Peace Corps's complicated relationship with the 'white savior' complex

Peace Corps's complicated relationship with the 'white savior' complex
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A serious “white saviorism” reckoning is afoot. Internet searches for “white savior” have grown steadily over the past decade, following Teju Cole’s searing critique, “The White-Savior Industrial Complex,” in 2012. Commentators such as Cole often target archetypal white saviors — missionaries, voluntourists, celebrities — who make short-term trips to “help.” Also included in the fray are “poverty porn” journalists. Until now, government organizations such as the Peace Corps mostly have been spared. That’s starting to change.

As a former Peace Corps teacher in Malawi, I believe that saviorism is real, pervasive and toxic. The longstanding power imbalance between the Global North and South, including bastions of white privilege in the former and atrocities of colonialism in the latter, makes the white variety of saviorism especially pernicious. I applaud nonprofits such as No White Saviors and the Instagram account Barbie Savior for sparking a long overdue discussion about “decolonizing missions and development work.” While their screeds are difficult to hear, they resonate deep within us and our institutions.

Peace Corps, an institution I hold dear, exhibits hallmarks of saviorism. A prime example is the motto: “Make the most of your world.” The message is clear: The world is yours, go forth and fix it. In fairness, the consultants who likely concocted this messaging faux pas are hired to craft sound bites that resonate. And marketers are acutely aware of how a $173 billion voluntourism industry, which competes with Peace Corps for recruits, has turned white savior mythology into a thriving business.

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Many Peace Corps Malawi invitees believe this hype; I did. Most are young and white, although they tend to have more education than local counterparts and serve in rural villages struggling to recruit qualified personnel. Through no fault of their own, volunteers enter service with prejudices inculcated by our media’s fetishization of poverty, war and disease abroad, especially in Africa. And it’s true that, despite their do-gooder halo, volunteers aren’t saints. As the saying goes, they are searching for something, running from something, or both. Yes, Peace Corps looks good on your resume.

But what happens next is telling. In the field, Peace Corps puts saviorism on trial. This starts during training, when volunteers are told to listen, learn and integrate, not fix. They study the local language and culture, preparing for two years of immersion in an underserved community. In the midst of service, living like locals and relying on their neighbors for survival, volunteers often (though not always) realize that their incipient saviorism was a distortion of reality. Their impoverished communities are complex organisms teeming with talent and grit that don’t need saving. These communities struggle not because of a shortage of Westerners but because of a lack of political power.

Against this backdrop, the trope of a bumbling Peace Corps “savior” without “real” development chops begins to unravel. While Peace Corps’ lack of verified development impact is disconcerting, what’s clear is that volunteers forge the types of deep, trusting relationships necessary to sustain impacts long term. Many volunteers go on to found organizations that challenge saviorism by amplifying the voices of local people. After coming home, scores of former volunteers continue helping their host communities abroad in myriad ways, while challenging fellow Americans traveling to developing countries to act less like saviors and more like advocates. 

Simply put, unlike most expatriates working to foster development overseas, volunteers go deep and get close. As thoughtful observers on the front lines of global poverty, they appreciate that development stalls in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, because of opportunists, not saviors. Like their village neighbors, volunteers feel sidelined by self-serving Western and local elites who capture the $60 billion per year aid business “for Africa” by promoting undemocratic, top-down, short-term “fixes” over the kinds of messy political reforms needed for lasting, democratic change. It's an affront to our democratic ideals and stated intentions for aid that, in several sub-Saharan African countries, extreme poverty is metastasizing largely in rural areas, where a majority of the citizenry lives. 

Former U.S. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) described Peace Corps volunteers as “our angels abroad.” While this is an overstatement, thick with saviorism, Peace Corps volunteers aren’t garden-variety saviors or imperialists either, as some have suggested. Instead, volunteers are ordinary people taking very real risks in far-flung places based on a sincere belief that service done right can inform the guest and empower the host. Most of the time, Peace Corps revamps the imaginations of its “saviors,” and we need more of that in this world.

Michael Buckler is an attorney at the U.S. International Trade Commission in Washington, D.C., and co-founder of Village X, a direct-giving nonprofit that funds development projects chosen by villages in rural Malawi. Follow him on Twitter @mulanjemike.