Voluntourism: A help or a hindrance?

By Phoebe Mitchell

I’ve always wanted to save the world by taking the risk, packing my bags and going to help in an impoverished community. I’ve always thought it would be cool to just take off, recklessly and courageously, to sort things out and help make a difference.

I’ve only realised in the last couple of years that there’s nothing I can do or give right now that will save the world. And I’m only just beginning to realise that whatever I can do might not make the difference I’ve always envisaged.

I’ve only realised in the last couple of years that there’s nothing I can do or give right now that will save the world

‘Voluntourism’ is currently a major attraction to people our age — and I feel the pull very strongly. It can feel like we’re putting in that extra effort to address the many issues people are facing around the world. It can feel like we’re taking the issues more seriously than simply donating some money whilst we remain in the safety and comfort of our homes. However, it is hugely important to stop for a minute and consider the impact of these trips and the reasons we go on them.

There are, of course, many different volunteering trips available: there are trips to Costa Rica to look after baby turtles, trips to Tanzania to teach English in a school, trips to Peru to volunteer in construction projects. All of these are well-meaning and ultimately work towards a good end-goal. But doesn’t something seem to be missing?

All of these are well-meaning and ultimately work towards a good end-goal. But doesn’t something seem to be missing?

Why do we have to be shipped in to teach children, promote gender equality and build houses? I have no experience in any of these areas, but would no doubt be accepted onto a project to do any one of them. Why should we go and enter into a community for a short period of time to do something for which we are no more equipped to do, if not less so, than local people? Of course, the argument can go that it serves two sets of people at one: we get a sense of fulfilment and an eye-opening experience of another culture while serving and providing for another community.

As balanced and beneficial as this may appear, I want to point out the damage this can inflict on the very communities we seek to aid, which hinges on three key issues: the environmental impact of our travel, the direct impact on the community, and the wider perception of third and first world countries and ideals.

World Bank Photo Collection via Flickr

The simple truth is that by travelling such a distance to these countries in order to help and volunteer, we create a phenomenal level of pollution through air miles. This is ironically counter-productive and adds to the issues we are trying to tackle: the countries set to suffer the most from global warming are the poorest, partly because of their geographical locations (tropical latitudes), and partly because they are ill-equipped to deal with increased demands on lower levels of water etc. Amongst other things, one of the most basic ways to address pollution and global warming is to drastically cut air travel.

On a localised level, when volunteering with children who have a background of abandonment, our appearance for a short period of time might even make recovery harder, as they may become attached to us before we then disappear. Also, our work in communities can take up important jobs which would otherwise provide employment to local people – employment which fuels the development of skills and a greater focus on education. It is in reality a very unsustainable practice to foster dependence on foreign aid; it is far more suitable and effective to encourage local people to acquire or develop the skills required for such work. It is also crucially important to remember that we aren’t skilled in these fields, and therefore to question our motives in going — what’s the point if we aren’t actually providing expert assistance?

Right now, I don’t have any skills fitting to such circumstances — so I won’t go until I do.

This explains the perhaps most damaging result of voluntourism: it cultivates an unfair and incorrect image of the relationship between the west and less economically developed countries. It leads to concerns about a white saviour complex, albeit something I’m sure no one is intending. It also results in a now outmoded view of developed and developing countries — a divide that is unnecessary, damaging and unhelpful in allowing for the growth of developing countries.

How much better would it be, then, if we go only when we have something valuable to give? Let’s give it generously and share it, so that the expertise we have can be taken on by local people. Right now, I don’t have any skills fitting to such circumstances — so I won’t go until I do.

Featured photograph: United Nations via Flickr

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