. Once again, another intention that helps us out. We were designed to be selfish. We wouldn’t survive otherwise. I still don’t feel comfortable with this. But at the end of the day, doing good is doing good whether you are doing it out of guilt, pride, or genuine joy.
Volunteer-Shaming HAS to go.
But my motivation for writing this blog post is this: People are volunteer-shaming acts that are not 100% sustainable or 100% unbiased or 100% well-intentioned. There are op-eds, blog posts, and even whole Instagram accounts (Barbie Savior) devoted to shaming people for falling subject to the ‘white savior complex’.
Don’t get me wrong, I will be the first person to tell you that this whole idea of a superiority or hero complex is not the way to go about doing things. This mentality can actually feed rather than combat oppression. Not to mention it is just cringe-worthy. It paints a picture that these privileged white folk are above people living in poverty in developing countries. It also implies that they need saving and can’t help themselves, both of which are not true. The goal is to be equal global partners rather than to have a giving/receiving, helper/helpless relationship.
I understand the backlash against voluntourism. I really do. People have a habit of seeing themselves through rose-colored glasses and simplifying complex problems; that is the real issue.
But we have a big problem when people are being shamed for spreading awareness about some major challenges of the world. Sex trafficking is a HUGE issue (even in developed countries like the US). Sophia Chong questions whether it would be better to keep people ill-informed about the world’s problems because they are inevitably brought to light through a colonialist lens, as she writes in Veiled Colonialism: A Feminist Criticism of the Half the Sky Movement.
Ignorance is not bliss.
And ignorance due to fear of bias is stupid. Everyone has a bias because everyone grew up differently, experienced different things and has a unique outlook on life. It is impossible to write about something without having how you view the world influencing your words at least a little bit.
Write Away, Scholars
When you write about an issue that you want people to know about, it is responsible and ethical to broaden your horizons and try to see things from all perspectives. But we inevitably will miss a view and infect our writing with our own cultural biases. This is no reason to keep quiet and not write. In fact, this is a reason TO write. Your view on the subject might be a viewpoint that someone else missed. Thank god for bias. Otherwise we would be living in a uniform and robot world where everyone thought in the same logical way.
The bottom line is this: We need to be responsible and think about long term implications. We need to work on seeing things from a plethora of perspectives. We need to do away with superiority complexes. But we also need to stop shaming people for trying to do something good, no matter their intentions. Instead, let’s put that negative energy towards pushing for better solutions. Because eventually we are going to scare the world into doing nothing and hiding in the shadows for fear of being uninformed or politically incorrect. And when that happens, we’ve lost.