By Catriona May
When I was 15, I flew to Nepal. Hiking through the Himalayas, while teaching school children English and helping out at an orphanage? Could I have been a more selfless teenager? I was off to save the world.
There are few things more cringeworthy than watching 20 British schoolgirls trying to build a well under the scalding Nepalese heat. This is what I imagine a group of local men were thinking as they politely stood back while we puzzled our way through this contraption. The orphans peered through the windows, somewhat accustomed to this strange set-up. An unnecessary number of hours later, a ceremony took place thanking us for our hard work. We had singlehandedly brought clean water to this poor, desperate orphanage. We could fly home better people.
I am not trying to argue that every DUCK project is entirely of the same essence. I am trying to tell you, however, that their expeditions are a clear demonstration of how little understanding we have of structural global issues.
After building a well in Nepal, I could (apparently) fly home a better person
DUCK (Durham University Charities “Kommittee”) do some great fundraising initiatives. Though there are some holes to pick – often jailbreak donations end up being put towards flights to reach a destination and not the charities themselves – on the whole they are a creative way for students to challenge themselves and engage with fundraising opportunities. The purpose of this article is not to attack DUCK, but to shine a light on the expeditions that DUCK runs.
Voluntourism involves an individual travelling abroad to somehow assist a local community, group, or individuals less privileged than themselves. Voluntourism ultimately merges conventional tourism with the altruistic motivations of volunteering. In effect, it is unskilled workers travelling to new communities on a temporary basis with little contextual understanding. Students are effectively amateur humanitarian workers, hoping to help people yet having few of the knowledge or skills required to do so.
Voluntourism strengthens patronising views about other countries
I have no doubt that these individuals care deeply and believe that they are doing a great thing. However, lack of global understanding has conditioned us to believe that, within the space of just 3 weeks, we can visit a brand new place and make a huge difference.
Voluntourism is the iceberg tip of a much wider issue. These trips subversively strengthen patronising views about the countries we visit. Take Africa, for example, a continent full of beautiful landscapes, diverse cultures, entrepreneurs and so much more, only to be depicted by UNICEF adverts as full of starving children and poverty – the perfect target for voluntourism.
We need to stop believing that, if we want to, we can travel across the world and do good. That all it takes is money, good will and some enthusiasm. When I ask students about the DUCK expeditions, they get incredibly defensive. I am attacking thousands of pounds of fundraising, hours of hard work, and a holiday that creates a wealth of positive memories. I understand how difficult it can be to confront the nature of these trips, and recall coming to terms with what I remembered fondly as my volunteer expedition to Nepal. However, we should be constantly reflecting on and challenging what we do.
The way DUCK fanatics respond to my debate only further demonstrates my point. There is no critical thinking, or challenge to the structural issues that cause the very problems we are trying to improve through these expeditions. Do I hear people discussing the local history? The impact of colonialism? Of racism? These issues are far more complicated than playing drama games with some local Zambian schoolchildren.
And elephants. Don’t get me started on the elephants.
I know how difficult it can be to confront the nature of these trips
The DUCK website advertises these expeditions as “a journey of cultural discovery and personal development, as well as contributing to DUCK’s charitable legacy in communities all over the globe”. Costing up to £3,000, these trips are inaccessible to many students. This money could have so much more impact if it wasn’t uneconomically spent sending one student across the globe. Why not take the £3,000 and invest it in local communities? This would provide long-term improvements through the training of local people, as opposed to patronising them by implying that we are providing something that they couldn’t do themselves.
If you are reading this and feeling angry or defensive, please step back. If you are thinking over memories of laughing with school children, helping animal conservation, or supporting local communities, also step back. If, however, you have recognised some uncomfortable truth in this article, please: step forwards. We need to understand that the small benefits used to defend these expeditions are not worth the long-term damage that they are doing.
We should instead invest the money in the local community
University has taught me to check my privilege. I’d like all DUCK expeditionists to do the same. It’s not easy to acknowledge that what you felt was an incredible opportunity for personal challenge, international insight, and support of different cultures and communities, was actually a symptom of a much wider, spreading cancer. We need to stop furthering this image that less economically developed countries, often an aftermath of colonialism, cannot challenge poverty without the help of western intervention.
We have a responsibility as individuals to acknowledge the influence we can have on wider society; sometimes, it is important to step back and realise that we are not best equipped to solve the issue.
Photograph: Chris Parker via Flickr and Creative Commons