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You’re not helping, you’re on holiday – the problem with ‘voluntourism’

White saviour complex is alive and well


Thankfully, colonialism in its most indiscreet form ended a while ago. Sadly, that has not put an end to arrogant, entitled Westerners heading abroad for self-gain, all under the mirage of improving the lives of local people.

‘Volun-tourism’ – the trend in which tourists go abroad and perform charity and community work – is perhaps the most prominent example of this.

Arguably the most at fault demographic in this regard are university and school students. World Challenge for example, a scheme upon which teenagers travel abroad and perform some charitable acts, sees participants fundraise simply to pay for their taking part in the trip.

What this insinuates is that this GCSE student from Surrey has that much intelligence and wisdom that impoverished people in remote regions of Asia are better off enjoying the privilege of their presence, rather than simply receiving the vast amounts that they have raised.

I have no problem with these kids looking to explore the world whilst they’re young, but don’t make out as though you’re on a charitable crusade. You’re off on holiday. Say as much, and see how well your fundraising goes then. Until that point, you’re essentially exploiting other people’s plight to bag yourself a cheap holiday.

It’s not only naïve school kids that are guilty. Every year since arriving at uni I’ve had to endure the students who can’t quite let go of their gap yah, standing at the front of my lectures, telling me people in Asia need our help to become self-sufficient and to clean up their sea turtles.

Again – holiday. Say. It. With. Your. Chest.

You could be, but you could also just be confusing some Nepalese children

The sheer arrogance of these people is astounding. The global poor don’t need entitled, middle-class (almost half of private school pupils take gap years, compared to 1 in 5 overall), Westerners coming over to lay a few bricks and pose for a few photos. If you genuinely want to help, donate some money and let the experts and locals do their jobs. Otherwise, keep schtum.

Volun-tourism isn’t just irritating, it can also be harmful. Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) has described charity tourism as a new form of colonialism. Judith Brodie, who was once UK director, suggested students travelling to developing countries can in fact end up doing more harm than good. In particular, she has criticised the emphasis on volunteer enjoyment over how to help the communities they work in.

The emphasis on tourist enjoyment can reinforce dated stereotypes about developing countries and acts to make a spectacle out of poverty. Some ‘voluntour’ experiences for example have been accused of keeping conditions deliberately squalid, so as to draw in fee-paying tourists.

In addition to this, studies by child psychologists in South Africa have suggested that hyper-affectionate orphaned children only behave in such a manner because they are constantly forming bonds with outsiders who, inevitably, abandon them.

We would not expect a normal child to so immediately show such love towards a stranger, and many are suggesting that this behaviour can be viewed as a sign of on-going psychological harm.

Popping in to teach baffled children English, or to harvest a couple of plants, is inefficient, ineffective, and won’t help impoverished communities around the world to prosper. What these communities want and deserve are the tools, resources, and opportunities to learn and to do that work themselves. They require financial support, not unskilled volunteer labour.

Anyone genuinely wanting to help should save money on flights and accommodation, and instead give it to those who could really use it, and who are already doing remarkable things against the odds.

For those who do wish to travel, support local business, support local tourism, and if you do insist on getting involved, check out this page.