Volunteering 101 Series:

An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work


Who Is That White Savior With the Complex?

Are Westerners trying to save the world on their terms?

Disclaimer: This article is part of a series titled “Volunteering 101: An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work” exploring the dynamics of volunteering with nonprofit organizations. My insights are based on two years of personal volunteering experience with nonprofits in Latin America, Asia and Africa as well as research and conversations with people involved in the sector. By volunteering I typically mean self-organized participation in grassroots projects as opposed to voluntourism or government postings, even though I will touch on these as well.

  One loaded phrase people toss around when discussing development aid and volunteering motives is the “White Savior Complex.” It suggests that patronizing Westerners engage in developing countries with an agenda of positively influencing people’s lives based on the believe that the white man knows it all. Critics claim that the White Savior mindset and the humanitarian activities that ensue take away from the agency and empowerment of locals, while shaping a dubious narrative of benevolent outsiders saving pity-poor communities, which are unable to help themselves. That the White Savior might act with the best intentions doesn’t matter, because it is the very arrogance of thinking to know what’s best, which characterizes the term.   


However, critics who employ the White Savior rhetoric might be disregarding the complexity of today's humanitarian sector with its diverse global and historical dynamics, and thereby render a nuanced matter quite literally black and white. In order to appreciate the intricate and diverse realities of humanitarian engagement, I will draw a couple of lines: first, a big marker-pen stroke between imposed and requested help and then some penciled borders within these areas.

imposed and requested development aid

I would like to coin two definitions for the purpose of investigating the White Savior Complex within this article:

imposed aid = help from the outside addressing a need identified by foreigners

requested aid = help from the outside addressing a need identified by locals

Many humanitarian organizations, such as the American Peace Corps, engage in development aid only when requested locally and always in coordination with local authorities or nonprofits. They also employ a local workforce that guides volunteers.

The same is true for most local grassroots nonprofits that implement their own volunteering programs – their visions and setups evolve around a local core and typically these organizations are founded by natives. My personal volunteering experience also confirms this: out of eight projects I worked with and two more that I visited, only two were initiated by foreigners.

When critics of development aid and volunteering talk about the White Savior Complex without making the distinction between imposed and requested help, they might end up employing the very dynamic they are so set against: they patronize local communities by denying them the agency to consciously want and request developmental assistance from the outside and by neglecting the fact that said decision-making is an indispensable dimension of empowerment.


imposed development aid

The problem with imposed development aid is that it might be invasive to local communities and ignore their actual needs, agendas, perspectives and cultures. If this is the case, the term White Savior seems applicable. One example would be a project that uses donations to give a monetary handout that actually hinders the economical sovereignty of locals, who would benefit more from empowerment (e.g. through micro-businesses). Such a handout could be institutional, when given regularly by nonprofits, or individual, when given by volunteers.


In addition, there is another crucial drawback to handouts, may these be material or immaterial (e.g. a volunteer helping a single mom around the house): they might not only lessen local empowerment but also hamper the necessary change in global policies and mindsets that could improve the status quo at the roots and reduce the need for humanitarian engagement in the first place. A Western volunteer who gets to be a quick-fix do-gooder might actually feel like a savior and return home with a clear conscience, without ever seeing the necessity of changing the bigger picture. Reforming the current state at the fundament could require, among other things, altering one’s own consumerist behavior at home, which affects living standards and working conditions in other parts of the world; or advocating and pushing large-scale policy change that remedies unfavorable conditions in developing countries, which are fueled by capitalist greed and crooked trade deals.

However, in reality the choice at the grassroots isn’t always as simple as handout vs. empowerment and awareness. Sometimes it might be the more difficult choice between a handout and doing nothing. If no community-enriching project can be implemented, is a handout better or worse than doing nothing at all?

It is noteworthy, furthermore, that imposed help (addressing a need identified by foreigners) doesn’t necessarily equal a White Savior mentality and handouts. In my experience community-empowerment and humble collaboration with the locals is the more common variant. Take La Esperanza Granada in Nicaragua for example: the nonprofit was founded by foreigners and relies heavily on Western volunteers, but its backbone are local ayudantes (helpers), who guide the efforts of volunteers. La Esperanza Granada engages in education and is proud of its non-invasive approach with the motto “giving a hand up, not a handout”. Imagine Scholar in South Africa takes community-centered groundwork even further: while the nonprofit was founded by a foreigner, the community-enrichment program involves its local students along all dimensions of the framework and should be run entirely by them within the next years.

imposed mindsets

Another dimension of imposed aid are imposed mindsets and practices, triggered by local customs that strike foreigners as change-worthy. Sometimes there is a very fine line for nonprofits and volunteers between accepting a certain practice as a local custom and thinking of it as downright wrong. Take female circumcision or corporal punishment – are these matters of perspective and cultural heritage or violations of human rights commonly agreed upon by the majority of nations around the world? If a tradition is discriminating and harmful, nonprofits and volunteers addressing these issues might be out of line in an institutional sense, but doing the right thing from an ethical point of view.  

On the other hand, Westerners should try to understand cultural facets before criticizing them. Take my time in Ecuador: I lived in an indigenous community where people’s mother tongue is Quechua. At first I was surprised that children wouldn’t usually say “thank you” and so I taught them, just the way I was taught as a child. A little later I learned that there is no real equivalent for “thank you” in Quechua, or at least the local dialect, and therefore a lack of the concept as a whole. Thinking it over, I had to admit: fair enough, there is really no need to say thank you all the time and maybe it has become more of an empty phrase where I'm from. By now I’ve been to several places, where thank you isn’t really big.

This might seem like a benign example, but it shows that the White Savior Complex can be treacherously subtle; maybe so much so that it doesn’t even attract our conscious attention. Perhaps the idea of having it all figured out in our economically more developed part of the world is engrained so deeply in Western mentalities that it doesn’t make the needle on the white-savior-meter deflect. Of course no one can measure on that Meta-level, but it doesn't seem very far fetched to assume that Westerners might want to save the developing world by modeling it after their ideals and standards; after all we have a long history of doing that, from colonialism and imperialism to today's capitalism

I've come to find that developing countries don't need that kind of saving at all, and that they can actually teach us a life lesson or two: for instance on the relevance of social ties rather than material possessions in the pursuit of happiness; or about living more closely to nature than technology. 

I think humanitarian engagement should be about people worldwide having the same opportunities and equal access to basic resources like food, shelter, education and healthcare. It should never be about everybody living a Western lifestyle.   


Tamil Nadu / India   white savior or humbled volunteer?

requested aid

When aid is requested locally, it is typically based on needs that were identified directly at the grassroots within a community or by government entities. One example is humanitarian aid as a form of disaster relief; in this context the aforementioned material handouts from the outside might be absolutely crucial. 


The implementation of requested development aid (as opposed to short-term humanitarian aid) is usually a collaborative effort between locals and foreigners, who bring in their respective skills and perspectives. This approach is therefore better expressed by the term "development cooperation," while "development aid" hits at a more one sided scenario. Within the framework of development cooperation, locally founded nonprofits either cooperate with international organizations or they employ their own volunteering programs to source helping hands internationally.

Typically volunteers function as a free labor force making up for low funding within nonprofits, and/or bring in skill sets that are hardly or not at all locally available.  Volunteers might help out with education-related tasks like teaching or content creation (e.g. at Escuela Katitawa in Ecuador or AID India), childcare (e.g. at Villa Santa Martha in Peru or Greensleeves in South Africa) or a variety of other activities ranging from project management, fundraising, research and administration to manual labor. The benefits and pitfalls related to employing volunteers for these tasks I discuss here.

External help requested from the inside does not insinuate, however, that a volunteer can't fall victim to the White Savior Complex. Maybe the fact that aid is requested might even contribute to the feeling of "coming to the rescue." This is a flawed and hypocritical train of thought, considering that the economically disadvantaged status quo of many developing countries might in very substantial parts be attributed to the aforementioned Western interference: colonialism, imperialism, capitalism – throughout modern history, Westerners have conquered, assimilated and looted resources around the globe, driven by greed for power, territory, possessions or by religious motives. To now make up for that greed by responding to a call for help doesn't merit any laurels, especially since the exploitation through capitalism is still ongoing today.

Then again, the people engaging in development cooperation are not their forefathers and probably neither the biggest contributors to global inequalities brought about by today’s capitalism. What’s more, the question is yet again: would it be better to do nothing then? Some critics of development work argue that the West shouldn’t try to fix injustices and disparities of a globalizing world by helping disadvantaged communities, but by empowering them economically on a broader policy level (e.g. with fairer trade deals). I think that’s a great long-term concept. However, until such ideals become realities, it could be devastating to not engage where help is desperately needed, requested and welcomed right now. Development aid critics are trying to see the bigger picture, but that doesn’t help the people on the ground, who are suffering from injustices and a lack of resources today. In the end, it should be up to the local community to decide, whether they want help from the outside or not. Like mentioned before, that, too, is an important way of empowering people – to let them make their own choices.

voluntourists vs. volunteers

I would argue that the White Savior Complex could foremost apply to the voluntourism industry and its target group. I’ve dedicated a separate article to the ethically precarious practice of making a charitable cause a business, so I will only briefly sum up the idea for context: voluntourism companies make a profitable business out of short term engagement with local nonprofits. They sell humanitarian-adventure-vacation packages and the staggering sums voluntourists pay (often thousands of dollars for a couple of weeks) don’t ooze through to the grassroots. These tourism companies target foremost Westerners, who want a quick, easy and convenient grassroots experience. This is a slippery slope as it nourishes the idea that you can simply purchase a do-gooder vacation, play White Savior for a couple of weeks, and come back a hero with a clean conscience.

Volunteers, by contrast, are individuals who work with grassroots nonprofits directly and organize the experience by themselves. This indicates a different underlying mindset, since volunteers take responsibility and immerse themselves more in the local culture, which fosters awareness. Among the Western volunteers I have met at the grassroots (some 120 people), hardly a handful stroke me as potential matches for the arrogance implied in the term White Savior. The vast majority was humble and often the harshest critics of their personal volunteering efforts and their respective governments and societies. One fine grey line that could be drawn is possibly the difference between someone who arrives at a project with an agenda as opposed to contributing in whatever way local supervisors see fit. But if that qualifies as testimony to the superiority of a White Savior is questionable and might be hinting more at personal preferences for activities and tasks. Besides, there is a fluid border between egoistical people who want to do whatever they enjoy most (e.g. insist on teaching when actually a librarian is needed more) and people who bring their own ideas and initiative to a project, which can be extremely valuable to every nonprofit organization. In the end, volunteers don’t just implement arbitrary White Savior ideals in local communities, but work in coordination with grassroots organizations, whose people in charge determine the implemented projects and tasks. 

to engage or not to engage

Ultimately, I think so long as the humanitarian efforts of an individual or an organization are in line with the needs identified by a local population and addressed in a way that is actually beneficial to said population, development assistance can be viable; unless it feeds into an individual or systemic White Savior Complex that results in the idea of one side helping the other and distracts people from the underlying issues and inequities. Changing injustices at the fundament means seeing the larger structure and implementing international liaison to create global conditions, which reduce disparity and give people around the world the same opportunities and access to resources in the first place. I think ideally local and international talents and perspectives are combined in humanitarian efforts at the grassroots for immediate community-empowerment today, while working simultaneously on broader systemic policy change for a better status quo in the future.


along these lines


Volunteering 101 Series:

An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work


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What You Perceive & What It Is: Volunteering Outlook vs. Actual Impact


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Volunteering Motives - Who Helps Whom and Why

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How to Find Free Volunteering Opportunities around the World

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Reality Check: Volunteering Benefits & Pitfalls

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Volunteering vs. Voluntourism


self-organized engagement vs. vacation packages – structures, results and ethics

...organizing your grassroots engagement independently, might not only help your own experience and wallet, but also the community you work with. read more




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