22 July 2010

Dr Who, the white saviour mentality and orangutans

This is something I thought of when watching the episode the Lodger. It's not a review of the episode, just something that came up in it.

Set the scene: A girl tells the Doctor that she saw a doco about orangutans, and now her greatest desire (almost, but that's another thing) is to help them - but unfortunately, she has no skills or training that are of any use. He encourages her to go for it anyway. At the end of the episode, she tells him that she found an organisation which would take her on as a volunteer and she was heading to Borneo to start.

So what's wrong with that, you ask? Well, nothing. That is, if we see this as a story about a girl having the guts to go follow her dreams.

But there's a whole lot wrong with it if we see it in terms of orangutan conservation.

Dr Who is the classic white saviour. He is so much smarter, so much more educated, so much more technologically advanced than anyone else, that he's able to rescue ever other species in the universe, repeatedly. They cannot do it without him, even in situations where he has no more experience or understanding than they do.

And that mentality is so pervasive that he passes it on unconsciously to this girl. She wants to help? Of course she can! Absolute confidence that she is innately able to be helpful, by dint of her mere white presence, in spite of having no relevant education, experience or skills to share.

But I'd tell her that the reality is: They don't need you.

Nope. They really don't.

If you've got no skills, why the hell do you think you'd be of use anyway? Newsflash: there are people living in Borneo. What makes you think that your unskilled self is better than they are at helping? Your white privilege, that's what.

Because the truth is they don't need your help - that is, they don't need you. They need your money.

What you have isn't skills. You have privilege. Because you have that, you have money. You can take unpaid time off work. You can afford a few plane tickets. You can afford to apply for a passport. You can afford insurance and vaccinations. You can afford to stockpile enough money to live off while you go.

But there is nothing you can do once you get there that the locals are not capable of doing themselves. There are local people interested in orangutan conservation, working in orangutan conservation - and the only reason they don't do more than they are already doing is lack of money.

What about the orangutans themselves? They don't actually benefit from western volunteers coming in. At worst, you can spread diseases which can ultimately kill them - even diseases as common as the flu. And on an emotional level, if you interact closely with them they will develop a bond with you - then what happens when you go? How do you think it would feel when that happened, time and time again, making friends who stay a few months and then leave, year after year? It's traumatic. And if you don't get attached, if you just have minimal contact - then they learn to become acclimatised to minimal contact with a wide variety of people, which leads to dangers in the future when they enter villages and raid bins because they are so used to being around strange people.

It's far, far better for the orangutans to be cared for consistently over the years by a core of local people who are stable and won't come and go. But for that to happen, these people have to be paid. Their country is different; they simply can't afford to put the volunteer hours and spare cash into this - they haven't got spare hours or spare cash. For them to be able to do it, they need to be paid. That's where your donor dollars come in.

For the cost of your airfare, your accommodation, your vaccinations - you could pay an organisation to employ someone for a year as well as feed, accommodate and give medical care to orangutans for the same amount of time. Or you could go to Borneo, stay for a few weeks doing something that could be just as well done by a local, and leave the place as impoverished as ever to await the next volunteer while you go home patting yourself on the back for 'doing something for the orangutans'.

Strangely enough, what I've noticed is how few people want to donate money. Out of all the people who have expressed an interest in orangutans to me, or an interest in going to help them, only a couple have actually put their money where their mouth is. Why's that? All I can put it down to is the 'feel-good factor' - people want to do something that makes them feel warm and fuzzy. An 'experience' with orangutans does that - handing over money rarely does.

But there is one other thing that makes me wonder. People in many countries keep orangutans as pets. So often I've heard people here express horror and bewilderment at that - 'how could they do it?' And yet, when I post pictures of cute orangutan babies, crawling around in nappies or being held by human surrogate mothers - the main reaction I get is "I WANT ONE!" or "I want to do that!' It's the same impulse - they're so similar to us, they play on our emotions, they ARE cute and cuddly. But since we have a learned prohibition against keeping them as pets, we channel that desire into a form which is morally acceptable to us - helping them. But I often think it's the same desire. Those who keep wild animals as pets often argue that they're giving them a better, healthier, safer and longer life than they would have had in the wild. We all rationalise our behaviour somehow.

People ask me how to get involved in orangutan conservation. What they want to know is how to get a position at an orangutan facility in Borneo so they can have some up close and personal involvement with their conservation. But be honest with yourself. Are you looking to have a warm fuzzy orangutan experience? Or do you really, really REALLY want to help? Because the best way you can help is to stay away from the warm fuzzy tourist experience, stay away from the volunteer tourism, and just send every spare dollar, pound or euro you have to an organisation like OLT, BOS, or AOP.