In 2016, Simone Kaho was invited to join a New Zealand charity mission sailing to Tonga to provide medical aid and training in far-flung villages. She leapt at the chance to reconnect with her late father’s homeland, and to do good.
But the experience has led her to reflect on the politics of “helping” — and to question the motives of some of those in the business of doing good.
I met Craig Koning for the first time at a cafe in Mission Bay. He sent me a photo of himself walking there as I was walking there, so I’d recognise him, which was redundant as we’d already been messaging on Facebook. His profile, which I’d lightly stalked, was abundant with photos, including one of him shirtless in a captain’s cap at Splore.
He was Pālangi, averagely attractive, and looked about 27. I kept an open mind.
“You look lovely,” he said as I approached the outside table he was sitting at, his napkins blowing away in the wind. We were meeting to talk about his mission, Floating Foundation — an aid initiative in which volunteers sailed on a trimaran taking medical supplies and training to outlying islands in Vava‘u, Tonga. The volunteers paid a daily amount for the privilege.
My mission was to get on to that boat.
It was March, 2016. My life was in flux. My Tongan father had died less than a year earlier. I’d stopped drinking and was reconsidering my career: whether to keep working in corporate or follow my dreams to become a writer and film director, as Dad had encouraged in his later years.
I filled the chasm of my weekends with relentless cause-joining and activism. I attended anti-rodeo protests and joined animal rights groups. I patrolled Western Springs with a group saving ducks paralysed by botulism, a bacteria that gets rife in summer. I went for a swim to save one. I went to vegan potlucks and made new friends, like Emily, a climate change activist and nurse and world traveller. Emily had recently met Craig at a laser strike get-together.
I learned that Craig was a South African migrant, that he had a millionaire dad whose Auckland mansion he was living in at the time, and that he’d been a DJ and an events organiser before he founded his own charity, Floating Foundation. He seemed to have connections. One of his major sponsors was Ricoh, which had hosted fundraisers for him. Craig had just returned from his first aid mission in Tonga on his boat Pickety Witch. He was doing stopgap work managing roadworks gangs and planning the next expedition.
From the moment Emily told me about him and the Floating Foundation, I started dreaming about Vava‘u. In my dreams, I’d swoop over houses and hills with my father.
Hence the meeting at Mission Bay.
I presented myself as a digital-media-blogging person, who could cook.
He asked me about my Tongan connections, which are limited, and Tongan language skills, which were nil, neither of which bothered him. He showed me photos of the last expedition, with pictures of Tongan children smiling at the camera, in a montage alongside images of healthy, tanned volunteers, grinning and sailing. Totally instagrammable.
My heart jumped when I saw the kids — they reminded me of my cousins. It was a strange feeling because the pictures also reminded me of aid campaigns for Africa.
Craig talked a lot about the sea, how much he liked teaching people how to sail, the dangerous voyage back to New Zealand from the last expedition. His eyes became intense blue as he described his boat scuttling across the ocean. It was mesmeric and slightly nauseating.
I asked why he chose to launch an aid project in Tonga and not in New Zealand. He said: “I think the New Zealand government looks after New Zealanders well enough.” He talked vaguely about aid not getting to the right places and corruption. I backed off because politics is not my thing.
“How do you get something like this off the ground?” I said to him.
“My favourite quote is: ‘Leap and the wings will appear,’” he replied.
We finished up, and as we approached the door, Craig paused to let me pass.
I said: “It’s strange, to see my people like that.”
Craig answered: “Yes, they are our people.”
Which was not what I meant. I meant “my people” as in “those kids could be my cousins.” Not as part of a universal connectedness, or whatever Craig meant. We stepped out into the stormy summer evening.
Four weeks later, I received an official letter of invitation to join the crew.
“How wonderful! Thank you! I’m tickled pink and overjoyed to accept,” I emailed back.
Yet I had a sneaking feeling, as I quit my job and told people about the mission, that something wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t put my finger on what.
An older male Pālangi at work said: “So what will sticking plasters and bandages do for diabetes?”
An older male Tongan cousin said to me: “Well, it’s not going to help Tonga sort out its own problems, is it?”
My sister said: “Hey, don’t listen to them being negative. If it’s needed, it’s needed.”
I packed my backpack, sub-let my flat, said a tearful goodbye to my Burmese cat, and got on a plane with Emily. We stayed with family in Tongatapu, displacing my niece from her room. Four days later, after hitching a ride on a cargo ship because the passenger ferry was grounded for repairs, we arrived in Vava‘u.
We boarded Sea Runner early in the morning on June 5. “We” being the all-woman crew. Five of us, plus Craig. No experienced sailors except Craig.
From the beginning, things started going wrong. Some of it was safety related, including a disastrous first sailing leg when the engine broke down more than once, the tender came loose, and the mainsail ripped. All while the trimaran bobbed through Vava‘u’s jagged and tightly interlocking reefs.
Then there was Craig’s bullying. It started on the first day, with the dangerous first sail. Everyone got yelled at, but especially the first mate, who was also his lover. I have a memory of him standing over her, speaking furiously and quietly, too quietly to hear, although the general gist was clear. She, much shorter, standing before him with her head bowed, Floating Foundation cap pointing to the ground.
Later, when the crew were chatting, I found out that I was the only one Craig hadn’t tried to get in bed at some point in the lead-up to or on the mission.
I felt a deep murky feeling. Something like panic.
Nonetheless, Craig delivered on the vision of paradise he’d sketched at Mission Bay. We cruised out in the tender to underwater caves, where I, an unconfident free diver, got stuck and had to be rescued by Craig. To my shame. At dinner, he said he’d enjoyed seeing me on the edge of hysteria. That pushing the boundaries was where exciting things happen.
We snorkelled over coral reefs so intensely bright they made Saving Nemo look underplayed, with fish of all shapes and colours nudging each other and playing like dogs. I swam over the drop-off, dazzled by the electric indigo of the water, an endless vision in front of my mask.
I felt pride to be associated with this place, that my bloodlines traced here, to Tonga. I started to grow confident in and on the water. I even took the helm of Sea Runner.
Every morning, I woke up and dipped into the sea for a wash. Every evening, I read the blog of our activities to the crew, sanitised and with dialled-up humour and positivity. Eating and laughing under the stars.
While day-to-day scenes were overwhelmingly beautiful, I couldn’t help but compare it to the first time I was in Tonga when I was 16, staying with a school friend. Then, I’d been immersed in a Tongan world that was strong, and swaggering, unapologetically itself, where it was on me to learn, to try to fit in. I felt intense pride when I started to pick up Tongan things, understand inflections, begin to blend in.
Compared to that, being on Sea Runner felt glossy and superficial. Like I’d uprooted a chunk of my Kiwi life and taken it with me to Tonga.
There was something else going on that I haven’t been able to put into words until now. As the crew scrambled to help Craig organise things that could have, should have, been done before we left — updating the training manuals, stocktaking and labelling of the medical equipment — I started noticing something.
The Pālangi nurse training volunteers spoke in a faux-fresh accent, like my Pālangi mother would. A kind of pidgin English which involved replacing words like “the” with “da,” and using a sing-song storytelling voice.
The other volunteers, all Pālangi, and one Chinese Kiwi, snickered about it. One of them laughed about the Tongan shack of an airport, and joked that the engine of the Sea Runner was irredeemably broken because “there’s no way we’d find engineering support in Tonga”. (Incidentally, we did find help, at a place called Trouble in Paradise.)
A game began. “You know you’re in Tonga when . . . you can’t get anything fixed. You know you’re in Tonga when . . . (insert developing country fail).”
Part of the medical training was teaching the volunteers about diet and how to avoid diabetes.
“Don’t you think it’s pretty hypocritical,” I said to Emily, “that western culture has introduced fast food, fizzy drinks, and cheap fatty cuts of meat, and now we’re here preaching they’re unhealthy?”
She shrugged: “So we can suggest they don’t follow in our footsteps?”
Craig hilariously imitated the accents of South African blacks and the Hunga town officer. There are notes in my journal trying to pinpoint what’s wrong with imitating accents.
Looking back at my journal, I can see how startled I was. I just didn’t expect to find racism on board. These Pālangi had left New Zealand, and come to Tonga, to do good! It was too jarring to understand, and it hurt. I was angry, and I was failing to call it out effectively.
I felt protective of the Tongan volunteers we were working with, almost all women, of their (mostly) big bodies and the kids with scabs they would sometimes bring to be treated. Only one or two — most of the kids had bows in their hair and bright dresses. Of how attentive they were during training, ignoring other Tongans who laughed about Pālangi teaching them to run cold water over burns, when everyone knew you should use butter.
The trainees made us a feast on the last day of training. Craig invited some rich German tourists, like it was a tourism event. Luckily they didn’t show.
The food was sensational, even for a vegan. There was tapioca, yam, taro, salad, as well as meat stuff for the others.
One of the trainees grabbed my hand. She said she’d just found out I was Tongan and it made her happy. The Floating Foundation crew were presented with gifts and she gave me a shell necklace in the shape of a shark’s tooth.
The Tongan women waited until we’d eaten, then rose and approached the table. “Did you see them demolish it?” Craig said afterwards.
A confusing thing was that it didn’t feel done with malice. I could see there was like and appreciation on both sides. There was also an underlying imbalance. We were in the homes of Tongan people “helping,” but beneath that, judging. Seeing a generic third world situation. Not really appreciating or learning about Tongan culture or history. None of us really understood the political forces that had brought about our expedition.
This was a particular failing for me because, unlike the other volunteers, I had skin in the game. I had an identity stake. I was there to connect.
I felt stuck in the middle. Here I was with a Pālangi contingent, not feeling I had the right to call out comments that felt racist, because I felt like a fake. My fellow volunteers didn’t see me as Tongan, which I presume is why they made those comments in front of me.
I also lacked the confidence to reach out to Tongans, to identify myself as a Tongan, and ask to be included somehow. I guess no one wants to have to ask for that.
Walking in Neiafu village, I stopped to chat when some Tongan teenagers working on an official-looking lawn called out to me.
“We don’t mean to offend,” they said, “but what are you? You have a body like a Tongan but say ‘mālō’ like a Pālangi.”
I knew they were being cheeky, but they were right. What was I?
Despite the mixed feelings, there were some wins. The first voyage to Hunga was completed, and the first aid certificates handed out. There was a sense of achievement. All the crew left, except for Emily and me, who were staying for all three missions, and the first mate, who stayed for another few days. More mature and medically experienced volunteers arrived, a woman and a bloke.
The new volunteers, plus Emily and Craig, went to meet with the main doctor at Vava‘u hospital. That led to Alani, a Tongan nurse from the hospital, joining us for the expedition to Matamaka.
It made a big difference to have Alani with us. He knew the town officer at Matamaka. We sat in his backyard in the twilight and listened to them chat in Tongan. Alani’s presence added a layer of legitimacy and integration, ease of communication and understanding. Recruiting trainees and setting up training times became smooth. There were no more racist comments on the boat.
A senior member of the team commented later that it would have been better to use all the funds raised by Floating Foundation to send Alani around the islands or buy him a boat.
“Really?” I said. “Even with the training?”
“Yes,” she said. “It’s not that thorough, and they’ll forget it.”
I didn’t make it through to the third mission. Emily and I no longer felt Sea Runner was safe. The bilges were full of water, causing the hulls to smash down on upcoming waves. The engine was still not reliable, and the tender’s engine was failing, too. The life jackets were odd sizes and not easily reachable, and the gas bottle was kept inside by the stove top rather than outside the cabin in case of fire. There had already been a fire, where one of the rubber pipes bringing gas to the burners caught alight. Jesus, we were lucky.
One of the expats we’d gotten to know said the whole boating community held their breath each time Sea Runner set off.
At this point, my concern about the way Craig treated women was secondary. The first mate had left, and Craig had secured a young tourist from another boat to take her place.
Emily and I got off and demanded our money back for the last voyage.
I accused Craig of putting our lives at risk.
“I’m feeling lots of hostility,” he replied.
‘Voluntouring’ in Asia
I took off to Southeast Asia. I just wanted to put Craig and those awkward, racism-tinged and uncomfortable feelings behind me. I was also unexpectedly alone. Emily, who was meant to travel on with me, had changed her plans.
I hate the idea of being a tourist, visiting sacred and historical sites in a gaggle of tourists, peering and snapping photos no one cares about. So I volunteered as I travelled — to meet people, and to find out about places by being involved in something good.
But, again and again, I had that same uncomfortable feeling.
I volunteered at a “cross-cultural co-creation” initiative in Pai, Thailand, that was working with a refugee Kayan (indigenous Burmese) village to help them reduce their exposure to “human zoo” tourism. There was a philosophy that all people and cultures involved would come together as equals to find solutions to our problems. The philosophy appealed, but the application fell short.
The initiative involved workshops, all in English, that were essentially marketing sessions, which leveraged the villagers’ indigenous knowledge — like teaching tourists how to make bamboo houses. It was probably useful. The villagers might go on to create a better experience than being viewed as zoo animals, but it’d still be a western solution that was dependent on tourism. The Kayans were being assimilated, not being treated as equals.
Another place I volunteered at, in Ranong, Thailand, felt more integrated. It was a tourist retreat and eco-garden which supported a school for special-needs Thai children. I hadn’t specifically signed up to teach, but found myself in a class of primary-age students, helping to teach English without having a clue how to do it.
The two Dutch women who founded the resort lived above it. One was staying there while I was visiting. She came down every day, joked with the staff, and had massages. The small group of volunteers there, all women, admired her and said to each other that she had “gumption.” Both founders spoke Thai. The resort’s general manager was Thai, clearly highly competent and liked. She’d helped the charity build relationships in the community since it was founded.
This was a more evolved charitable organisation, in my view, with Thai people helping to shape and run it. But there was still an imbalance — visually, strategically, and hierarchically. White people on top, founding, leading, paying. Indigenous people beneath, benefiting, smiling, grateful.
At this point, I had a lot of questions. I’d gone overseas with a desire to do something good, not just eat at resort restaurants, dance in nightclubs, get massages and have my nails done while being served cocktails by indigenous people.
Isn’t this the same motivation as the people who’d founded these organisations? So why did I feel uncomfortable with what they’d created? Was I being overly sensitive?
The discomfort was compounded because I’d been offering my services as a writer, to create blogs, capture experiences, spread the message. I was writing positive, affirming things about initiatives that seemed to be doing good but felt off, somehow. It felt insincere, like puff. Like selling out.
What’s more, I kept running into narcissistic, entrepreneurial-type personalities. People who’d founded organisations to help people in need, in developing countries not their own, but who couldn’t answer my questions about the political and historical contexts that caused the issues. They had superficially warm but murky relationships with the people they were helping — not equal, not necessarily free of racism, which looked like photos of white people with grateful brown people.
Talking to other travellers, I heard stories of not-for-profit organisations where volunteers felt sorely mistreated, and saw donated funds being misused. I began to question if all not-for-profits were like this.
The reckoning and fallout
I arrived home from my travels in late 2016, published a book of poetry (Lucky Punch) and got busy chasing my dreams by going to film school. I was still confused about my travelling experiences, and somewhat haunted. My final year project, a short film, was about a female vigilante fighting back against sexually predatory men.
At some point, I noticed references to something called the “white saviour complex” popping up on my Facebook feed from my more woke connections. It seemed to me that Craig fitted the mould. I’d come to the conclusion that he was using the foundation to present himself as a romantic figure to women. But I still thought Floating Foundation had a good core vision.
In early 2018, I was contacted by the first mate, who asked me to support a letter to the Floating Foundation board, complaining about Craig’s behaviour. She put me in touch with a crew member of the 2017 expedition, Lindsay Gonzalez.
Lindsay told me about what had happened on her mission. Craig’s bullying, drinking, and sexual predation had all intensified. On one occasion, Craig had drunkenly thrown Lindsay overboard, and she’d scissored the dinghy rope. She was left bleeding and bruised. Another woman who’d been relentlessly bullied left the boat suicidal.
At the time, Craig was making preparations for a 2018 voyage, and Lindsay was worried about more people getting hurt, specifically women.
It hit me then how irresponsible I’d been. Firstly, for not asking enough questions before joining the mission. Secondly, for not trying to shut it down after my experience in 2016.
I set out to remedy that. I’d seen the #MeTooNZ sexual harassment initiative launched by Alison Mau, and suggested Lindsay get in touch with her. A month later, I was contacted by journalist Michelle Duff. An anonymous source had come forward about Floating Foundation and she was working on a story. I spoke to her, and was the only person from the 2016 mission included in the Stuff story The philanthropist’s net: Women who were trapped in paradise.
When it was published, I felt sick with anxiety. I spent the day in bed feeling like I’d invited bad karma on myself for being a telltale. For speaking out of turn. Speaking out isn’t as easy as it seems, even though I had a minor role in the story.
Stuff reported that the entire crew of the 2017 mission had come out against Craig. They described “a toxic and unsafe work environment”, and young crew and volunteers, some as young as 17, being subjected to emotional and verbal abuse, and some of them being targeted for sex.
In the ensuing fallout, the 2018 mission was cancelled. Craig issued a public apology for “poor behaviour”. A statement on the foundation’s website said Craig had been removed from a leadership position. Ricoh pulled its sponsorship. Floating Foundation’s two board members resigned. The Charities Commission confirmed it was considering a complaint against the foundation.
No more white saviours
But there were still unanswered questions, about the racism and discomfort I’d felt about all of those charities in developing countries. So I finally did some reading on the white saviour complex.
The term was coined in 2012 by Teju Cole, a Nigerian American (also a literary hero of mine), in response to the Kony 2012 video, which invites Americans to help stop a Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony, by clicking to buy armbands.
Cole points out that it’s an insidious over-simplification of a complex political situation, which ignores the conditions that facilitated Kony’s rise to power:
“The militarization of poorer countries, short-sighted agricultural policies, resource extraction, the propping up of corrupt governments, and the astonishing complexity of long-running violent conflicts over a wide and varied terrain.”
American foreign policy played a part in these conditions.
Also problematic is the centring of white and western privilege as the saviour. A group with so much power, all they need to do is click to correct a situation Ugandan people had failed to solve over years of suffering under it. It’s an attractive premise: click to stop a warlord.
I noticed that the Kony video had an eerily similar vibe to Craig’s promotional videos: a breathless, good-looking, well-intentioned gusto. Like commercials for toothpaste or soft drinks.
The white saviour mindset focuses on solving highly visible problems in developing countries, like the need for water, food, schooling and medical aid, while failing to recognise the role of colonisation, globalisation, and western foreign policy in creating conditions that perpetuate the underlying problems, like economic disparity and regional conflict.
A related problem is voluntourism. This refers to the trend of westerners, usually young, travelling to developing nations and “doing good” while on holiday, without understanding the history, politics, culture, or the real needs of the community. This is what I did.
Voluntourism is big business. In 2016, I was among 10 million voluntourists who are estimated to have spent between US$1.6 to 2.8 billion, globally.
Typically, voluntourists enter communities on a short-term basis, less than a month, with no requirement for credentials, to take part in projects like restoring a school building, or helping with a medical clinic, replanting a forest, caregiving at an orphanage, or teaching English. There is a huge variety in the type of volunteering on offer. Often, voluntourists fill roles in place of local people, they have access to children with whom they form brief relationships, take photos, then leave.
Search “voluntourism” and you’ll find criticism after criticism. Exposing communities to uninformed and unskilled western volunteers is not good for independence, self-regard, or cohesiveness. In many cases, voluntourism asks the local community to stand back, and allow themselves to be helped. It turns helping into a business model.
Problems with the charity aid sector run deeper. The NGO community is facing questions not just for voluntourism but also for staff conduct and sexual predation. A Weinstein-esque shadow was cast over the sector with a recent OXFAM child sex abuse scandal which saw 22 employees fired.
There’s also the longstanding issue of “boomerang aid”, where aid given by developed countries to developing countries spins back dollars to where they came from, so donor country businesses and consultants benefit, not the people who need it most.
Craig wasn’t completely off the mark when he said he set up Floating Foundation because aid wasn’t reaching Hunga or Matamaka.
Once I started reading about white saviour complex and voluntourism, I realised I still didn’t know the reason Floating Foundation was needed in the first place. So I did more reading. I found the Stuff series, published in November 2016, about the issues Tonga faces, with calls for reform of political, judicial, and health systems.
These issues run so deep as to challenge Tongan culture itself. Democracy reformists are having to devise new words to help Tongan people understand what can be asked from the government, by the people, because no such words exist in Tongan culture. Dr Melenaite Taumoefolau writes:
“Since the concept of democracy, and the word, is an introduced one, Tongans use the English loanword temokalati for it, but temokalati is not generally understood.”
It was clear to me that issues of this scale and complexity could only be approached, let alone solved, by Tongans. In hindsight, it seems a bizarre notion that Floating Foundation could have a real and lasting impact when viewed against this epic backdrop of a unique and proud nation facing calls from its own people for institutional reform and cultural transition.
Everything about Floating Foundation was dependent on Craig, his merry band of voluntourists, and donations from New Zealand. When they stopped, because of the mounting complaints against Craig, the whole thing stopped. No more medical supplies, no more training. This is how white saviour initiatives work. They don’t centre the communities they enter — and, therefore, they’re not sustainable.
The crew member who said that buying Alani a boat would have been a better use of funds was probably right.
It’s not easy to admit that I took part in a white saviour mission to my father’s homeland.
Looking back, I see I was asking the right questions but lacked the confidence to push for answers. The racism I encountered — the casual, conversational kind, which I was righteously upset about, and the white saviour kind, which I was a participant in — were both examples of colonial mindsets. That’s why I was so uncomfortable. I could identify the obvious racism, but failed to make the connection that there was also racism underpinning the helping, and I was taking part in it.
The urge to help, to connect with and to support others is important and needed. But in this complex world in which we live, in which colonisation and white supremacy still dominate the lives and narratives of indigenous people, “helping” can be another tool of dominance and diminishment.
There are organisations doing it better than the ones I encountered. A responsible volunteer can find those organisations by asking questions, demanding answers, and weeding out the white saviours.
If I’d been more aware in 2016, I’d have looked for an organisation that was founded and run by Tongans. I’d have sought the information that makes Tonga look less like a convenient paradise and more like a complex political nation. I’d have understood that, in order to be actually helpful, I need to offer skills which are needed and wanted in Tonga. And if there’s no match, I would have tried harder to find a legitimate organisation to support, like The Women & Children Crisis Center.
I wouldn’t expect to land in the middle of a Tongan community, sharing food, and holding kids.
This experience left me shaken and confused, but it also gave me an opportunity to learn. The critical lesson is that there’s no way to avoid politics if you want to make a difference in the world.
I’m more aware now, wary even, but I’m not disillusioned. I’m back in the not-for-profit world, working with E-Tangata, where I’m putting the lessons I learned to good use.
While there are massive issues in the not-for-profit and aid sectors, there’s also growing acknowledgment of the inequality that underlies philanthropy, and calls for reform, which is why terms like “white savior complex” and “voluntourism” exist and are becoming more widely known. I want to contribute to that reform, and hope I have by telling this story.
As for me, I still have some ends to tie up. I want to go back to Tonga again, and this time, be honest about why: To feel what it is to be Tongan and home. If I can be of service there, I will be. I know it’s only Tongans who can help me do that.
Who’s getting it right?
The upside of terms like white saviour complex and voluntourism is that they represent the kind of clear, critical thinking that demands self-examination, transparency and change, from both individuals and organisations.
There are opportunities for the not-for-profit sector to use the white saviour lens to improve their activities. And if they don’t, they’re being held to account. Norway-based organisation Radi-Aid is disrupting fundraising appeals by giving high profile “awards” to organisations using developing country stereotypes and white saviour messaging. Comic Relief, a major UK charity, was called out by Radi-Aid for ‘poverty tourism’ advertisements featuring various celebrities, including Ed Sheeran in 2017. They immediately set about making changes.
There’s an organisation specifically campaigning for development sector reform called No White Saviours. It’s a work in progress. They’ve yet to post any organisations under “Who is getting it right” on their website.
There’s also a growing number of authors with first-hand experience offering thoughts and advice to would-be voluntourists on how to, actually, do good.
Sally Hetherington notes here that seeking to enter a community is the opposite of what a responsible travelling volunteer does. “Most volunteering situations should not have you working directly with the local community. For stability and in order for the NGO to form a trustworthy relationship with community members, the local staff should be the faces of the organisation.”
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