What a Viral Photo Tells Us About Poverty and Volunteerism
The picture that launched a thousand memes tells us a lot about stereotypes.
A photo known as “skeptical 3rd world child” has gone viral on the internet. Maybe you’ve seen it? If not take a look:
The photo plays on a lot of stereotypes. We see the “third world boy”-- African, stained clothes, dirt floor, bits of trash behind him. And we see the “first world girl”-- probable aid worker, sunglasses perched on her head, threaded-vaguely-artisanal bracelet on her wrist-- crouched on the floor beside him. But instead of the usual beaming smiles and staged hugs we’ve come to expect from cliched NGO or voluntourism photos, the “third world boy” is throwing some MAJOR shade and giving the “first world girl” an impressive, critical side-eye. Eyebrows raised, hands clasped, his expression and stance pretty much say it all.
This is the photo that launched a thousand memes. All of which say a lot about poverty, volunteer work, and the harmful stereotypes that abound. Just check a few of them out:
While some of the Memes play on the trope of #firstworldproblems, throwing hilarious, ironic light on the realities of life in richer vs. poorer countries, others poke fun at the concepts of volunteer, missionary, and NGO work.
There's even a Twitter handle.
So, I just have to cry on camera and my village gets a new school? #thirdworldkidmeme— SkepticalThirdWorld (@ThirdWorldKid_) January 28, 2013
Collectively, the messages put the “amazing, inspirational” work of do-gooder volunteers in some serious perspective.
While an article in the BBC points to how the child in the image has been exploited-- the boy’s photo has been reproduced countless times without his knowledge, permission or benefit-- what’s more interesting is how the memes fit into a broader picture of “first world” vs. “third world” stereotypes, and what happens when organizations exploit them.
In recent years “voluntourism” (volunteer-tourism) has become a bonafide trend, one that has received plenty of criticism. A group of American high school students that swoop into Kenya to build a school for a few days (and “open their eyes to true poverty” and “help people,” yada, yada) and then go on a safari…. all with the added boost of getting material for a killer college application? That’s voluntourism. White teens from Europe spending 10% of their time delivering clean water supplies in Haiti and 90% snapping selfies with local kids? That’s voluntourism, too.
Satirical articles like “6-day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile” and “The Four Cutest Ways to Photograph Yourself Hugging Third- World Children” highlight how totally ridiculous and misguided such voluntourism experiences can be.
As one blog beautifully summarizes, all of these experiences fall into the “white savior industrial complex,” where wealthy (and largely white) Westerners feel like they possess the power and entitlement to “save” poor, developing-world communities that are unable to help themselves. But ultimately the experiences tend to make the Western do-gooders feel better and altruistic (and provide great social media and resumé fodder), while not doing much to impact poverty.
“The Rusty Radiator Awards,” organized by a developmental organization in Norway, go one step further in exposing the problematic elements of this trend. The Awards single out, and criticize, fundraising videos that use the worst stereotypes, highlighting how they not only disservice the individuals portrayed in them but “hinder long-term development and the fight against poverty.”
In lol-worthy parodies like “Who Wants to be a Volunteer?” (a spoof on the game show who wants to be a millionaire) and “Let’s Save Africa!-- Gone Wrong” we see the damaging emotional manipulation of “poverty porn,” and how absurdly misguided Westerner efforts appear to the very people they are trying to help. An African boy who has been hired to play a “victim of poverty” in a charity’s promo video rolls up in his car, removing his shades and wide brim hat to “appear the part.” When the do-gooder European charity woman offers him a Danish (obviously, random pastries and obscure toys are exactly what African communities need) he takes a bite only to quickly spit it out. “This tastes like shit!”
The message is clear: Africa isn’t all kids with ragged clothes and tear-stained faces, or flies buzzing over empty plates. Such stereotypes misrepresent people and poverty. And no Westerner equipped with a safari hat, tub of sunscreen and bucket of high-calories snacks, is going to “save” anybody.
Now I must admit that for me, this kind of criticism hits very close to home. By international standards I am very much a privileged, western, white girl. And I have spent months at a time volunteering in underserved communities in Colombia and the Dominican Republic. And yes, I even took pictures hugging kids and reading and playing sports while I was volunteering. And yes, I even posted some of these photos on Facebook.
Am I a stupid stereotype?
Maybe to a critical outsider I am. But then what’s the answer? Are Westerners NOT supposed to volunteer? Should NGOs NOT work in Africa? Seems like a lose-lose to me.
It’s easy to wag fingers and roll eyes and satirize. It’s harder to suggest a better option.
So I thought about it and decided that, sure, these viral photos, and articles, and parody videos put Westerners like me in our place and give some much-needed perspective on NGO and charity work,... but I would hate for them to discourage people from meaningful and impactful volunteerism. I would hate for them to paralyze us.
In my time volunteering I was open to how the experience was beneficial to me, potentially even more so than it was to the people I was working with. I was teaching English and Spanish to kids and adults who could use the language skills to secure better employment opportunities, but I was also learning from my students. They taught me every day. I’m sure that now, two years later, I think of them far more than they think of me.
I challenged myself to think critically about what my role in this community was, how I was a help and how I was a hindrance. I looked at the issues at hand--at the bad plumbing, the high levels of illiteracy and teen pregnancy, the lack of reliable public transportation--and accepted that I wasn’t going to fix anything. Communities were already being proactive before a single, foreign NGO got involved. Volunteers and nonprofits can provide needed resources, support and guidance, but the most sustained, effective change, comes from within.
And there is no doubt that my time volunteering turned me into an advocate; one who was motivated to raise awareness and share my message with others. Collectively advocates can work together with communities to ensure governments answer to the demands and needs of their people. The more voices added to the mix, the better.
There’s no top-down approach to eradicating poverty. It’s a global goal (the #1 global goal, to be exact) that the world needs to work on together.