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.
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 percent. That 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.
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.
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.
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.