Empire Syndrome: Denial, Delusion and British Relocation

Travelling while black can be exhausting. As a British traveller you are often perceived by Americans, Australians and Europeans as a fellow ‘westerner’ and ally. This, combined perhaps with a complete lack of awareness of what it means to be a diasporic African, can allow people to feel comfortable enough around you to come out with some wildly offensive commentaries. Such comments can range from the mildly problematic to the outrageously racist but almost all of them are truly worth analysing.

I was once speaking with a New Zealander about her prospective relocation to Dubai for a tax free wage that would relieve the financial pressures of living in London, and finally allow her to start saving. She despaired having to adjust to a new culture and worried about things like covering up in the heat and not kissing her boyfriend in public. Her frustration culminated in this sentence: “I get that they want hold on to their religious values and stuff but they need westerners”.

My lips parted as I hoped to articulate some kind of response, but no sound escaped as I stood, dumbfounded. I know nothing about Dubai. But from her description of her life in London, she definitely needed Dubai more than Dubai needed her. The patronising tone behind the words “their religious values and stuff” had me completely floored. To dismiss an entire religion, culture or way of life as if it were small print to the greater story of My Life seemed painfully ignorant and self-involved. The arrogance of this statement marked me. As an immigrant arriving into a country solely to earn a better wage that you have no intention of paying taxes on, how is it possible to still feel such a sense of entitlement?

This brought into sharp focus a term I jokingly came up with years previously to explain some of the equally arrogant and ignorant things I would hear (almost always white) travellers say. The term empire syndrome, I decided, denotes the belief that ‘westerners’ have unparalleled rights to the world because the world has so much to learn from them. Empire syndrome is responsible for phenomena such as the selectively used term ‘expat’ and domestically can be connected to our unforgivably poor treatment of refugees here in the UK. It is the worrying belief, often manifested by British travellers, that there is always some element of contribution in being British abroad. The world needs the English language, British education and good, tolerant, liberal western values and here you are giving it to them! What commendable philanthropy!

The stereotype of the ‘Brit abroad’ as loud, proud and unapologetically ignorant is a label usually tacked onto ‘lads on tour’ type holidays in Spain or Greece that will later be made into a reality TV show. Of course, not all holiday-makers in on the continent are embarrassingly drunk and those who are quietly minding their own business always go unnoticed (indeed, positive stories of working class life, generally, go less reported). But in every brash British holiday maker is the hint of an attitude of “Here! Have my culture! It’s probably better than yours anyway.”

The ‘cultured’ middle classes tend to remain exempt from this label and many travellers whether to India, Peru or Madagascar are indeed polite and respectful in their attitudes and the way they interact with people. But more, in my humble experience, are simply incredibly polite neo-colonialists. These are the people who, with a straight face, will take one cultural norm they’ve ‘discovered’ from siestas to lateness to disregard for traffic signals, to explain why [insert entire state, continent or religion here] will always be behind the west. It is culture, not colonialism, pillage, unfair international trade deals or monopolies on means of production which is at the root of global inequality. How blessed the backwards people are to have you, Mr Neo-colonialist Sir, in their midst.

Academic discourse on foreign direct investment into countries with smaller economies, usually in the case of expansion of international corporations, tends to suggest that it is good a for a country’s economy. It provides jobs, teaches key skills, trains locals for future opportunities and brings in wealthy ‘expats’ who in turn contribute to the local economy. The problem with foreign direct investment, much like colonialism before it, is that it further weaves states who are at a structural disadvantage (because their exports are mainly raw materials and their currencies are weaker) into a global system of capital, built on inequality and exploitation, which will always benefit already wealthy states.

Whilst ‘expats’ who work for multinational companies may be spending money in local economies, they are making much more for themselves and whichever company sent them. Indeed, plantation owners in Guyana two hundred years ago were providing work to Indian indentured labourers, in the same way that most of your favourite high street shops are doing so across China and Bangledesh today. They’re hardly the heroes of history though, are they?

The delusional self-importance of ‘expats’ abroad has never failed to astound me on my travels, and the ignorance around the structures of inequality merely perpetuate it. No matter how poor the wages you pay or how little tax you contribute, the message is clear: the world needs western investment, western values and westerners and you are therefore helping.

The ideology of western cultural superiority reigns supreme, undoubtedly connected to the failure to teach the real and murky history of British travel and exactly what the UK would look like were it not for the empire. Until Brits confront the reality of how enriched this country has become off the very same places that some claim “need westerners” and begin to understand who needs who, empire syndrome will continue to reign and replicate the colonialism of the past.

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On Voluntourism

Affecting Real Change as a Young Brit with No Experience in Development.

The world we live in today is a beautiful place in many ways. A child born today will never know of the brutal racism and homophobia that their forefathers experienced or witnessed. We can imagine with glee their horror if they ever heard about the old “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish” signs, or their bafflement as to why a law had to be invented so that gays or lesbians could marry. Today, our world is more diverse and interconnected than ever, giving those who can afford it the privilege of travelling to a vast array of new and exciting horizons to drink in new settings, new cultures and new ways of living. A freedom of the purest kind, here for us to enjoy daily. But of course, this is not the case everywhere or for everyone. Every so often we are reminded of the saddening plight of those less fortunate, be it through a charity song at Christmas or just a passing advertisement on daytime television. This of course makes us want to react, to do something about this situation so that we can share the joy and goodness that we see in our own communities every day.

For many young Brits the answer seems clear, all you have to do is type ‘make a difference’ into google and there you have it, a three month experience building wells, teaching English or playing with orphans and bish bash bosh, difference made. Conscience assuaged, joy spread. Except that, as more and more critics have begun to point out, it’s not quite that simple is it. Now, I wouldn’t dream of wasting pages and pages on telling enthusiastic, compassionate teenagers to pack it in now because voluntourism is for neo-colonialists. Partly because I wonder if they’ll know what any of those words mean, but more specifically because as a former voluntourist (twice over), I know that those words would have done me no good before my trips.

Voluntourism is defined as the kind of trip in which a volunteer spends a considerable amount of time working for free for the betterment of the local community. And the voluntourism industry is growing at an alarming rate. Alarming, not staggering or impressive, because as it grows, it continues to feed off the clueless and cash-heavy and far too often once your few thousand pounds disappears into some third party whose role seems painfully futile once you arrive in your chosen land of the needy, many voluntourists end up feeling, well, robbed. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all organisations.

Most potential voluntourists will discover that there are three main kinds of organisations that will offer this kind of trip. There are charities, which rely on the money raised by voluntourists to accomplish their work, such as the Madagascar-focused charity Azafady. Then you have government-run programs that exist as CV builders or personal development experiences for British youngsters, usually heavily subsidised and hence very affordable for people of all backgrounds. Then thirdly, and definitely the worst of the three are the businesses that profit hugely from the money that you will fundraise for them, while their sole function is to put you into contact with a local grassroots organisation in your country of choice. They usually throw in airport transfer and accommodation for kicks. Essentially, you pay anywhere between £2000-4000 (an average for a 12 week trip) for a phone number and a bed.

As a former voluntourist I would never take back a moment of my time spent abroad. The first helped me grow from a teenager to a young adult, opened my eyes to the world outside of my tiny corner of London, pricked a life changing interest in global politics and development and helped me become the traveller I am today. The second acted as a clarifier, a reminder of all the values I hold dear and why and how I developed the beliefs that I live by today. The only problem is on neither occasion did I decide to take these trips for myself. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to improve the lives of people. And on that front I would say my trips were more or less futile.

The sad reality is that there are some harsh truths worth processing before you go and ‘save the world’, ‘make a difference’ or achieve whatever platitude was sold to you in the sleek brochure you read. Let’s first address the bizarre double standard that exists between working at home and volunteering abroad. You would assume applying for a job in the UK that upon application you have the appropriate education, qualifications and experience for the job, no? So why then, when on your way to your selected destination does it not cross your mind that you are not a teacher, nor a construction worker; you in fact have no useful qualifications and given that you are only going to be around for a three month placement, not that much time to learn.

Any business that runs on the basis of a quarterly overhaul of staff is doomed to suffer incredibly slow progress and would do well to contract long-term local staff. But they won’t, because you’ll do it for free and while you’re there you’ll probably throw some cash around on materials, maybe books, maybe sports goods depending on the project, maybe you’ll even invest some cash into a new vehicle or building for the company. You might think it’s not that big of a deal, or maybe that it’s the best deed you’ve done all year but for them it’s a lifeline. Without the westerners around, mzungu, nassara or whatever the local word is for white person, cash just doesn’t flow like that.

While on a building placement (I am not a builder) aged 18, I never once questioned why 18 year old baristas were being called over to Kenya to chop wood and dig holes in a slum where maybe 70% of the adult males were physically able and unemployed. Coincidentally, while I was there I just happened to pay for the wood most weeks, any medicine should someone in the slum get sick, and got into the habit of buying 5 times as much as I needed for lunch should anybody walk by hungry.

One thing I really urge young voluntourists to remember as they embark on what may well be their first experience in a professional environment, is that you know very little… about anything. Maybe I’m wrong and you’ve managed to squeeze in a Master’s in International Development and 3 years of experience with a grassroots NGO before your gap year. But on the off chance that that’s not the case: shut up and listen. Listen, watch and learn because in a new culture and a new environment your ‘this is ridiculous’, ‘things are so slow’, or worse, ‘in the UK this would never happen’ is offending everyone. Yes, everyone. Even the ones smiling. And it may kill them to smile and make them hate themselves a little bit, but probably you more

In countries without as robust an infrastructure, as constant a cash flow and as healthy and educated a workforce as you’re used to, yes, things work differently. However, you chose to come, maybe even with no relevant experience or qualifications, to magic away all the problems in 12 weeks. Your urgency is your problem, your struggle to adapt to the culture is also your problem, for people that you are working alongside on the ground this is their life and they would probably rather do it slowly and surely than just in time for your perfect photo op to take home to the family.

This leads me to my final point. Many a fine man and woman have dedicated their lives to improving the plight of those less privileged and at the time of writing 24,000 people die every day of poverty-related causes. You are not the first and you will not be the last. In reality, your three month placement is a miniscule element of a sector called charity or aid. Many development scholars believe that aid should be eradicated. The global north (the rich side of the world) receive from the global south (the poor side of the world) twice as much money as they hand over. Unfair trade laws, debt and the actions and profits of multinational corporations means that money is constantly pouring into the global north and pouring out of the global south. Our global political and economic system is so unfairly structured that an unaccountable corporation can have greater annual profits than the GDP of a small country, and that same company can still sue that small country for more profit if its actions aren’t sufficiently abiding to the rules of trade that they’re trapped into following. The world is a big, complex place full of baffling injustices but suffice it to say, 3 months volunteering for a charity who campaign for real change in trade laws or transparency of corporations in an office in Oxford or even just a lump donation, would probably have greater effect than your 5 grand blowout in Tanzania. But go. It’ll be fun.