Voluntourism: beware of ‘white saviourism’

Volunteering abroad is an experience that holds with it much social capital; volunteers come back cultured and cultivated but equally, charitable and self-sacrificing. But why does volunteering in an African or south-east Asian country carry such glamour and weight with it?

‘Voluntourism’ is a sector of tourism that revolves around volunteering abroad. Whilst a seemingly exciting opportunity, as a chance to give back and perhaps a little self-discovery, there is much that is problematic about this thriving business.

In 2017, volunteer tourism was worth around $173 billion USD and it is only growing in popularity. One Google search of ‘volunteer abroad’ brings up copious amounts of web-sites and advertisements of companies and projects abroad that may cost up to an excess of £2,000. Companies will often breakdown the cost: accommodation, administrative costs, project organisation and the like. Yet, increasingly through the commercialisation of volunteering abroad, the bureaucratic organs use up money that could be better spent elsewhere.

But wastage is just the beginning of what is a potentially dubious industry. Unpacking the logic of many a volunteering eighteen-year-old in the developing world does little to inspire promise in ‘voluntourism’. With what enlightened qualities are we going off to emancipate the third world? I can’t help but wonder how an adolescent teaching the English alphabet produces little other than self-satisfaction. We wouldn’t accept a few meagre hours of teacher training from our teachers and institutions, so why do we assume our privileged backgrounds constitutes a gift to the developing world? Yes, providing fun and educational activities are not necessarily damaging, but the mentality that these constitute ‘giving back’ to needy societies only perpetuates age-old white ‘saviourism’ and colonial paternalism.

It doesn’t take a specialist in international development to know that development needs to be sought through stable and long-term struc-tures. Prosperity does not arise from singing English nursery rhymes to kids. Indeed, some critics have even noted that short-term volunteering can also lead to mental strain on communities, especially young children who grow attachments to the flows of volunteers. In short, does ‘voluntourism’ actually provide meaningful benefit to the communities they work alongside, or are they just simply photo opportunities for the middle-classes?

But how can we reconcile good intentions with the problematic under-tones of many a ‘gap yahs’ or ‘hum-bling’ holidays abroad? Volunteering is, of course, nothing to condemn. The sacrifice of time, effort and often money to help others is a positive facet of society.

Nevertheless, how can we actually be of benefit to those struggling abroad without becoming embroiled with the problematic socio-political undercurrents surrounding the commercialisation of volunteering abroad. Indeed, given ‘voluntourism’ is be-coming so prolific and well-packaged, its difficult to ethically navigate past the capitalistic currents flooding our markets and ways of thinking. What I am putting on the stand is the reason as to why volunteering abroad has become so immensely commercialised and popular. Without the implicit idea that a few weeks abroad will definitely be deeply transformative to the lives of the foreign poor, what little else makes the industry and foreign excursion so deeply lucrative?

Ultimately, the first step here is to simply understand the complex and competing undertones of volunteering and charity work abroad. It is not as black and white and romantic as it may appear on the outset. There is increasing awareness of the ethical dimensions behind volunteering abroad with blogs and articles providing a space in which these complexities can be understood. Indeed, there is advice out there on how to plan an ethical and sustainable volunteering trip abroad, with the main point being don’t look to volunteering tourism companies to plan for you; do your research on the country, place and project of focus.

However, the problem is not limited to the realms of volunteering but indicates an underlying tone of condescension towards the problems developing countries face. Poverty does not stem from not knowing the words to ‘The Wheels on the Bus’, it is a systemic issue that deserves an equally nuanced response. White ‘saviour-ism’ is an outdated and frankly lazy explanation. The developing world is not a playground for egocentricity and self-discovery

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