I have always felt uneasy at the mention of voluntourism – the practice of paying a sizeable sum of money to go and carry out a short term project in an exotic foreign country. Initially I attributed this discomfort to the characteristic self-righteousness of certain individuals who take part in it, who will usually ever so eagerly give to you their entirely egocentric account of how they ‘really found themselves’, or ‘how fulfilling it is to be able to help others in need’. However, the worrying conclusion to which I later came was that this narcissism is not just characteristic of the individuals involved, but it is inherent to the practice itself.
narcissism is not just characteristic of the individuals involved, but it is inherent to the practice itself
It is hardly a well-kept secret that the labour done by voluntourists has, if anything, a negligible impact on the community they are trying to help. A quick internet search will reveal copious versions of the same story: individuals who have sought out locations in far flung countries where they can build a school or a library, only for each day’s work to be undone and redone by professionals due to the inevitable inadequacy of the work; the predictable result of a group of untrained volunteers attempting a complex and demanding job. These facts ought to lead people to consider that maybe it just isn’t such a good idea for these volunteers to be allocated a job that would be much better accomplished by more local specialists.
Even if the volunteers are suitably qualified, in travelling over and offering their labour for free, they are essentially undercutting the local workers and economy. As a result of this, while the project may be completed, the local economy would be deprived of the stimulation it would have gained had the local workers been paid to do the job. Again, all of these facts ought to point to the conclusion that voluntourism has very little impact, if not a negative one. However, the voluntourist chooses to ignore them, since they do not fit their agenda.
The school that I attended hosted a trip to Rwanda, paid for by money raised in the name of ‘charity’, under the premise that they were to visit an orphanage, and decorate some small boats. At the orphanage, the students interacted with the children for a day; they played with, spoke to and took photos with them and they painted pretty flowers onto some boats. At the end of the day, watching the minibus disappear into the distance, were the orphans any better off? Had any single Rwandan’s life been improved by the decoration of the few boats? Of course not, yet the students on the bus left with a glowing feeling of satisfaction. They had done their bit. Now, they could enjoy the rest of their time in the country, sight-seeing and relaxing, satisfied with the knowledge that they have improved the lives of those children, not to mention their shiny new Facebook profile pictures.
satisfied with the knowledge that they have improved the lives of those children, not to mention their shiny new Facebook profile pictures.
This point is crucial: that the privileged leave having gained far more than they have given and, deep down, they know it. A mere ounce of critical thinking will tell you that, if you really want to help a developing community, then long-term investment in the training and education of the people of that community, such that they can acquire the skills to sustain themselves, is infinitely more effective than a week of haphazard bricklaying. A donation to a charity that aims to do this would be far more valuable than paying for a voluntourism trip, so why don’t people adopt this approach? Because this style of charity would take the limelight off of the volunteer. One look at any voluntourist’s photo album will suffice to show just who, exactly, is the protagonist in this narrative. And so, this bizarre practice continues.
One look at any voluntourist’s photo album will suffice to show just who, exactly, is the protagonist in this narrative.
It is a tragic reality that a large number of the countries that constitute the most popular voluntourism destinations are still suffering the damage of colonialism. When a voluntourist tells you just how important they feel it is to ‘help those in need’, what they really mean to say is ‘those in need of us’. This is the essence of voluntourism and, to put it candidly, this is racism. It perpetuates the atrociously racist image of the helpless native calling out to the white saviour. While colonialists used this image to justify the exploitation of lands and people for resources and labour, it is being used today to justify the exploitation of human suffering and poverty to satisfy the deluded consciences of white westerners.
This is the essence of voluntourism and, to put it candidly, this is racism
At the end of the day, voluntourism is an industry. It is an industry that thrives off the suffering of others. It is an industry in whose interest it is to obscure the true solutions and to promote itself in their place. An industry that sustains itself in this way is perverse and repugnant. It turns the suffering of others into a commodity, ripe for the exploitation of the white westerner. Voluntourism is not only useless, it is racist.