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The Big Mistake of Volunteering: The "Savior" Complex

08 Aug 2018

No one wants to carry the world's problems on their shoulders. As much there seem to be ways to help the intensity of these problems appear to weigh down on every individual. In the long run, most people develop some sort of fear and tend to adopt the "escapism" path in dealing with matters of the world. However, this may not be the case for every individual since the thought of responsibility for saving or assisting others is inevitable for some people. Such people suffer from a "messiah" complex or "savior" complex - a state of mind where a person holds the belief that he/she has the calling to be a savior.

Voluntarism, a noble profession that drives the field of philanthropy is a victim of the malady.

Is voluntarism a fallacy?

Thousands of people and groups engage in altruistic activities every year to provide services for no social or financial gain. The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program recruits 8,000 qualified and experienced men and women from over 160 countries as volunteers every year.

It cannot be understated that thousands of volunteers are motivated by the need to benefit others and to see people living happily. Others seek to acquire and develop the necessary skills to promote goodness and improve human quality of life. As a result, the 20th and 21st centuries witnessed a significant rise in the number of formal charity organizations for the poor and needy.

The outcome has been the growth in popularity of voluntarism. This is a phenomenon characterized by high spending by affluent Westerners for the opportunity to travel and "improve" communities - usually in the third world countries.

It is such practices that give voluntarism a new meaning. Therefore, questions about its nobility or perception as a platform for whitelisting the western savior complex cannot be wished away. Tiger Sun, of The Stanford Daily, offers insights into what really goes on here.

Most westerners harbor a dream of experiencing the adventure in the developing countries. They want to learn and experience new foreign cultures, but at the same time, acknowledge having subconscious altruistic notions.

However, it is not always as expected since some people would shudder at the thought after experiencing the reality of the matter. They would be at a loss to explain whether their desires were honest or imposed and whether they would make such a move if things were to be reverted. There is a possibility that after getting the perfect opportunity - the getaway to 'voluntourism' - most people wake up to the reality that they have nothing to offer. It is at such a point that the realization of them living the white savior complex dawns on them.

The "Savior" complex and voluntarism

Victims of the savior complex may draw solace from the fact that the condition is neither listed as a clinical disorder nor can it be diagnosed. However, its symptoms have been established to resemble closely those manifested by people suffering from grandiose delusions or delusions of grandeur.

The savior complex in voluntarism rests on two unsubstantiated assumptions:

    1. The targeted people are incapable of saving themselves
    2. What we do is actually helpful.

The assumptions qualify as delusions of grandeur because they are misconstrued. Many individuals are culpable of the phrase "I speak for those who cannot speak for themselves," which is untrue. All people are capable of communicating. All they need are the right conditions.

A similar form of delusion is at play in the savior complex. Poor and needy people can and do, create solutions to their problems. Volunteers are culpable of trying to save these people. Those with the heart for the poor should instead work together with the poor. On the contrary, critics of voluntarism perceive the opposite as true.

The practice fails to offer long-term solutions to the communities.

Volunteers risk being perceived as harboring a form of delusional belief, a major symptom among patients affected by bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. The savior complex diminishes the theoretical foundations of voluntarism as a practice that is:

  • Motivated by a desire to act upon issues of importance and concern,
  • Distant from the evidence of the colonial mindset,
  • Devoid of western, neocolonial, and political narratives,
  • A private act of empathy and not a public act of politics with national interest, and
  • A project of the self and not the state.
  • Restoration of the spirit of volunteering is dependent on unlearning the saviour complex and adopting solidarity. This way the individual is able to act based on propositions of the people in question and what they need of them. It is with such knowledge that one is able to execute whatever activity and in a manner that would benefit the involved parties.


    The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia was formed in 1993 to combat rising religious intolerance in South Asia and to campaign for peace and justice in the region. We are committed to working towards a just, non-violent resolution of the crisis we are currently living through. If you are interested in joining us in this work, please call 617-983-3934 or e-mail info@alliancesouthasia.org

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