A growing number of people want to travel in a different manner and do something useful. To address the demand, travel agencies have developed a new product: voluntourism—combining tourism activities in the South and volunteering work to teach English to children, assist indigenous populations, or save pandas. This type of flexible and short-term volunteering is often presented as development aid, but does it truly benefit local people more than travellers?
The (connected) white savior
With an estimated 10 million volunteers a year spending up to USD 2 billion, voluntourism has become a profitable niche. The new market for voluntourism is exploding. As is the number of selfies stigmatising local people and misery in order to show one’s best profile on social networks. It can be argued that the face of international voluntourism would be different if there were no social media audiences. A selfie with African children can perpetuate the idea that only Western aid can save the world. In addition, those children are usually portrayed in a poor and tragic context, next to the volunteer acting as the superhero.
Run by two former aid workers, the Instagram Barbie Savior parodies the white savior complex of some voluntourists, Westerners travelling to third world countries and presenting the exercise as a self-congratulatory sacrifice. Staging Barbie on a mission in Africa was a success, gathering over 18,000 followers within a month. Another critique is the video “how to get more likes on social media” from the Norwegian NGO SAIH, well-known for its work on the representation of the global South.
In the Huffpost, Pippa Biddle concludes that: “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.”
Impacts of voluntourism on the ground: positive, useless or harmful?
Discover new cultures. Broaden your horizons. Better grasp what is at stake in development. Although voluntourism has some recognized benefits, those are usually for the travellers. Their impact on the local communities are difficult to measure but many argue that they create more harm than good.
A major risk to point out is that people pay for volunteering but there is no selection and no assessment regarding their background, motivation, technical, professional or linguistic skills. While it is difficult to build a library without construction skills or to run a children activity without speaking the language, the boom of voluntourism can cause absurd problems or real harm. Here are some examples:
- Poor children leave their family to make up fake orphanages for tourists (and suffer from attachment disorders linked to high turnover of volunteers).
- Different tourists come every month to paint the wall of the same school in a different colour.
- Local workers are left out without a job to let an increasing number of voluntourists to clumsily build new schools or orphans.
- Or local workers are asked to fix (undo and redo) the unsuitable job at night so nobody notices.
- Non-medical volunteers distribute medicine in hospitals and provides basic care.
- Other harmful effects are risks associated to child sexual abuse with orphans.
Looking for more constructive alternatives
I was surprise to discover that the literature legitimises voluntourism to some extent. Amoz Hor argues that hating voluntourists is mostly defensive while Rachel Kurzyp adds that we face two choices: not to help them and complain that they are doing it wrong; or help them do it right.
Kurzyp argues that we often tend to criticise voluntourists or believe that they should leave the word’s problems to the professionals. The author concedes that she has been involved in poor development practices in the past, however she doesn’t regret them as she has learned from those life-changing moments overseas. What were her motivations then? Personal fulfilment, career aspirations and a desire to help. Those elements are also what is driving others. They don’t want to cause harm and are open to information. We should thus educate them instead of discouraging them or focusing on what people are doing wrong.
We need to find alternatives outside the traditional development sector that have the engaging and accessible qualities of volunteering and travelling overseas, without harmful effects.
Kurzyp claims that our critiques prevent a two-way dialogue, by creating an ‘us vs. them’ culture. I agree that criticising is not constructive and just puts off motivated people, however I don’t think she is offering much of an alternative either.
An article in the Muse backs up Kurzyp and the idea that we need to start being honest about why we travel and why we volunteer. “Because the reality is that travel, at its core, has always been more about ourselves than about anyone else. Let’s acknowledge that volunteering isn’t so different.”
Similarly, in his article on searching for redemption, Amoz Hor shows that while some real aid workers hate voluntourists and call such trips ‘hug vacations’ to feel good about themselves, others acknowledge that perhaps their own motives were not so different.
According to Hor, for the aid workers who feel bitter about amateurs, it is also about reassuring themselves that what they do is a profession and has legitimacy. However, this approach remains anti-participatory and the voices of the local beneficiary remains unheard. Aid workers claim to be in touch with the real issues and represent local beneficiaries, but tacitly reduce them to an object. In sympathising with the victims, they don’t give them a voice to represent themselves and their own projections. “Rather, we hear the narratives we want to hear. It is to use the local beneficiary as an instrument to reclaim one’s lost honour. In attempting to redeem others, aid workers are actively attempting to redeem oneself.”
Volunteering ≠ voluntourism
In my opinion, many articles addressing the topic of voluntourism often drift to volunteering in a more general term and makes the distinction blurred. Voluntourism can be defined as a combination of tourism and short-term volunteering, usually offered through travel agencies. Volunteering is cooperation work for development NGOs which provides skilled professionals for a particular project and for a long(er) period of time. I’m not saying that those programs always perfectly work (I speak from experience), but the angle is very different to paying for a two-week project that combines constructing a school with a safari.
Voluntourist missions are usually sold as being about development: helping improve locals’ conditions, reducing poverty, or saving abandoned children. I’m very critical of the fact that tour operators profit from misery on one hand and naive people’s good intentions on the other. This colonialist discourse makes tourists think they will save the world and perpetuates the white savior stereotype.
What we currently call voluntourism should be labelled differently and sold as ‘awareness experience’. Some travel agencies have moved in that direction, offering full immersion journeys in partnership with an NGO. Here, it’s not about aid but about an equal to equal exchange. Maybe the right path to follow…