Voluntourism is an attempt to cure your middle class guilt, not cure poverty

Student volunteers just want a sepia-toned cover photo with tearful African orphans – they have no idea how to actually make a difference

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“Ooo, I’m just off to Tanzania to help build these mud huts for this really underprivileged community. Like they just live amongst the palm trees or whatever and they actually must be SO sad about their lives.”

This is the kind of bullshit flotsam floating in the wake of thousands of students across the country struggling with the amount of money they have and some suitably poor country several oceans away doesn’t have.

They’re all out to ‘fight poverty’ and ‘make a difference’. How many of them even know what they’re trying to make a ‘difference’ against? It’s all sounds a bit vague and wishy-washy. The kind of vacuous, self-indulgent construct they can take out and polish when they’re feeling ESPECIALLY overwhelmed by the weight of the injustice in the world.

Tara, a third year Exeter student who’s going to the Middle East with Save the Children this summer says it’s worth it because “we’re in a privileged enough position to have the chance to truly help, by refusing to do so we just add to the problem of generic indifference”.

Herein lies the problem. It’s this mentality that’s been building over the last few decades that we all have to get ACTIVE, and DO SOMETHING because we’re so damn privileged.

Ultimately, these people are paying fuckloads of money to go to some country, do very little and then bathe in the glory of various sepia-toned cover photos of tearful embraces with African children. And, of course, a self-important little mention in their CV.

The International Citizen Service shows that as of 28 February 2013, 1,010 UK volunteers have been or are overseas on placement under their new programme. The highest number – 35% – of these volunteers are from London and the South East.

So basically the trend flourishes in 18-24-year-old privately educated university students itching to shed the stench of Saturday detentions and chapel and wet hand-stitched blazer.

They all go to uni and meet (cue horrified intake of breath) a couple of Northerners and realise there’s more to the world than 4X4’s and a private vineyard in the south of France.

But bearing in mind these volunteers are virtually untrained in whatever they’re meant to be doing – how much good are they actually doing in the community?

Guys looks how grimy and real we are in our tents

Emily, a third year student at the University of Manchester agrees that it’s all a bit dubious. She went to Thailand last summer with a generic ‘gap year experience’ company with 30 other volunteers.

The trip cost £1,500 for a month and one week of that was meant to be spent building an orphanage. Emily says that the entire trip was fun – but a complete waste of time as “all of us were completely incompetent at building because we’d never built anything in our fucking lives.”

She claims it was such a disaster that the organisers had to rope in Thai builders to “effectively deconstruct everything we had just built and build it again, while we stood around and watched them.”

And these volunteers were paying more than £50 a day. Bearing in mind the Thai minimum wage is 300 Baht (which is the equivalent of £5) – surely it would have been more cost-effective to fuck the volunteers and channel the money they would be paying into hiring some local builders instead?

Better for the local community and better for the supposed volunteers’ hangovers maybe? Oh, that’s another thing – Emily adds that “most of us were fucked every night, and at least half the volunteers didn’t even turn up”. I’m swelling with pride. Making a difference indeed.


A quick Google search of volunteering in Africa comes up with the organisation, Global Vision International (GVI).

One expedition they run involves teaching in rural schools in east Africa and costs £1,600, which covers training. Of course, none of the volunteers have any previous teaching training. That can only be good for the kids!

Happily, the trip is also located in the beautiful Shimoni Archipelago, where you can “experience the area’s amazing coral reefs, white sandy beaches and coastal forests”. So they can integrate with the local communities AND sun themselves on a pristine beach?! How worldly of them.

I’m sure that after they wave to one of the villagers from their Jeep, they all have a group hug and then spontaneously combust with the force of their own goodwill.

On and on it goes. “Yeah, I helped build a village in Kenya last summer, it was a really gratifying and rewarding experience.” No. You paid £1,000 to stay in a hotel for a month then go over to a village for a day and put a couple of bricks in a wheelbarrow. I can’t be the only one who’s sick of this.

I’m sure not all of these people are bumbling middle-class idiots with some vague ideal about ‘giving back’. Some of them must have actually made a quantifiable difference – if you have, that’s great. Keep it to yourself.

If, like the majority of these volunteers, you fancy a nice little holiday break in the name of charity, do us all a favour – take that money and actually donate it to fucking charity.

This article was originally published in The Tab Exeter.