Why we need to stop ‘voluntouring’

Stop building schools and taking pics with African kids

Pretty much every time you ask someone about their gap year they will recount their eye opening experience working with Cambodian orphans or Chilean refugees and how it exposed them to their privilege, and helped them find who they really are as a person.

The harsh reality is, that many of these problems cause more harm than good. This isn’t meant to be a dig at volunteers – I have also with a picture of you and an orphan to make yourself seem kind and altruistic.

This also isn’t to say you shouldn’t volunteer, and shouldn’t help, because you should – just do your research, do it sustainably, and make sure you are actually helping.

When I volunteered, we later discovered that the work we had been doing during the day, attaching window frames and building walls, was being taken down and redone over night. Obviously – I have probably never lifted anything heavier than my suitcase that I brought to uni, and have absolutely no idea how to build anything structurally sound. It was arrogant and ridiculous of me to even consider that I had the capability to build a school. This happens much more than you would like to think, and kind of epitomises the problems with volontourism.

The fact that we can claim to be helping but instead of giving money to the actual communities it goes to big companies such as Raleigh is absurd. For gap year trips, companies charge up to £4,000 (NOT including flights) for the experience of volunteering. Their central aim is profiteering and how to get more customers, not building sustainable communities. Companies focus on the experience of the volunteer, not the benefit to the community. This money could be so much better spent – I mean aren’t 15 gap year kids more useful than a community doctor?

On a trip to Cambodia, I was guilty, as many others are, of visiting orphanages as a tourist attraction. In my head I was ‘experiencing the realities of poverty’ and having a ‘true cultural experience’. A quality Facebook picture of me showing how cultured and caring I was wouldn’t hurt.

But in reality, when you think about it, it is so fucked up that we see orphanages as tourist attractions.

After having read more about it when I got back, I learnt about ‘orphanage tourism’, which encourages child trafficking as children are placed in orphanages to feed the demand for volunteer placements. There are also many cases of people making conditions in orphanages deliberately bad to get donations.

On top of this, there have been many studies (https://www.tourismconcern.org.uk) showing that often, volunteers who visit orphanages or hospitals and invest a lot of time over a week or two in certain children, and form bonds with them can often cause emotional trauma for these children once they leave. This continuing cycle of short lived, intense attention creates attachment issues for these children.

All of these issues point to the problems with the white saviour complex, which is central to ‘volontourism’. At worst, it can be seen as imperialistic, projecting western culture onto other countries, and over simplifying the problems with other cultures thinking one visit will make all the difference. Many of these volunteering trips are simply condescending to local cultures. For me, it took going on one of these trips to discover this.

However, this doesn’t mean we should simply stop caring, and tell ourselves there’s nothing we can do. There are companies which advocate responsible volunteering, and have real, positive, long-lasting effects.

Just focus on what you can do to actually help, not how much they can do for you. I will still volunteer in the future – I will just make sure I’m actually doing something positive.