A while back, I wrote about the white savior complex and voluntourism, two things that not only have a big impact on local (and usually poor/rural) communities but things I’ve also been complicit in years ago. And today, I came across a really great explanation of voluntourism and its consequences and started thinking more about these issues. (The post was written by Peter over at anthrocentric and really does a great job.)
It’s so important to criticize voluntourism as an industry because of the numerous negative impacts that it could have on local communities and especially because it’s a large business that has an inherent need for orphans and people staying in poverty. Organizations and businesses can get away with charging thousands of dollars for rich and privileged travelers to participate in their programs. The moment issues like orphans and poverty go away? So do their businesses.
Voluntourism doesn’t serve those most in need in any situation but instead serves the privileged and idealistic travelers eager to change the world. (The Onion was weirdly on point with a post about a voluntourist trip completely changing a woman’s Facebook profile picture because that actually happens all the time.) Plus as Rafia Zakaria points out in an opinion piece about the white tourist burden:
As admirably altruistic as [wanting to help build schools/houses, hugging orphans, etc] sounds, the problem with voluntourism is its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs.
There are so many questions and things to consider with the issue of voluntourism, like how the people going on voluntourist trips (myself included) aren’t usually qualified nor do many organizations sending them do background checks on the people. Plus, in many cases, the people traveling to different countries rarely know about where they are going and cultures they will be immersed in. In some cases (I’d argue many), the work being done by the foreigners might not even be needed in the communities or address the real problems.
And there’s rarely any sustainability involved in many programs – voluntourists will often spend anywhere from a week to a few months working in the communities only to leave whether the project is finished or not. Or how the volunteers who will drop thousands travel to and work in different countries and places will also do that work for free and take away jobs away from locals who might really need jobs.
I could literally keep going on and on but for now, there are so many other articles and people calling out the voluntourism industry on various things, including:
- Why you shouldn’t participate in voluntourism – Richard Stupart
- Beware the ‘voluntourists’ doing good – Ossob Mohamud
- Is ‘voluntourism’ the new colonialism? – Kerry Stewart
- Why voluntourism can be a complete waste of time and money – Pippa Biddle
- On the sticky ethics of voluntourism – Richard Stupart
- Once more, from the top – AidSpeak
For me, looking back on not only my own work as a voluntourist in western Kenya but also my work raising funds for international humanitarian groups (ones that I realize now are heavily guided by the white savior complex whether they admit it or not), I was utterly complicit in all the things that I’ve talked about here. Despite learning some Swahili and about Kenya before I left, I was in no way prepared for my trip and work there. I had no real skills that actually helped the communities I was there to serve.
There is an incredible amount of work to be done to help support the people around the world struggling with poverty, health, hunger, education, family, etc etc but all those things aren’t limited to developing countries. And going on a two week trip to volunteer in an orphanage in some far off place isn’t going to actually help an sustainable solution.