On Voluntourism, Voluntourists and Why They Aren’t So Bad

voluntourism

Voluntourism (or even “Poverty Tourism”) is an incredibly popular, profitable industry which I believe relies on these 3 factors:

a) an abundance of people in need of adventure / spiritual awakening

I’ve always felt a need to escape, to go somewhere with a different energy. See how other people live. Ordinary life can be so mundane, it’s no wonder that volunteering abroad is so appealing. We could simply take a vacation but volunteering abroad provides a great opportunity to remind ourselves of how blessed we are, allowing us to return to our home country with a restored outlook on life.

b) the notion of widespread poverty abroad

Voluntourism tends to get people to spend £1000 for a week somewhere believed to be entirely poverty-ridden (typically Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya, Nepal, India, Cambodia) by using photos of children in dirty clothes, arms stretched out, just waiting for you to come and save them.

Nobody is interested in spending a month in London volunteering with disadvantaged children, despite England’s 13 million people living in poverty. That’s either due to popular belief that poverty only exists in Africa/Asia, or because as I mentioned in (a), people want a fulfilling adventure; something different.

c) a community to exploit?

Volunteering with a professional, sustainable, non-profit company, who know exactly where best to place volunteers is great. But there are so many organisations which are the direct opposite. We are presented with thousands of organised packages from teaching to building schools, even if the community doesn’t need volunteer teachers or builders. The conditions of the local people are part of the package: the notion of them needing your help. Don’t be too surprised if you find yourself being a spare part- I met many volunteers who felt that their presence wasn’t as necessary as it was made out to be, that all they ended up doing was shadowing local doctors or fooling around with some kids.

Again, advertising is used here to paint a whole country as needy, plus they’ll throw in some life-affirming experiences such as safari trips, hiking up mountains, white-water rafting, gorilla-treking, etc. “Bored? Need adventure in your life? Volunteer abroad with us and teach very poor children (no experience necessary!) and go on that safari you always dreamt of.” Is it exploitation or not? Did they even ask for the White savior to come? Is it right to brush an entire country as poor and unable to support themselves? What about the companies which de-humanise the locals as animals in a zoo? Is it right that one mans suffering is another mans profile photo?

 

When I first arrived in Kenya I had an introductory meeting with my incredibly hard-working host dad. I’ll always remember one of the first things he told me: the large majority of Kenyan’s will assume I’m very wealthy. He said, “They may assume that you rolled out of bed and just decided to fly to Kenya that day.”

voluntourism
image by Jason Raish / www.jasonraish.com

The Voluntourist

 

A voluntourist then is someone who engages in voluntourism. From popular articles such as “The Problem of Little White girls, Boys and Voluntourism”, “Beware Voluntourists Doing Good” and “The 7 Sins of Humanitarian Douchery”, a voluntourist is defined as a White, selfish, ignorant, useless moron. But why does everyone hate voluntourists so much? Are we so bad?

 

HATE: 1) Lack of skills.

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Voluntourists tend to be fresh out of high school or university with little or no life experience. Imagine teaching in public school in America or England? You’d undergo checks to ensure you’re not a peidofile, and you’d have to possess the necessary credentials and experience. Because voluntourism just needs your money, they don’t care if you’ve never spent more than 5 minutes with a child. Don’t even get me started on building projects with volunteers who can’t build…

BUT: maybe an extra pair of hands is still better than none? I actually don’t have a degree though this in no way impaired me while volunteering. If voluntourists choose projects based on their own skills-set, I can’t see a problem here. I have over 2 years of experience teaching children, which is why I volunteered in a school.

HATE: 2) The idea that people volunteer to fulfill some kind of inner need, not actually to give anything.

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These are real people, real communities, and just because volunteers go home as happy as Larry with a new-found spiritual awareness, an item on their bucket list ticked off, their friends they leave behind are still there, long after they’ve forgotten about 8 year old Peter and his drug addiction. Some volunteers seem to think that just having to bear witness to such awful situations (carefully Instagramming every moment) is enough.

BUT: Do all vountourists really volunteer abroad just for themselves? Surely it can’t be the entire reason but maybe plays a part. Is that such a bad thing though? Aren’t we all searching for something?

HATE: 3) Instagramming themselves surrounded by generic poor Black children to make themselves look interesting and compassionate on social media.
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I read a funny article about how volunteering had “changed one woman’s Facebook profile photo forever”.

BUT: Sometimes these images can be useful in fundraising, as it turned out to be for me. I only uploaded photos of children I worked with and gave background stories and information as to why exactly I was fundraising for them. Still, I didn’t have parental consent, and now their images are on the internet probably forever (and here they are again, in my blog). However, some voluntourists just snap their camera all over the place. This quote shakes my core:

I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on.”

 

HATE: 4) Voluntourists tend to sacrifice very little of their time.

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The majority probably sign up for a week to a month. It’s more like an extended holiday than a real personal investment in a community. Without any fundraising and planning, short-term volunteers generally make little difference to the community (but a big difference to their Facebook).

BUT: I saw the great things that could be done even with little time. For example, one volunteer staying for a week and a half managed to fundraise and help implement fresh water pipes at an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp. I stayed for 2 months but it wasn’t enough time to make a difference which could be sustainable.

HATE: 5) Voluntourists cause sustainability issues.

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I knew someone who volunteered in a fantastic project, locating homeless/runaway children back with their families or else sourcing the finances to house the children with a new family, where their education, housing costs and drug-rehabilitation (if required) would be sponsored. Whilst in Kenya, this volunteer did some amazing reunions between children and their families, but once they returned to America all finances stopped. This constant withdrawal by ex-voluntourists puts the child in a horrendous situation where their family can’t support them, leading them to runaway from home again. Schooling and medical care is also difficult to sustain between volunteers coming and going at such a fast rate.

BUT: Ex-voluntourists are able to continue fundraising and supporting even long after they’ve left. Some even decide to return, this time with better planning and often for a longer period of time.

HATE: 6) Foreigners who are willing to do a job for free inevitably takes jobs away from the local people.

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Why pay local teachers or builders when you can get a volunteer to do that job AND pay for the priviledge of doing so?! They might not have any idea about a school syllabus, how to manage a classroom of 40 kids or build a wall- but they’re exactly the customers volountourism thrives on.

BUT: Some voluntourists have vast amounts of experience or offer something which otherwise wouldn’t exist, such as therapy or home visits. They can use their expertise to really benefit a community, they could even train unemployed locals and help create jobs.


HATE: 7) Voluntourists often have very little understanding of the culture, history and language of the place in which they go to volunteer.

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Some just presume the community is poverty-stricken and needy and that their presence will change everything. This causes problems, especially if they suffer culture-shock and realise they won’t infact, change much at all. A little research goes a long way.

BUT: It’s all a learning process, right? I admittedly didn’t know a lot about Kenya but once I was there I tried to fully absorb myself in the culture. I asked questions whenever possible and kept a diary. I just kept in my head that I wasn’t there to impose my culture on others.

 

HATE: 8) Because voluntourists tend to do little research of charities/organisations, they may find themselves engaging in exploitative projects.

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http://www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforevisiting/
For example, after the earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal, and also in Cambodia, orphanages were set up which were later discovered as bogus. With such a huge demand of Westeners wanting to give money to stay for a few weeks, it was too easy to take children away from their birthparents with the promise of free education and dump them in orphanages. Manipulative orphanage owners got rich, and ignorant volunteers were complicit in child-trafficking.

BUT: I’d like to think this kind of manipulation is rare and that the majority of voluntourists do a hella lot of reseach before signing up to something or donating money.

HATE 9) Volunteers psychological impact on the children.

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I’m not a therapist or anything, but surely children in a home who are handled, Instagrammed, and temporarily loved by hundreds of different white people every year can’t be a good thing? At the centre for abandoned children I volunteered in, I got into the habit of putting the kids to bed- tucking them in, giving them cuddles, making up stories and wishing them lovely dreams, only to then abandon them once my trip was over.

BUT: With a constant stream of volunteers, it’s not as if my place at the centre was sorely missed. I was just another white face amongst hundreds of others. Of course the ideal scenario would be volunteers who stayed for years but short-term will have to do, unless laws start to come in. Do you think that extra pairs of hands are better than none at all? Should new laws come in when volunteering with children?

 

HATE: 10) It seems like voluntourists don’t really accomplish anything.

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BUT: they DO.

There are so many articles on the internet about how voluntourism is all bad, and a funny video “Who wants to be a volunteer?” I personally feel like I did make some kind of small difference to a small minority of people living in Kenya- is that not better than making no difference at all? And if say 75% of volunteers feel like me, surely that’s a positive thing? I saw the tiniest of acts: voluntourists buying shoes for a girl who didn’t own any, providing medicine and hot meals for homeless children, buying a bag of rice and some bread for people too sick to leave their house, donating their entire suitcase full of clothes to an adult’s drug rehabilitation centre, donating stationary to local schools, helping kids and adults to read and write, helping to make education fun…. and these are just from volunteers staying for 1-2 weeks, let alone the ones who stayed longer.


 

So after all that, what’s the answer? Is voluntourism as selfish as it seems? Does it even matter if someone volunteers for themselves, so long as something good comes out of it? Is voluntourism a big lie? Is a voluntourist merely someone who wishes to combine charitable work with an exotic vacation? How bleak.

 

The headteacher of the school I volunteered in said she admires each and every volunteer who helps her at Gladway’s School- even if they can just teach a few hours one afternoon- it’s still better than nothing. Mary teaches the kids to be grateful and loving, and with her staff on wages as low as 3,500 Kenyan Shillings a month (£23/$34), she gladly receives any help. At the centre for abandoned children, the staff were overrun by about 1 carer to 7 children under the age of 5. Even if all I did was change a few nappies, burp the babies, make up bedtime stories, run around and tickle the kids, I at least took some stress away from the full-time staff and lightened their load. But I’m still concerned about all the other points, especially the psychological impact and sustainability issues.

Hi! I’m Sarah. I dropped out of university tired with the mundane life I was living in England. Now I’m an aspiring ex-pat of the world, having already lived and worked in Vietnam, Italy and Maldives. I’m using this blog to document my experiences and hopefully inspire others!

18 Comments

  1. Some very good points here. It’s not fair to cast voluntourism off as all bad. I know of some fantastic and dedicated, long-term projects that take huge care not to cause harm to the beneficiaries. However, I have also seen an orphanage in Western Kenya that takes big groups of volunteers. Some of the kids were becoming distant and even angry – they had seen so many people come and go; gotten close to someone only for them to leave. obviously, for kids that already have abandonment issues, this can be hugely damaging.

    I just urge anyone considering volunteerism to consider all aspects carefully, and to put the project before themselves.

    1. Absolutely, and it’s those dedicated projects that hopefully will bypass the voluntourism package-holidays, and if people do their research, they should be able to find them! Very sad to hear about the orphanage, sadder to think that it must happen everywhere and that volunteers might not fully understand the implications of their presence. Amen to that- “Put the project before yourself” is something I will carry with me wherever I go.

  2. This is clearly a complex issue, and you raise some important points. I think the crucial thing is to check your facts, do your research, and ensure the volunteering opportunity you are interested in is one that is genuine and worthwhile before signing up. There are many genuine volunteering opportunities both at home and overseas, and it would be a shame if people were put off giving their time to help them.

    1. Spot on Amanda! The research can be hard for a first-timer but is absolutely necessary. That’s why I felt an urge to write this after reading so much distaste for volunteers and voluntourism. The “white savior complex” really hit me, complex it is!

  3. Wow, the amount of hate towards volunteerism surprises me. I do think the vast majority of people that volunteer do it for the right reasons. It is just too bad the small minority paints such a bad picture.

    1. Exactly Anisa, the bad ones ruin it for everybody. I think before volunteering abroad, one should ask themselves if this is a project they have the skills and experience to do at home (if not, don’t do it abroad). It’s also important “why” someone wants to volunteer abroad: if it is to “save” people, this is a complex issue. If it is to “find” themselves and discover life on the other side, I still don’t know if that’s so bad.

  4. My family comes from New Orleans, and a lot of people came down to do “voluntourism” after Hurricane Katrina. It did help out the city a lot! I would be very cautious about doing something temporary with children because, as you say, being surrounded by so many people who are just going to leave can’t be good for them. But when it comes to a situation like Katrina that needs helping hands to rebuild, I say go for it! Just do careful research about the organization.

    1. It’s great to hear thoughts on a different kind of volunteering, thanks Stella. What a community doesn’t need though, is a bunch of people coming to help who don’t really possess the ability to help. I mean it’s all well and good “wanting” to do a good thing, but as a previous commenter said, we must put the project before ourselves! I’m sure before volunteers helped to rebuild they thought to themselves if it’s something they could actually do. For some reason when it’s working with children or vulnerable communities, people are quick to think about how their own life is going to change after the experience, forgetting about their (possibly negative) impact on OTHER lives.

  5. Great points here. I think it is more about responsible volunteering than voluntourism. Voluntourism has all the negative connotations that you mentioned above, whereas if people consider how their skills are best suited to a placement, and work WITH the community rather than FOR the community then they are starting to think about responsible volunteering.

    I am a big advocate for people volunteering and using their skills but people often are so quick to jump into it they don’t think about whether they are suitable, the sustainability of the project and whether they are actually going to be making a positive impact. Voluntourists, especially those who go through big companies which don’t assess your skills and just take your money, think more about what they will get out of it than the genuine benefits to the community. If you are a PR expert maybe you are more suited to fundraising than to teaching English. Or if you are great with computers you could teach local teachers how they might be able to use computers to help their work, rather than building a school without any building knowledge.

    There are so many issues with volunteering with children that also have to be considered. Not only are there problems with attachment issues for short term volunteering placements, but also security considerations. I am volunteering at a rescue shelter for girls who are victims of human trafficking or sexual violence in Guatemala. While most of my work is in the office, I still had a minimum time commitment of 5 months and had to have a comprehensive police check before starting work. There are also restrictions on photography and what I can write about. As I have a background in counter-trafficking work this placement uses my skills and I already am aware of these security issues. Even our organisation’s annual report doesn’t include any images where the children’s faces are shown as these children are at risk if their location is identified.

    As long as people think careful, are flexible to the community’s needs and consider the sustainability of the project after they leave, volunteering is a great way to help other people and experience a different culture first-hand. Great article! I will be sharing:)

    1. Very insightful comment Laura, thank you! You’re so right about thinking about our own skills when deciding to use them and volunteer abroad. Perhaps the problem is deeper than I first thought. Some people looking to volunteer might not even know what their skill-set is. They don’t know how to be useful, but they want to be, and someone is offering them the opportunity to be for just £1000 a week and showing photos of gleaming children or volunteers hugging lion cubs, etc. It’s an easy trap to fall into.

      However, there’s so much information online that it really is the volunteer’s responsibility to research thoroughly, know how they can be useful and help where it’s needed!

  6. Agree with you completely girl. These days it seems if you happen to have white skin, you couldn’t possibly be doing anything for a good reason and you must have so much privilege. We are all PEOPLE!!!! If people feel better when they help others doesn’t that make them good people, not ***holes?! I think people should find other thing to hate-on, and stop picking on people who just want to help. It’s far more conducive to achieving higher results, to instead, study the actual benefits and costs of voluntourism and break it down without being racist against the people who do it, and just look at facts of help vs. hurt.

    1. Very good point Brooke. I never thought of it that way, that to discriminate against “white” volunteers is of course racism. I don’t think the colour of skin is the main point the girl from the other article was making but it did make her article stand out more! It went viral and she received a lot of hate mail. You’re absolutely right about doing proper research instead of judging the situation safely behind a computer screen!

What do you think? Let me know!

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