Voluntourism: A truly noble effort or the Western savior complex?

Opinion by Tiger Sun
April 25, 2018, 5:00 a.m.

“One of the happiest moment in your life was probably when you met me and my friends. I am sorry to tell you that there is a very slim chance we will ever meet again. In two years you are going to meet a grown man that you have never met before and you two are going to have a child … if you are lucky … he will probably leave you alone … in your small home made of mud and tree’s. You will probably sell your body to someone else to earn money for your child.” – Instagram user, Jossa Johansson.


Voluntourism – when affluent Westerners spend loads of money for the opportunity to travel to and “improve” a community—is growing in popularity. This sort of voluntourism is usually done through a travel agency that sets up the voluntourists with a region in need. On the surface, it seems so selfless—and I agree, many of these “voluntourists” probably have good intentions —they truly want to help. However, it often turns into the social-media-induced insensitivity shown by Johansson, an exaggerated and often inaccurate negative portrayal of the region.


The fact that these people are willing to spend their own time and money to assist people who may not have the same resources as them can be seen as quite noble and kind, but often, their efforts ultimately have no beneficial long term effect on the community.


Voluntourists are mostly assigned menial labor such as building schools and houses. This makes almost no sense. Professional bricklayers from the community could easily build the school faster and with better safety and craftsmanship. It’d be like turning down a small group of professional coders for a large scale computer database project and hiring a horde of elementary schoolers who have never touched a computer in their life. Why would anyone who wasn’t quite sure what they were doing actively pay to put other people who can do a better job for less money, in a far faster and safer manner, out of work? This is an inefficient system, and the community would probably be better off if each volunteer just wired money in for them to build infrastructure on their own.


Much of the time, the travel companies that organize the trip are the real beneficiaries, while the volunteers get an unforgettable experience and some great memories. However, the community they leave behind rarely reaps more than short-term benefits from their trip, especially as volunteers usually don’t return or think about the long-term for the community. Building a school won’t solve the inherent educational issues in the village – there are so many other things to consider than just the physical building. There was even an example of an NGO spending money to build a school but not having the money to hire and train teachers to teach, and thus, it went all to waste.


Voluntourism may even harm a community. A Human Sciences Research Council study on South Africa notes the problems of “orphan tourism”, where orphanages are exploited for the sake of extracting money via donations from volunteers. For example, the orphanages may make conditions worse so that visitors pity the children more and end up giving more money. Additionally, the constant cycling of groups of people that the children form attachment with and then lose is dangerous for the children’s mental health. Though this is probably an extreme example, there are also possible unintended consequences that voluntourists must keep in mind.


A cultural side effect of voluntourism is the exacerbation of the white savior complex. Instagram’s white savior Barbie does a great job of satirizing this issue. Created to showcase the often ineffective trips that voluntourists take, the account’s main message is that voluntourists are often “unqualified people doing jobs that they would never be allowed to do at home.” Additionally, volunteers often treat the people they’re claiming to help in a culturally insensitive manner – things they definitely wouldn’t do in a developed country. For example, even thinking that it is appropriate in any context to take a photo with a hospitalized child or a group of children playing outside is such a blatant example of how Western imperialist ideas still exist. No one would ever think of doing that in the United States or any other developed countries such as those in Europe. What makes it okay to do it in Nigeria or Haiti then? It seems that these wealthy vacationers treat this predicament as sort of a walk in the safari, where previous rules and values don’t apply, and at the end of their short two-week trip, the problem they were trying to solve magically disappears. This idea of doling out tens of thousands of dollars to travel and “fix” a country while in reality treating the people as if they were inferior sounds exactly like the imperialistic policies that ripped developing countries apart anyway.


By creating a lucrative business out of poverty, it seems that local communities are constantly being exploited. In a cynical sense, since this is such a booming business, why would the profit-driven travel agencies even want to help these communities in the long term? If they had the capabilities to heal and reform these communities in the long term, they would lose sources of business and additionally lose money. For-profit travel agencies would have almost no reason to genuinely want to heal these communities in the long term. Commercializing poverty reduces the chance of real change happening in these regions.


Also, what exactly are these volunteers looking to gain out of this experience? If volunteers weren’t allowed to take improper photos of their journey and share them all over social media, would they still go? Are high schoolers or undergraduates going on these expensive two-week-long trips out of the goodness of their heart or just to bolster their resume? There are no doubt people who go on this these trips for purely altruistic reasons, and I respect that, but if they truly wanted to help, they should take a step back and try to work on solving the underlying societal problems behind these poor communities rather than creating a short temporary fix only to never think about the community again. Instead of approaching the problem with a myopic lens, they need to think about the possible consequences of their action through a critical lens and make sure they respect the culture, rights and values of those they are trying to help.


Voluntourism can be very helpful, if done right. Sending doctors, urban development professionals and economists to help are good examples – they can truly help in the long term, such as with the health of the population as well as the overall development of the city. Having experienced professionals, instead of unqualified volunteers, meet with a community’s council to talk about its long-term plans would also be a decent alternative. However, the general population who may not have direct plans or desire to contribute to the long-term development of the community should reflect and examine their reasons for the trip – they should consider what they’re looking to gain out of it. It’s fine for someone to look for a memorable experience that they will remember forever and want to immerse themselves in a foreign culture, but at the end of the day, they should also consider the possibly negative effects they could have on the culture, such as through cultural insensitivity and unintended consequences, and view the people they are helping not as inferiors but as equals with a different way of life.


Contact Tiger Sun at tgsun ‘at’ stanford.edu.


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