THE BLOG

Is There a Problem With 'Little White Girls?'

03/03/2014 11:55 GMT | Updated 30/04/2014 10:59 BST

So for the past few weeks, social media seems incredibly concerned with an article written to explain why white people are damaging to hands on international aid. It seems that their money would be better spent from their homes, and given to people who know better. White people in the developing world are a negative, not just a hindrance.

Never mind the incredible blurring of racial lines, this article does highlight the importance of ethical volunteering, if there are people in the country that could be employed to build schools or libraries, why should you be doing it? But I don't think it's that simple; nobody builds an isolated library. The library and the workforce are usually part of the community, with white help and funds a small part of the overall picture. For example, East African playgrounds, surprisingly enough, builds playgrounds in communities across East Africa to encourage development through play. While volunteer programmes are 'a great way for novice or experienced travellers to see Africa within the comfort and support of an experienced charity,' the charity also funds apprenticeship schemes and coaching qualifications for local people. At open days for the charity i work for, it is made clear from the beginning that the Rosie May Home would still run successfully if volunteers never entered again. Local professionals are hired for the girls to form permanent attachments to. It is not my job to cook or clean, but instead, for the girls to be able to practice their English, something i am obviously able to help with. After all, in a developing country such as Sri Lanka, the best way for the girls to get jobs outside of manual labour is to work in the tourist industry, in which speaking English is an obvious asset.

There is no denying that volunteering can have a selfish motive, but essentially, i believe it brings out the best in human nature, the innate desire to help other people. If you're not sure how to go abroad and follow the patronising stereotype to 'find yourself,' why not start by helping someone else? While I completely agree with the idea that people in developing countries should have their own leaders to look up to, I don't expect to be anyone's hero, I'd rather be their friend. They don't need to remember me personally if i can encourage them to be confident in speaking English, or understand that their gender does not have to define what they can do. My heroes include Zora Neale Hurston and Nelson Mandela, not because of their skin colour, nationality or gender. If international volunteers, even white people, inspire further education or tolerance in diversity, they will have achieved something wonderful.

It's not easy living in a country where people constantly stare at your skin colour, or have a completely different understanding of gender roles. Racial stereotypes can be incredibly damaging, but the only way to change these is to prove that despite being a white woman, i will not wander around in my bikini, or hook up with that guy on the beach. While this obvious difference had its drawbacks, it also allowed me to do things that would not be expected of a girl from their community. For example, their tolerance of my cultural background allowed me to talk to male leaders of government orphanages, and educate western volunteers on different institutions. Communications were obviously different due to my skin colour, and while i don't dispute the importance of promoting sexual equality within local communities, i believe that a white woman can help with this education or communication.

The notion of the 'white man' as saviour should be far outdated by now. It's not a useful stereotype and doesn't do justice to volunteers. I'm not trying to encourage irresponsible volunteering, but a moral absolutist stance doesn't help the debate; discouraging people from the wish to help others seems pointless. On a personal note, i would hate any of the volunteers i have worked with to think it would have been better to stay at home; i learnt something new from all of them, so I'm sure the girls they worked with did the same. While volunteer tourism can be incredibly damaging, this is not the same as ethical, or responsible aid. The wish to irreversibly change the world for the better, regardless of race, is a much more inspiring idea behind volunteering.