For some time now it has felt overdone, even somewhat passé, to examine closely the ways that Africa is represented and how Americans engage with it. The backlash against clicktivism after #KONY2012 has bought us the funny ranging from Radi-Aid’s Band Aid-like music video calling on Africans to send radiators to freezing Norwegians, or the more recent viral White Savior Barbie Instagram account. Everybody is in on the joke. Does this mean there is little power left in the narratives about Africa that sites like Africa is a Country gave us such clarity about a few years back?
There are two reasons to take this moment of parody seriously. First it wouldn’t be far-fetched to argue that there is a dependence on parody as political critique. Second the “volunteer” or “saving Africa” industry parodied so bitingly on social media and elsewhere, continues to thrive sending thousands of young Americans and Europeans to Africa to do good. So, why does being in on the joke not slow down the desire to save Africans?
Much of how we think about volunteerism stems from the experiences of one of us (Elsa) working as a volunteer at the Moroccan Children’s Trust in Taroudant in southern Morocco close to Marrakesh. During her time there, Elsa interviewed volunteers from North America and Europe as well as on-site coordinators. (The research, by the way, was conducted for an honors thesis in International Comparative Studies at Duke University.) Instead of finding volunteers blind to the multiple and complex ways in which “voluntourism” can be a neocolonial project, the Moroccan Children’s Trust was supported by young volunteers fully aware of the relation between their work and parodies of it, as well as the cultural and political critique of the “white savior complex.”
What might appear to be a paradox – that young people volunteer for NGO’s abroad while aware of the critique of such work – is not only built on a long history of such debates in philanthropy but in its contemporary iteration, and is a logical outcome of neoliberal subject-making. Familiar images of Africa both presented in earnest or satirized continue to represent Africans as needing help. These allow a new generation to continue their self-development through service on the continent despite their awareness of the ethical problems. How does this happen?
The generation in the Global North that most consumes social media news and satire as politics has been labeled “millennials.” They are a generation born in Europe and North America between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, those who came of age at the beginning of the 21st century. They grew up in a geopolitical environment that values individual empowerment and asserts that compassion is the main catalyst for social change. Millennials have been raised to believe that they can and should be major actors in helping provide aid abroad. Their choices and desires are intertwined with the evolution of social media, which has helped create a collective society that empowers millennials to construct their own identities through being seen and recognized constantly. These selves are present not only on individual social media platforms but are effectively echoed in the way voluntourism and other forms of aid represent the role of young people in Africa. The circulation of images online between official sites created by international NGO’s and community based organizations and personal sites makes one’s own world almost indistinguishable from the global terrain of aid and development. As they have always done, such images also make consumers feel connected to a wider community, one united by shared global responsibility. These images are of course what Barbie Savior skewers. But they also successfully turn aid and philanthropy and volunteering into an entirely affective economy, switching emotional resonance for political and economic landscapes of inequality.
Millennials are also encountering an increasingly stressful and limited job market, albeit one that is meant to offer freedom and flexibility not available to their parents. They have experienced waves of financial collapse and economic downturns leading to higher levels of unemployment, student debt and lower levels of income than preceding generations had achieved at a similar age. They are, therefore, encouraged to pursue experiences that they can use to market themselves positively. Their job searches are characterized by employers’ desire for candidates with affective skills such as empathy and sympathy. Not only has the last decade seen significant increase in the professionalism and skills required of volunteers but volunteering is the ideal evidence of having achieved affective skills. Volunteering has therefore become a worthwhile investment for millennials in periods of economic stringency and despite increasing criticism.
Alongside this changing labor landscape, millennials have only really known a world characterized by neoliberal policies. They value above much else individual empowerment and are skeptical of a governments’ capacity to provide social good. Such subjectivity allows young millennials to understand their own voluntourism, not in terms of the unequal geopolitical relationships that they critique, but as an appropriate form for them to develop their own skills base, including something that could be called global empathy.
If, as neoliberal citizen-, their primary responsibility is towards their own advancement (because that is in itself a social good and globally responsible), there is no contradiction in being both critical of and a participant in voluntourism. Or being engaged in (or resistant to) many other seemingly paradoxical political and social movements.