Voluntourism– Who Is It For?

So imagine a group of perky, and optimistic kids fresh out of high school from say, South Korea decide to go volunteer in an impoverished elementary school in inner-city Chicago for a few weeks. The idea sounds relatively absurd– but that’s the gist of it. Voluntourism in impoverished communities is increasingly popular. A lot of great articles have been buzzing around the internet on this idea of ‘voluntourism’– what does it even mean, anyways? And who is actually benefitting from it?

For four months in 2013, I went to live in a village in rural Ghana and volunteer at an elementary school. It was an exhilarating, overwhelming, complex experience. I had no qualifications to teach whatsoever, and going in I understood that the people there were much better equipped to help themselves than I was. But I wanted to experience the culture, meet new people and see the world outside of my first-world bubble. I wanted to see if I could have what it takes to pursue international development and live in a foreign culture, and I saw this as the beginning of a lifelong undertaking.

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But why did I spend thousands of dollars to fly 5,120 miles away to experience a foreign culture, when all I needed to do was walk over the Maryland-DC border? If I want to see another world all I have to do is go to Southeast DC’s 7th ward, where there is deeply entrenched poverty and 96.8% of the population is African American. Ninety-six point eight percentThat isn’t an accident, either– it’s the direct result of a century of government policy that has concentrated people of color in smaller and smaller residential areas, while simultaneously divesting resources from those communities and ensuring the continuation of the residents’ social, economic, and political isolation. In the United States there’s a strong trend to fault impoverished people for their poverty, instead of the social and political ideologies that perpetuate it. Perhaps that is why we see it as completely socially acceptable to spend obscene amounts of money to fly far away and ‘help’ people who ‘truly can’t help the fact they’re poor’.

However, I don’t think it’s actually all this simple, and I won’t discuss this issue in any morally absolute terms. Simply put, voluntourism is complex. Experiencing an entirely foreign way of life on a different continent really complicated what I thought I knew about the rest of the world– it was a humbling and incredibly educational experience. I’ve thought about it every day in the year since I left. It’s driven me to learn a lot more about the complexities surrounding development and international aid, and to get more involved in my own community. I don’t think that we as people are so separate—whether our communities are separated by a state line or an ocean, our actions affect each other in profound ways. My first-world lifestyle fuels rapid climate change that will disproportionately affect people in the developing world, to give just one example.

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It would be wrong to deny that race is an important and inescapable factor that needs to be talked about— just outside my window in Accra there was an enormous billboard advertising a skin bleaching cream. I worried every day that I was perpetuating a harmful white-savior dynamic. And I had this gnawing feeling that some volunteers blithely viewed this as a third world vacation, cheerfully donating crayons to a school where only a third of the children could read and were beaten frequently. But perhaps it said more about me, that I was consumed with doubt over my own motives. It is amazing how we as privileged, mostly white volunteers all so readily accept those roles– that this was the way things are, it’s just an unfortunate reality that some people are poor, but how benevolent we are to be sharing our wonderful presences (and crayons). I was oftentimes so overwhelmed by my helplessness that I ultimately was much less involved than many of the other volunteers, which I regret.

It’s tricky for me to process my experience, morally and emotionally. I was overwhelmed by the kindness I received daily, the adventures and friendships—it was an incredible experience.  But I was often stunned by the dysfunction (and sometimes abuse) that I witnessed as well. I was at an orphanage for a week before I left, and found many of the children were malnourished and neglected. Volunteers came semi-regularly, to paint and build shelves and bring heaps of clothes and soap and so on. According to the people I spoke with at the health clinic, once the volunteers left, the children were insufficiently fed and would often go to the clinic weak and sick. The staff threw out donated mosquito nets and hoarded donated clothing and supplies in their rooms.

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When I arrived with a volunteer coordinator (a local Ghanaian) he was shocked at the state of affairs and told the managers that they would be reported if things weren’t improved, and soon. He arranged and paid for the owners to go to a state-run care provider course on hygiene and nutrition. I took some children to the clinic so they could receive treatment. We also provided some supplemental food and towels– just band-aid solutions on top of a large problem I didn’t understand. And who am I to judge to orphanage staff? They were there every day. I came for just a week at the end of my stay and then left, which I now realize could have had some harmful attachment issues for the children there. I don’t doubt the problems there were much more complex than what I saw in my incredibly short visit– the woman who had founded the orphanage had just died after a long battle with cancer, and I suspect that her daughters had let things fall into disrepair while they grieved. I absolutely don’t judge them, because honestly I have no idea what I would’ve done in their situation.

Unless you’re a surgeon or a millionaire, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll have any significant impact when you volunteer. However, a little money, medicine, and extra hands can do significant good in situations where the needs are dire. Although the amount of money spent getting there can be crazy, I think there are significant long-term payoffs to having people experience cultures in the developing world. I think that a sincere, well-planned volunteer trip to a small community in a foreign country (through an organization with long-term goals and in-country staff) is infinitely preferable than simply staying in a hotel.  Limiting yourself to traveling in other wealthy Western countries is significantly less fraught with issues of race and ethics, but it also won’t challenge you to question your beliefs, or experience anything beyond your comfort zone.

I straddle a tricky line of wanting to work directly with underserved communities and trying to stay away from the “white savior” role that’s inherently hard to avoid. However, I believe strongly in interacting with people of all cultures and races and classes. To be effective at empowering people to help themselves, I need to understand how a community can create and take ownership of sustainable change — and I need to constantly challenge myself to re-examine my own concepts of ethics.

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For people with few credentials, ‘voluntourism’ can be a good way to get a feel for living in a low-resource area and being immersed in a foreign culture. It reaffirmed my intention to pursue development as a career, and I think few other experiences would have been able to assure me of that. In retrospect, however, I wish I’d found an organization with concrete long-term goals, or that offered me training so I could have been more useful. For people interested in this kind of experience, I strongly recommend reading lots of articles on voluntoursim and looking at this site to get an understanding of how to volunteer effectively and ethically. I also recommend reading books by authors from wherever you want to travel– get acquainted with different voices and beliefs in whatever way you can. Start with volunteering locally, you never need to go far to find need. Challenge your thinking. Listen to opinions on development, race, and poverty that make you uncomfortable. Be able to admit that this trip will mainly be for your own personal growth and education, not to benefit whomever you’re supposedly there to “help”.

All of the organizations that put relatively know-nothing foreigners on the ground (Peace Corps) are really not about transforming the community as much as giving aid workers an understanding of another culture. They provide volunteers with a very rare opportunity to actually work in the community they want to serve. It’s an indisputable fact that having aid workers train in-country staff to actually do the fieldwork is far more effective. Good organizations will have very few foreigners involved at the grassroots level– just at the very periphery, connecting people with resources. True change comes from within, and that’s the first thing I hope anyone who wants to volunteer acknowledges. You’re just there to learn.

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. I agree your points. Going to volunteer for few weeks is for yourself. If you would like to make a real change (a small one) you should stay at least for couple of years. Allthough every time we meet a person we are going to make difference in our own life and also in that other persons life.

  2. Interesting post on a difficult subject. I very much agree with you that many/most/all of those programs enrich the visitor more than the hosts (though I’m not sure I’d place Peace Corps as a voluntourist organization), and/but I wonder at the value to the visitor (and ergo their community/nation back home) in terms of cultural contact and increased sensitivity… It’s a tricky situation, with dangers of cultural exploitation and “ethical” whitewashing, and-

    I gotta stop here or I’ll ramble at you all night. Great post! Keep traveling and keep writing!

    1. What I meant in saying that Peace Corps volunteers are relatively know-nothing is just that, despite all the cultural/language training and school/work experience, everyone has a lot to learn once they’re on the ground. It is years– at least 1-2, usually– until they’re able to be at all effective. I think it’s an amazing organization and I definitely hope to do it someday.

  3. As a former Peace Corps volunteer, serving for two years and three months, I can say that we may not transform a culture, but we do show them ways to better perform in their country in areas such as business, teaching, learning a foreign language(English), agriculture, nursing, ecology, etc. as a contribution to their way of life. One of our group did transform a village by working on broken wells to produce water again. Yes, we had a lot to learn about the country. That is what the three months of training in-country does. We learn the culture, the politics,the geography , the language, the history, and we’re effective from the first day we are assigned our work places for the next two years. I have a friend in the PC now who has organized and trained women to run their own business. I would urge you to consider serving. The process requires a slew of written material, medical tests, and interviews. Around 20,000 people a year apply, and they accept some 7,000 now. Voluntourism is a good introduction to the kind of life you have to live for a longer period of time.

    1. Thank you so much for this! I have a tremendous amount of respect for Peace Corps. My aunt and uncle actually had a lifelong involvement with the organization. Through their stories I came to understand that even the most grueling, rigorous training that all of the (extremely qualified) volunteers go through can’t totally prepare you to live in a completely foreign society– there’s just a great deal to learn on the ground before you’re culturally competent. It takes years to become effectively integrated into the community.
      I think it’s important to remember that lasting community development is the result of a longterm partnership and exchange between the two parties– it takes the knowledge and expertise of both the community memebers and the volunteers to do anything effectively.
      In the town where I lived, there were numerous broken wells and people suffered from the consequences of unclean water. Where NGOs had come and fixed wells, they had fallen into disrepair because the community had failed to organize themselves in decding how to maintain them. We have to acknowledge that the role of the outsider only goes so far. Without true partnership and efforts to empower community memebers in being their own solution, there can be no lasting change.

      1. You’re right about lasting change needing the community members to be on board and ready to work to ensure that change. In the PC, one group of volunteers arrives during the second year of the ones before them, so work can be followed up while new projects are introduced. The problem arises when the country no longer requests the help of the Peace Corps. For instance, I just read an article deploring the state of education in Slovakia on all teaching levels. When I taught English at a university there, the country had just been formed the year before. Soviet practices were still followed in teaching…..lecture, no questions from students, tests, grades. In my classes, I introduced writing essays about opinions, outside and in-class projects, debates, and public speaking. Some of the Slovak teachers observed my classes and were intrigued. During the summer, I taught workshops for Slovak teachers, introducing meditation exercises for students leading into writing assignments. Other PC teachers had students participate in class, not just sit there and listen to lectures. It has been several years now since the Peace Corps has been active in Slovakia because their government stopped requesting its help. Now, I fear, the old ways have been re-instituted. The only plus is that there were many years in which students were educated by PC volunteers and allowed to think for themselves.

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