Voluntourism – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The concept of voluntourism has been debated about for many years. Opinions on the issue vary from the belief that it is another way for white people to exploit developing countries, to people who believe that exposure to other cultures will cause progress in terms of international development. While in the past, I’ve tended to side with the opposition, after reading several articles arguing both the pros and the cons I’ve realized the complexity behind the idea of voluntourism. In order for young people to understand the complexities of the worlds issues, they must be exposed. But the programs with which they experience these cultures with must be aware of the threat of the white savior complex and the danger of a single story that could be an aftershock of the exposure.

One of the main issues seems to be the short term voluntourism that so many young people take part of. It’s hard to argue that two weeks in a new culture can expose you to the full culture, regardless of one’s level of immersion. Even living in Senegal for just three months, I have seen families during the transition from summer to school, the start of the dry season, the changing of crop yields, and three major religious holidays. Had I’d stayed here for even just one month, my perception of the Senegalese culture as a whole would have been utterly different from what it is now. To truly understand another culture you must truly immerse for long periods of time, but this is not an easy task and it’s understandable that long-term immersion is not plausible for everyone who wants to go abroad. But it is important for short-term volunteers to be aware of the complexity of the culture they are surrounded by. Programs should offer information to their volunteers that delves into the social context of their country. By being aware of the complexity of the country they are in, it may provide individuals a better perspective on the true reasoning behind the issues they may be exposed to while in country exist. Along with this, if an individual has a deeper understanding of these issues, it may push them to question the WHY behind the issue. By asking why, voluntarists may take away quite a lot from the experience, possibly even how their country may play a role in the issue the foreign country is experiencing. This deeper understanding can perhaps truly cause the voluntarist to want to make a change in their lives or affect what course of work they may choose to go into.

Another issue is the concept of “real good versus feel good”.  Are the volunteers really going to Kenya for two weeks to help or to take good pictures for their social media? The concept of real good- creating real, positive, responsible change in a place, versus feel good- going somewhere and having the only effect be a boost in your self esteem, is a serious issue. This cannot be totally solved by a program, as the person going abroad is responsible for how they interpret their experience, but it can be discussed. Within the Global Citizen Year program we discussed the importance of thinking about whether your actions are benefitting your community or really just yourself. Having awareness of the difference is the first step to changing how people view their role in their host community.

There’s also the argument that voluntourism is just a way for rich, white people to see “how the other half” lives. For example, slum tours exploit the local communities and often take away the pride of the people who live there. Kennedy Odede, who wrote the article “Slumdog Tourism” in 2010, wrote about the experience of having white woman walk through his home, “I was 16 when I first saw a slum tour. I was outside my 100-square foot house washing dishes, looking at the utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage.” This obvious exploitation needs to stop. But that does not mean that all forms of voluntourism are so blatantly disrespectful. While it’s not enough to simply recognize your privilege, voluntourism can provide a great platform for people from developing countries to recognize changes they can make in their lives back home, if they’re given the right information. Not everyone will work to make massive change internationally, but if you live in a developed country you play some role in the oppression of developing countries and you can attempt to make changes to help, no matter how small. For some, only seeing the issues first hand, may push them to make these changes. Programs should educate people on what they can do to become more responsible in the realm of international aid, even if that may just be not shopping from certain companies that exploit developing countries. Programs should also not separate people from the local communities. The locals should be seen as people and not something to take a photo of. I believe it’s the responsibility of voluntarist programs to sensitize people to that as, unfortunately, some people may be so disconnected that they do not view the local communities in that way.

Another argument is that issues should be dealt with at home before working abroad. For example, in the states, there are many issues around poverty, health care, education, gun violence, and other topics. Some believe that working internationally is simply ignoring that the fact that there are many domestic issues. People believe that international issues are more “exotic” and “attractive” than domestic issues, but I disagree. While domestic issues are incredibly important, the fact is that working internationally also relies on domestic work. Because the economies of the developing world and the already developed are so intertwined, it is unlikely one will work internationally without domestic aid. This idea that we should work to fix domestic issues before international issues also brings up the idea that one is more important than the other. As our world becomes more globalized, I believe it’s time to stop viewing someone from another country as an “other”. While it’s important to value diversity in culture, language, and ethnicity, one country should not get priority of help over another. But it is very important to realize that international issues are just, if not more, complex than domestic issues. Courtney Martin made a perfect analogy in her 2016 article, “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems”. She gave the scenario of a 22-year-old college student in Kampala, Uganda who stumbled upon a news story of a mass shooting in the United States. The student wonders if she could go there and come up with gun restriction legislation to end gun violence. As a reader from the U.S., my first thought was how I wish it was only that easy. That is the same mindset people who wish to work internationally must go into it with- that it will not be as easy as it seems.

So while voluntourism has its good sides and its bad sides, overall the pros out way the cons. In order to make responsible, beneficial, sustainable change, people, young or old, must experience the issues first hand. Interacting with the local communities, hearing from them what their issues truly are, and then working with them to solve them are when true positive change occurs. And I promise, while you will find issues, you will also find some of the most beautiful people, languages, values, and places that will make you wish those people could help your own community. This cultural exchange is just one of the many benefits of voluntourism. So go out into the world, but always remember to remain humble, respectful, open minded, patient, and caring- anywhere in the world could use some of those things.