The virtues and vices of voluntourism
Who truly benefits?
Officially, voluntourism is just a portmanteau; a combination of volunteering and tourism. An individual gets the opportunity to travel to a foreign country and experience the culture, do some sightseeing whilst doing some good. Great, right? And on your inevitable Instagram post, you can show everyone just how great it was! A well-intentioned voluntourist, smiling at the camera with an underprivileged child perched on either side of their hip. “Inspiring!” Your proud aunt will tell all her friends. “Transformed my outlook entirely.” You’ll announce on your CV. And therein lies the problem with voluntourism. To what extent is it just exploitation of those in vulnerable positions so that we can provide ourselves with an experience, an embellishment for our CVs, something to tell everyone about during Fresher’s week?
Voluntourism has become a global business: programs are offered to upper middle-class students in the West, selling volunteer ‘experiences’ which allow us to travel to a remote village in a developing country (preferably one that fits the ideal bill of exotic-enough-to-be-instagrammable but poor-enough-to-need-saving). We are then able to play with poor children for a week or construct some shoddily built houses so we can feel good about ourselves before, conveniently, gallivanting off on a safari.
This industry is problematic on two counts. Firstly, it perpetrates the institutionalisation of children; for example, the rise of ‘orphanage tourism’ has encouraged child trafficking in Haiti. Vulnerable parents being paid $75 to have their children “employed” as orphans so that a gap-yah student can teach them how to braid hair for a week and an orphanage-business hybrid can make a profit. Even worse still, these institutions often exploit the emotional aspect of these trips by purposefully creating poorer conditions for the children so that they can manipulate foreigners to donate larger sums of cash and thus, amass even more money. Of course voluntourism originates with good intentions, but here is an example of it being actively detrimental instead.
Secondly, the voluntourism business is entirely founded upon tokenism. It is an industry which sells the idea of ‘changing lives forever’ through short term trips. This model is not only unrealistic, but hinders real progress because it focuses on marketing volunteer work and makes alleviating hardship seem like an overnight change, because this suits the voluntourists, rather than a long term process which needs to be tackled at an institutional level. Let’s just reflect on this. Objectively, does going to schools to teach a handful of English nursery rhymes to deprived children for a week or two actually have any positive long-term impact on their lives? Surely the cost of the expensive flights, accommodation and food would be better served as a flat donation, providing a salary for a local professional to do the job. This would generate both employment for the local community and, truthfully, be far more efficient. Teenagers are not equipped with the skillset that would allow them to carry out construction work or teaching as effectively as trained locals. Yes, this mind-set would essentially void voluntourism altogether. Is that a bad thing?
After all, going to a country and participating in such activities can be an illuminating experience. This sort of work can widen perspective and build character. However, notice how these benefits are entirely reserved for the voluntourist. “It’s a life-changing experience!” Whose life are you changing? Probably not the child in the aforementioned Instagram post. No, it’s personal gratification. It forms part of our quest to fulfil our own spiritual needs: our need to feel like we’re “giving back”, our need to “self-improve.” We all want to lead lives in which we can have the most diverse and interesting range of experiences possible. We all want to contribute to the world in a positive way. This is where the appeal of voluntourism stems from: an attempt to reach out and feel useful to those more deprived than us. However, the issue with this attitude, while well intentioned, is that it makes the experience entirely centred around ourselves, the volunteer, rather than those who we are trying to help.
I do not think voluntourism is fundamentally immoral. Volunteer work is a more worthwhile use of time than pure leisure. Moreover, it can set a precedent for increased thoughtful tourism, as well as giving insight into local communities. No, I don’t think voluntourism is entirely selfish. I just don’t think it’s particularly altruistic either.
This view doesn’t stem from an issue with the ‘tourism’ half of voluntourism. Going on a safari after doing some volunteer work doesn’t undermine or erase that work. For me, the problematic aspect comes from our perception of voluntourism; whether the extent of the impact we make is actually proportional to the self-congratulation we reward ourselves with. It is the essential idea of partaking in voluntourism and using it to ease our moral conscience. Rather, we should accept that it is more for our own personal enrichment rather than a favour for the community we’re visiting for the week.
That being said, this isn’t to shame you into cancelling your plans to volunteer in a foreign country. It’s about being conscious voluntourists. Instead of volunteering with commercialised voluntourism agents, volunteer with non-profit organisations, so you can be sure all the money you are paying will go directly to those in need. Take up longer-term volunteering projects: yes, that’s a lot of commitment, but it will massively increase your likelihood to make a genuine impact. Make sure the project you take up is one that you are actually skilled to complete to a good level. Avoid ‘orphanage tourism’. Prioritise fundraising money for the project you’re working on rather than for your own travel expenses. Most importantly, be conscious of and grateful for the benefits you gain from both aspects of the voluntourism.
cover photo: © 2016 Barbie Saviour (@barbiesaviour)