Published on Fairplanet.org
For a generation more geared towards solving the world’s problems than probably any generation before it, spring break trips to build schools in Africa or volunteer in orphanages in Asia have become a popular option for holiday getaways. But can voluntourism really make a difference?
Voluntourism – that is holiday time spent in exotic locations with an altruistic bent – provides something affluent lives back home cannot compete with: a deeper sense of meaning.
But with the search for meaning comes the race for greater worthiness. As seen recently with criticism aimed at the Ice Bucket Challenge, there is ever more concern about the reasons behind seemingly charitable actions. Catching a plane to South America to play with poor children may soon no longer warrant the social status previously associated with time spent volunteering for far-flung charities.
“The problem with voluntourism is that it treats receiving communities as passive objects of the visiting Westerner’s quest for saviordom.” So argues columnist Rafia Zakaria in a piece for the New York Times published earlier this year. Zakaria is on the board of directors for Amnesty International USA.
It is this idea of passiveness that fails to acknowledge all that people and communities know how to do for themselves. 2012 charity single gag Africa for Norway made an interesting point – who are we to assume that only we can have the privilege of providing help to someone else?
The stories voluntourists bring home, of choosing to experience poverty in order to help others, can be seen as markers of superiority; for a generation obsessed with meaning, a Facebook profile photo taken with smiling African kids is the new status symbol.
Voluntourism is filled with photo opportunities – dilapidated housing, kids running around in bare feet, the modest school we built, the bare floor we slept on – and these visual spectacles, collected and taken home to share, are the perfect souvenirs from a trip to Higher Purpose Land. But they also form part of a new kind of exploitation, with the indignity of poverty and suffering photographed as evidence of someone else’s superiority: they have found righteousness; here is the proof.
The whole narrative surrounding voluntourism is reductive. Other’s problems tend to seem easier to solve than our own, especially when you remove the cultural context in which they exist. While Western individuals may not know how to solve the obesity epidemic or climate change, both threats to our affluent lifestyles, it is much easier for us to believe we can solve poverty, because we no longer experience it ourselves.
“The willing (and paying) and often unskilled are led to believe that hapless villages can be transformed by schools built on a two-week trip and diseases eradicated by the digging of wells during spring breaks,” explains Zakaria.
The paying part is important: voluntourism isn’t just a trend, it’s an industry. In terms of efficiency, voluntourism makes no sense, because participants fork out hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars for travel and living costs during their trips, when they could be volunteering for free back home. But then, they are paying for an experience – and that makes absolute business sense.
Zakaria gives two examples: the blooming AIDS orphan tourism business in South Africa, so financially successful that it crowds out locals from volunteering because of the significant participation costs.
Or the thriving orphanage industry in Bali, offering experiences for voluntourists wanting to help local children. “Children leave home and move to an orphanage because tourists, who visit the island a couple of times a year, are willing to pay for their education,” Zakaria explains.
Of course, there are aid opportunities that operate with dignity – a good sign of this is when the receivers of aid are not forced to spend time with those working to help them.
The educational opportunities afforded by voluntourism should not be discounted, but rather harnessed for maximum benefit from both sides. Natalie Jesionka at The Muse has some practical tips for making a real impact during a volunteer trip, including adapting to the culture, staying relevant to the people you work to support, as well as realistic, and maintaining relationships once you return home.
Everyone has something to give, and it was this idea which sparked an attempt from the German Development Ministry to flip volunteer service abroad on its head. This article (in German) tells of a 24-year-old man from Mozambique who came to volunteer in the small German city of Greifswald in a kind of reversed voluntourism from what one might normally expect.
Empathy seems to be the key word here. If our generation wants to make a difference, we will need to recognise that voluntary aid work is more than just a one-way street.