Voluntourism: Just A Chance To Enhance Westerners' CVs?

We all know of someone who has experienced volunteering in Kenya, Sri Lanka, or another ‘developing country’ which completely ‘opened their eyes’ - or, as the Onion brilliantly put it, monumentally changed their profile picture for good. It seems that they just can’t stop talking about their 1-2 weeks’ visit, their enthusiasm for themselves as gracious saviours of the poor knows no bounds. We easily tolerate this kind of humanitarian tourism , since - besides an evidently inflated sense of self-righteousness - we trust that many volunteers embark upon these ‘adventures’ out of goodwill. Doing something good, helping others while having a fun time and experiencing a new culture doesn’t sound half bad. But it is, almost wholly, bad.

‘Voluntourism’ was initially a sarcastic portmanteau to critically highlight the privilege involved in volunteering. Having to be privileged enough to be able to pay to help and ultimately gain an impressive line in one’s CV is not exactly in good volunteering spirit. It seems a ludicrous concept that anyone should pay in order to work. Ultimately, travelling is a privilege. Concealing this privilege through false good-will in order to boost moral leverage is not sustainable, morally transparent or honest. Funnily enough, the usage of this term has now come full circle and volunteering agencies have appropriated it and are directly marketing their travel packages to customers as ‘voluntourism’. The fact that the term is now used uncritically indicates our acceptance of such ‘humanitarian tourism’ as a half effort.

The question of whether volunteering is a good idea has quite a history for multiple reasons. However, there is a specific facet of voluntourism that has become more prevalent today and makes it stand out as a modern phenomenon: the internet has amplified the narcissistic dimension of volunteering. Rather than experiencing a mere IRL ego boost, tourists can now show off their goodwill on multiple platforms, and it often seems like photo opportunities were the sole reason for their presence. If I see one more profile picture of some privileged free spirit holding an [insert ‘exotic’ ethnicity] baby, I think I might burst.

Besides the dubious accessibility and ethical intentions of engaging in voluntourism, the saving grace of this trend should be the lasting positive outcome that volunteers produce, right? Wrong.

The sustainability of development achieved through this model of volunteering is questionable. Sourcing free, often even profitable labour from abroad in order to work in local communities takes away employment opportunities for those already in the area. Given that many volunteers travel to poverty stricken areas with structural unemployment, this is quite problematic. Many agencies argue that volunteerism actually creates more labour opportunity because these projects require leaders and people on-location. However, this kind of labour is not sustainable, as it depends on the constantly changing projects, and is often seasonal. It therefore introduces even more instability into the labour force.

Efficiency is another angle from which voluntourism looks like a bad idea. Considering the amount of training and costs incurred in order to cater for each tourist, the efficiency of the work carried out is much lower than it could be. Convincing volunteers that they are carrying out valuable work while other options would produce much more efficient results is one of the worst things volunteer agencies do.

Orphanages, which are a popular ‘project’ of choice, are particularly dangerous when paired with voluntourism, claims writer J.K. Rowling, who founded the charity Lumos which campaigns against the institutionalisation of children. Tweeting: ’I will never retweet appeals that treat poor children as opportunities to enhance Westerners' CVs,’ Rowling warned potential volunteers not to engage in ‘voluntourism’ - especially not when the targeted project is in an orphanage. Engagement in voluntourism indirectly incentivises the break-up of families and the running of orphanages as a business.

The worst facet of volunteerism is its Eurocentrism. It perpetuates the idea that we, as Westerners, are in a better position to ‘help’ in localised, developing communities than the people who these projects are intended to benefit. Additionally, most volunteers are untrained and unaware of the socio-cultural and economic dynamics of the area they travel to. Voluntourism equates the value of a typically unqualified student on their gap year to the likes of a trained, or at least familiarised local. The model also simplifies complex and multi-faceted issues which are the root of the need for aid, presenting them as easily solvable by the simple building of a bench, or hugging of an orphan. 

There are many ways to volunteer effectively, respectfully and sustainably, but you can be assured that travelling to a Kenyan orphanage for a week is probably not one. For students interested in volunteering, it may be worth researching local charities, volunteering opportunities that are more long-term or projects that they can apply a particular skill to. Chances are, if you’re not qualified to do something at home, you shouldn’t expect your efforts to be more effective somewhere else. It is also of utmost importance to research the area you would like to travel to. You might even find that travel agencies can be avoided by contacting local charities directly. Keep a look out for ‘poverty marketing’: is the agency you wish to travel with belittling the local culture and its people, and emphasising your role in their life quality? If so, your experience with them will likely be less useful.