Take A Vacation From Voluntourism

(Michelle Marin/Davis Political Review.)

(Michelle Marin/Davis Political Review.)

Social media platforms are often flushed with pictures of friends or family helping construct a school or hospital in a foreign country, or a ‘selfie’ with a child they are attempting to help with their efforts. This fast growing trend of voluntourism -- traveling internationally to aid a foreign country -- stands as an industry worth around $2.6 billion, with an estimated 1.6 million participants worldwide. However, it often has many more harmful effects for the host country than volunteers may be aware of.  Sometimes good intentions are not enough. Before booking that airline ticket, it is important to understand how-or even if- volunteers’ skills are an asset in that country, and can help in a way that does not perpetuate dangerous narratives of helpless locals and their saviors.

Making sure volunteers have applicable skills to help remains a missing requirement in volunteering abroad. An article from The International Journal of Tourism Research surmises that the popularity of voluntourism has grown due to the lack of strict requirements to become a volunteer; the only prerequisite is the desire to help, and enough money to go. More often than not, as the article describes, volunteers are mainly a method to raise greater awareness of issues in the country, rather than actually solve problems. Additionally, a lot of the typical construction jobs that volunteers work on during their visits can be done by locals at a lower cost, and greater efficiency. An American volunteering in Tanzania even noted how the work she and others did to construct a library had to be almost taken down completely and rebuilt at night by locals. Despite a high volume of volunteers, the overall cost of trying to educate a group of unskilled workers who may lack knowledge of native language and culture often outweighs whatever benefits they can offer. The amount of money spent by volunteers to travel and stay in a foreign country might do much more directly invested into the country, giving jobs to locals who are more qualified to do them or funds to organizations belonging to the country.

Aside from construction jobs, volunteering in orphanages stands as one of the main attractions in foreign countries, though the children in them become vulnerable to harmful side effects of voluntourism. Despite being marketed on social media as simple charitable acts, voluntourism exists as an industry, and as such,  orphanages abroad function as businesses. As detailed before, many volunteers are not equipped to be volunteering at orphanages, and those institutions mainly exploit the poverty of the children to solicit donations that can serve as their ‘revenue’. The children suffer neglect and abuse behind closed doors, and can develop attachment problems from volunteers who stay with them for only short periods of time. Orphanages prey on poverty-stricken families, promising food and education for their children. In fact, 80 percent of children in orphanages have at least one living parent. Consequently, these children become tourist attractions for volunteers, and a means of marketing orphanages.

Despite these issues embedded in the industry, volunteers may be seen as blameless, protected by their passion to do good. However, some have linked this desire to help with the white savior complex -- “practices, processes, and institutions that rectify historical inequities to ultimately validate white privilege.” Think of Kony 2012, the massively popular social media campaign by Invisible Children aimed at raising awareness of the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. The campaign came to a head with Invisible Children’s  “Cover the Night” initiative, urging people to poster their towns with photos of Joseph Kony. Despite the massive awareness, the event fizzled out, while Ugandans resented the war torn images portraying their country, as Joseph Kony wasn’t even in Uganda at the time! Almost seven years later, the effects of this campaign remain vague at best, but helped become a defining event for the concept of the white savior complex. Young people, ready to ‘cover the night’ to remedy an issue hundreds of miles away, unwittingly misrepresented an African country while doing little to actually help. This naivete, though good-hearted, is one of the core pillars of the white savior complex. Often times, in the case of voluntourism, what volunteers really pay for is an experience in a foreign country, a privileged chance to ‘find themselves.’ It reinforces the unhealthy narrative of a group of good-willed white, or in this case western, people saving others of color. It also undermines the complexity of the systemic issues within foreign countries as well as completely neglects the origin of those issues from colonialism by the same countries trying to ‘save’ them! This insensitivity also surfaces in those ‘selfies’ flooding social media. Often times, these selfies picture a white face among impoverished brown children, presenting an uncomfortable historical dynamic. Not only does this rob the children of their own privacy, it perpetuates stereotypes and can make people look passive and unempowered in their own country. Volunteers may need to ask themselves if they would still donate their time and money if they couldn’t post about it. One caption by an Instagram user even went so far as to say “One of the happiest moments in your life was probably when you met me and my friends,” when posting a photo with a Kenyan child. The satirical Instagram account Barbie Savior perfectly highlights the issues with taking problematic pictures while abroad, and is worth a visit.  

Voluntourism as an industry has many problems, but that doesn’t mean volunteering abroad is never an option. Knowing of these issues can only help in trying to choose a way to make a meaningful impact. Doing research and asking important questions is the first step. Potential volunteers should make sure they are completely qualified for the jobs they sign up for, and track exactly where their money goes when they pay to travel. Special attention should also be paid to whether or not the project helps to develop locals or works with organizations already in the country. Asking to assist those groups is often the best way to help. Volunteers should also plan on staying for an extended period of time to try and make a lasting effect. Ultimately, being mindful of your place in a foreign country is the key to ethical and helpful volunteering. Assist where you can, and understand where you cannot.