As an alternative to working or boozing their breaks away, school leavers and university students are increasingly choosing to volunteer their time in developing countries to assist community development. Labeled as ‘volunteer tourism’ (voluntourism for short), commercial operators offer young people placements in countries such as Ethiopia, Cambodia and Argentina, in an industry worth an estimated 2.6 billion globally.
At best, it is a well intentioned, if misguided, endeavor for Western foreigners to ‘do good’ in the developing world – atonement for the guilt of privilege. And at worst? It’s neocolonialism masquerading as altruism – an industry proffering abject poverty as spectacle, peddling ‘authentic’ communities as an escape from the vacuity of excess consumption. “The developing world becomes a playground wherein privileged souls exonerate themselves from global injustices with that self-congratulatory, pseudo-humility: “I’ve done my bit.”
While voluntourism may seem culturally enriching, the Internet has this wonderful way of making everyone mercenaries of truth. From established publications like The Huffington Post and The Independent to blogs and trolls who cultivate the perfect nuance of irony and rage, the merits of voluntourism are continually being exposed. Why, for instance, should unqualified, unskilled and inexperienced young people visit developing countries to complete tasks that could easily be completed by locals? Why should they be denied employment and its concomitant sense of empowerment for the fulfillment (and perhaps, ego) of foreigners who want to ‘help’? Why should foreign volunteers enter orphanages and subject already vulnerable children to an indefinite cycle of attachment and detachment? (Read: a gang of enthusiastic volunteers arrives and form intimate connections with the local children before suddenly leaving). South African and British academics from the Human Sciences Research Council have recently published an incendiary report on ‘AIDS orphan tourism’. Whilst the focus is on South Africa their anxieties have global resonance, unequivocally cautioning against any voluntourism enterprise that may exploit children and disfigure their emotional development.
The human mind is remarkably adept at justifying absolutely anything through comparison; someone is always more depraved than you. Any criticism of voluntourism is preoccupied with characters. There are heroes and villains, victims and perpetrators: the Western foreigner eager to help developing communities, the enterprising voluntourism operator profiting off this demand, the unscrupulous orphanage owner luring commercial companies, the hard-hitting journalist exposing the injustice – the roles are already written, already ready.
In any case it’s clear that voluntourism is flawed. Think about the vexed issues that circulate around it: global inequity, poverty, and voracious consumerism to name a few. They are messy. Dirty, in fact. But who is really claiming that volunteer tourism is the solution to entrenched global asymmetries of power, resources and wealth? Certainly not the voluntourists themselves. Arts student Bernadette volunteered in Argentina with a very small non-governmental organisation before she started university, and speaks candidly about the experience.
“We would either go to a shelter for families or the slum area outside Buenos Aires called ‘Elefante Blanco’ to play with the kids.” Whilst she acknowledges feeling anxious about her role as a volunteer (rumour spread that the NGO organisers were swindling their money for personal profit), she insists that this concern “isn’t anywhere near strong enough to negate the worth of these programs.”
“I wanted to get a first-hand lesson in cultural diversity, cross-cultural patience and understanding, and I feel that this is definitely something I gained from my trip.”
Some condemn volunteer tourism with resigned absolutism: it doesn’t save the world. Whilst they may be right, dogmatic, pompous and often inflammatory censure of often well-intentioned individuals surely isn’t any more liberating. Let’s start by talking about the way we live, our system of production and consumption and the concentration of wealth in the hands of so few when plenty ought to be enough.
We all have a part in the voluntourism industry. The question is, what’s our production?