The Problem With Voluntourism: A Rebuttal

There has been an article spreading over Facebook and the internet where a “a little white girl” tells us that western ‘voluntourism’ is a problem and should be stopped. She […]


There has been an article spreading over Facebook and the internet where a “a little white girl” tells us that western ‘voluntourism’ is a problem and should be stopped. She claims that “white people” are harming the world with their ultimately misguided good intentions; you can read the article here.

Pippa Biddle, the author, argues that those young westerners who pay thousands of pounds to go to a third-world country are wasting their money and actually creating more problems for the unfortunate people who live there.

An example she gives is of her trip to Tanzania, where she and a group of  Westerners were sent to built a library. Their work was so bad that the locals had to come in the night and re-do all the work they had done in the day. Now, she is right here, 15 untrained girls should not be building a library. But who is at fault here? My brother has returned from a trip similar to this in Ecuador. His group did solely unskilled labour – moving material, digging and more. The locals did all the real work.

There is an argument to say that they are just taking jobs off the locals – why not just give them the money to do the project. Well, that argument is one big assumption. I asked George Emmanouil, founder of Global Brigades Society here at the University of Southampton, and he said that:

Some communities do not have access to basic utilities or have a poor educational system. In the past few decades volunteering organizations from all over the world have been successfully providing the knowledge, experience and skills required to help local people improve their lives. The volunteers are not there to enforce a new way of living and their own ways, the goal is to educate and support financially the local people and advise them on how to solve their problems on their own and grow sustainably

Ghana Beach

Secondly, find me a 16 year-old boy who is willing to give £4000 to people in Ecuador without any direct benefit for him. It is a ridiculous suggestion. It sounds selfish but it is the best way to motivate people to raise money for these communities. Besides – his money (along with ten or so other boys) provided the materials, making the project possible, and gave the local workers something to work on that benefited their community. If he gave that money to a world charity organisation, vast swathes of it would never see a local community.

Coming back to the article, Pippa realised, and quite correctly, that she was basically useless because she couldn’t speak proper Spanish. Fast-forward six years and now she works in a supportive role for the same organisation, having realised that this is where she is more useful. How did she come to realise this? By spending a lot of money travelling to third-world countries, gaining experience and deciding how she could help these people in a better way. The exact thing she is now criticising. To suggest that people should completely erase these learning curves from their experience is ludicrous.

She also claims that she wants the people she helps to be able to look up to their community leaders, such as teachers, for inspiration, whilst condemning herself for trying to build a library for the teacher. These people do have the resources, from charities or from governments, to do the work themselves. They have all the skills, definitely, but no money and no time – one reason that there is such widespread poverty is because poor people do not have the time to dedicate themselves to  projects such as a library when they struggle to live from day to day. If she and her group had not gone to Tanzania, regardless of how awful her work was, it is likely that there would still not be a library there today.

The article is odd as well because Pippa seems to have a massive issue with the fact that she is white. She says this in her article:

Sadly, taking part in international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is not benign. It’s detrimental. It slows down positive growth and perpetuates the “white savior” complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches.

She brings it up again and again, saying that an Indonesian girl does not benefit from having a white role model, which is ridiculous for a start – look at the kids world over who look up to Lionel Messi in football, for instance. Secondly, a volunteer who was black would be in exactly the same position as a white volunteer in that situation. Another issue I see with the article is why she thinks young, First World adolescents gaining valuable insight into the terrible struggles of those in dire poverty is a bad thing. Sending the next generation of leaders of the most powerful countries in the world to these nations can only bring good in the long run. In an age where Britain is still not sure if it should fully commit to humanitarian action in Gaza and Iraq I cannot understand why having a better knowledge of what it is like to live without clean food, water and shelter is a bad thing.

I am not saying that ‘voluntourism’ does not have its faults, but the examples she gave are completely subjective to her own experience. The problem that Pippa had was that she chose the wrong company to give her money to, and that she went to a Spanish-speaking country without being able to speak Spanish. Had she resolved these two issues, she may not even have become involved in the capacity she is now. She may have had a great summer, helped a lot of people and then left. If she had not undertaken her volunteering trips, she would not, in all likelihood, be providing real aid to the same people. So, ignore her and the 125,000 people who liked her article, go out, learn first-hand some of the struggles that people in this world live with and seek to help any way you can.

Have you volunteered abroad? Do you think it was successful? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.