The Danger of Being a Barbie Savior
Our very first missions trip probably looked a lot like us taking a million selfies with African babies, or handing out soccer balls at an orphanage.
Fifteen years ago, I was just as guilty.
My first trip as a 19 year old resembled this and that makes me sad. But growth is about learning from our mistakes and parlaying that into positive change.
In recent years, a parody Instagram account called Barbie Savior that started as a joke has gone viral.
It depicts all the things that are wrong with “voluntourism” overseas.
If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and scroll through it because it’s hilarious. Sadly, it’s also sobering because of how many of us who have taken that exact selfie with corresponding hashtags like #saveafrica #blessedtoholdorphans.
We laugh half heartedly because deep down we know we’ve made the same mistakes.
We’ve taken the photo without asking because we wanted something to humble brag about on our Facebook page. We’ve gone on a volunteer trip that was mostly about the safari seeing lions or the cheap pedicure we got at the mall.
With summer and short term missions trips upon us, it’s imperative we don’t just believe our good intentions are enough to provide lasting change in nations.
My goal isn’t to shame anyone, but rather to look at how we can do it better and avoid the danger of being a Barbie savior.
Call your trip what it is
If this is an exploration of your faith journey, if this is research to learn where you can be helpful, then don’t go into it with the misplaced idea that in 2 weeks you are going to absolutely transform a nation. Go as a learner or to develop relationships with local staff. Recognize this trip might be more about self fulfillment or guilt than it is about sustainable change. Have sensitivity to an orphanage or program’s rules around engagement with children, because you can actually cause more harm than good with children who have attachment disorders by being just another person who leaves. Find organizations who care about these issues and the long term mental health of the children they serve. Consider the cost or your trip and if the organization might have needs where that money can be better spent. If you don’t plan on having a relationship with that country long term, than question your motives of going. If you go, realize you will most likely receive more than you can give.
Leave the superiority at home
You’re sitting in church and you see the video of the nutritional feeding program in Mozambique and suddenly you feel this rush of guilt or love and are overcome with a desire to help, maybe even to go there and hold those babies. Or you see the ad on your church’s website that they are hosting a crusade in Uganda to save thousands of people and you want to go minister. But before you act, take a moment. I’m not saying do nothing, but what is it inside of us that thinks we have all the answers? What makes us think all our ways our better and everyone else should just fall in line? What makes us believe we have the solutions to a country’s problems that we’ve never lived in? How are these trips developing empowering partnerships that have the input and ownership from people who actually belong to that country? How is what we’re doing sustainable and following best practices? Ask yourself: what hole in your own heart are you trying to fill by “being a savior?” Ask yourself will this trip really make a difference to people long term and how can I make sure of that?
I lived in an area in Uganda that was widely sensationalized and attracted many “tourists.” Over the six years I lived on the ground it was heart breaking to watch the negative changes, lying, corruption, dependency, and hostility that developed because of well-intentioned people who were not accountable. Many nationals have started “fake orphanages” or “children’s programs” or “education sponsorship” simply because they know it is an easy way to siphon off funds or pay themselves a salary. I’ve heard countless stories of corruption and money that went missing, schools that were never built, or pastor’s homes that suddenly have a new addition.
When we don’t have accountability in place and don’t demand it on both sides, we are part of the problem.
We are creating and adding to corruption in countries with extreme poverty. Have accountability with yourself by following up with the organizations you visit and see what was helpful or harmful and how you can best support their work. Realize that volunteer teams suck away a lot of valuable time and energy from missionaries and staff on the ground, but they feel torn because they are afraid you’ll stop giving if they don’t let you come. Make sure you are a help and not a hindrance. Trust goes both ways. Make sure you are a trustworthy person who won’t make promises you can’t keep.
Let go of control
Your trip isn’t going to go like you thought. Vans will break down. Hotels will have bugs. You might not get to play with the kids as much as you want. Nationals might not like your plans. People might not get saved or healed. You might feel basically worthless because you don’t have a lot to offer.
Doing missions is about releasing control and releasing fear that we are not valuable when things go wrong.
Short term missions isn’t about checking things off a list. It should be about love and service and what that looks like to the people you’ve come to lay your life down for. Volunteering should be about letting go of your pride and your plans and being willing to do whatever those you’ve come to serve actually need. The Holy Spirit loves to hijack our plans anyway.
Develop policies in your church
Read best practices around short term missions, and if you still feel compelled to do them, then do them with great care. Have policies in place for how you will run these trips and have strict recruiting guidelines for those you will allow on it. Follow the advice of your missionaries and long termers on the ground. Familiarize yourself with the Standards of Excellence for Short Term Missions. Educate your congregation on the dangers of the white savior complex, and really seek to serve your missionaries and beneficiaries in the ways they need versus the ways you want. Set your own agenda aside and be a learner. Really connect with your on the ground contacts and plug into their desires for their own country. It might take some pulling and some honest, authentic conversations, but don’t shy away from that.
Develop empowering partnerships with people/organizations you can trust
Not all organizations are created equal and desperation can often lead to poor choices. Before you begin financially supporting someone you should have built a relationship with them that’s been tested over time. If you begin to see red flags of corruption, inability to explain things, misallocation of resources, inability to provide financial accountability, then you should investigate and not allow insufficient excuses to assuage your judgment. If you do work with and trust an organization then follow their rules, their lead, and their experience. Make sure you ask them what will really benefit them.
Carefully research ethical international adoptions
Many people who visit a country on a short term trip eventually decide they want to adopt from there.
This can be the apex of the dangers of the Barbie savior complex.
While that intention might be pure, there can be a lot of corruption around adoptions including false information given, children with actual parents who are taken from them due to poverty, bribery for mothers to give up their babies, and the list goes on. The reality is many children who enter the adoption system have parents who can take care of them and just because they are poor doesn’t mean they can’t be a good parent. But they might need help like employment programs for women, or maternal health care or parenting skills. These were all things we tried to provide our women in Uganda with. There are also many wonderful organizations now like Abide Family Center in Uganda who are trying to keep babies with their biological parents and out of orphanages or unethical adoptions. I’m not against adoption, I believe it can be a beautiful solution when needed and there are times when it is needed. Many of my heroes have written at length about this subject including the wonderful Jen Hatmaker. Suffice to say, I’m still learning about these issues and wading through their complexity with great care, but if we ever do adopt, I know I’ll be doing a lot of research and relying on those who have gone before and done it with as much integrity as possible. Before we jump on the Christian adoption bandwagon, let’s inform ourselves.
All this to say, God is God and I fully believe Jesus can do miracles and you can absolutely touch someone’s life with love on a short term trip. I’ve seen it happen.
But often transformation is a process and it requires love, relationship, time, and most often, it’s a two way street of open communication. So how can we do it better?
Have you ever been a Barbie Savior? How did you change it?