Savior Barbie stands in front of a chalkboard in a run-down classroom somewhere in Africa. ”It’s so sad that they don’t have enough trained teachers here. I’m not trained either, but I’m from the West,” the caption on the photo reads. In another, the plastic figurine poses in front shacks made from scrap metal and sticks: “Just taking a slumfie… Feeling so blessed.”
In the satirical Instagram account for Savior Barbie, Barbie is in Africa running an NGO that provides drinking water to locals. “Harnessing broken white hearts to provide water to those in Africa, one tear at a time,” the tagline for her organization reads. The account, started a month ago by two 20-something white women who have worked in East Africa, now has over 18,000 followers.
The account—likely inspired by the hipster Barbie parody account, Socality Barbie—joins the grand tradition of making fun of Western volunteers on short-term, often ineffectual assignments in Africa.
The account also takes a dig at Taylor Swift, whose music video for the song “Wildest Dreams” was filmed in a vaguely African landscape with few black characters.
Savior Barbie also highlights a point that advocates and experts working on the continent have been observing for years—well-intentioned but naive volunteerism (or “voluntourism“) is at best ineffectual and at worst harmful to the developing countries it’s meant to serve. It drives an industry that sees 1.6 million people do volunteer work while on vacation every year, spending as much as $2 billion in the process. Nigerian-American author Teju Cole once dubbed this impulse the White Savior Industrial Complex.
The damage can be depressingly direct, as Jacob Kushner, a journalist in East Africa, points out in a recent editorial, “The voluntourist’s dilemma.” In South Africa, “AIDS orphan tourism,” where volunteers temporarily care for children who have lost their parents to the virus, has left children with attachment disorders and encouraged orphanages to purposefully keep them in poor conditions to attract more volunteers.