Selfish charity?

Georgia Behrens questions the virtue of voluntourism in the developing world

Voluntourism feature
Voluntourism inset
Cartoon: Erin Rooney

“Change your life by changing someone else’s!”

It’s a tantalising prospect. Go to an impoverished nation, make a difference in a child’s life, immerse yourself in a community and a culture, and help combat global poverty. And, to top it all off, you’ll emerge a better-rounded and more enlightened human being, with a fresh perspective on the world around you.

It’s a vision being sold to – and bought by – hundreds of thousands of well-intentioned young people around the world. But beneath the glossy brochures, slick websites and heartfelt testimonials lies a reality far removed from this marketable idyll.

Go to an impoverished nation, build some semi-permanent structures, take a few happy snaps with some emaciated (but not too emaciated) children. Along the way, chuck in some white-water rafting, bare-back horseriding, a safari and some exotic cuisines. Return home, clutter up everyone’s Facebook newsfeed with your album, “African adventure!”, and tell lots of long-winded stories about your experience of “the real Africa.” Above all, rest assured that the company that organised your African adventure has made a substantial profit off your misguided sense of altruism, and that you’ll have another line to add to your highly-cultivated resume.

Around the world, ‘voluntourism’ has emerged as a popular alternative to Contiki Tours for young Western students with time and money to burn.  For many, it’s an opportunity to spend their gap year or university holidays ‘meaningfully’ or ‘authentically’. For others, it’s a means to distinguish themselves in the eyes of educational institutions or potential employers. And, with an expanding range of companies offering up pre-packaged travel-cum-volunteering schemes to aspiring do-gooders, the developing world has never looked so appealing.

The vast majority of these programs allow participants to combine volunteer work with extensive recreational activities and leisure time, and offer constant in-country medical, security, and personal support.

It’s a winning formula. A study conducted in 2011 by UK think tank Demos found that the western ‘voluntourism’ industry reaps annual profits in the region of £6 billion (AUD $8.73 billion). Moreover, 90% of the students surveyed in the same study concluded that they had returned from their volunteering experience with heightened self-confidence, self-reliance, and sense of motivation.

What, though, of the supposed beneficiaries of all this benevolence? Here, unfortunately, the news is not so good.

At best, student volunteers are often unnecessary and inefficacious. While the majority of not-for-profit organisations choose their volunteers based on candidates’ skills, abilities and suitability for each assignment, most of their for-profit counterparts simply require the payment of a “program fee” (often amounting to several thousand dollars) to ensure an applicant’s eligibility to volunteer.

As such, the vast majority of students arrive in Africa, Asia, or the Pacific Islands armed with little more than their enthusiasm.  Without tertiary qualifications, professional expertise or work experience, very few are equipped for anything other than unskilled labour. And, in countries such as Mozambique, where the unemployment rate is at 60% and only 20% of the population finishes high school, there is anything but a shortage of unskilled labourers looking for work to do. A common outcome is that volunteers end up performing tasks that have almost no importance to their local community, with one in five students telling Demos that they felt they had had little to no lasting impact upon the community that they had worked in.

Much more worrying, though, is the possibility that student volunteers are exploiting or damaging the communities they’ve been assigned to help.

The Australian government aid agency AusAID warns that unskilled volunteers may simply end up taking local jobs, and exacerbating problems in the local community. They say that they prefer to send volunteers with professional qualifications to work in sectors such as banking, mining and tourism, where there is a true deficit of skills and experience among locals.

There is also a risk that uninformed or insensitive volunteers will inadvertently affront or upset those with whom they are working.

Rhiannon Hunt, a University of Sydney student who regularly travels to work at an orphanage in Kenya, says that many of the volunteers she has worked alongside are self-centred, ill-informed, and condescending towards local people.

“They treat the orphanage as a hotel, and spend their whole time going on safari and doing touristy stuff in Nairobi,” she says. “Jane [the founder of the orphanage] hates it. She only puts up with it because they pay her to stay there, and she uses their money to pay the rent.”

She claims that majority of volunteers she’s worked with have come to Kenya with little or no understanding of local culture or history, and that their interest in the country stems from a presumption of the neediness and gratitude of the country and its citizenry.

“They just assume that because Jane and the kids can’t speak perfect English they’re stupid, and that they must just be incredibly grateful to have them [the volunteers] there. Which is just so not true, Jane doesn’t think they’re helpful at all, and the kids see the ones who treat the place as a hotel just as weird house guests.”

A lack of understanding and reciprocity often translates an uncomfortable dynamic in which locals, in need of the money that flows from affluent Western volunteers, are coerced into accepting the role of volunteers as benevolent givers and themselves as eternally grateful, eternally passive recipients. Disempowering and patronising, this harks back to an era when developing nations were seen as the ignorant beneficiaries of colonial wisdom and guidance.

Even those volunteers that do no real harm to their community are unlikely to make a lasting difference.  Most complete relatively short-term placements, with large amounts of time devoted to travel and recreation. Any work that is done treats symptomatic issues of poverty, rather than addressing the structural and institutional problems that form the basis of nations’ ongoing economic dependence on their wealthier counterparts.

As ‘voluntourism’ continues to expand at a phenomenal pace, so, too, does global financial disparity. According to a 2011 report released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average income of the richest 10% of the population is about nine times that of the poorest 10% across the OECD – a disparity seven times greater than it was 25 years ago.

Perhaps, instead of spending a summer building dodgy walls in Kenya, a generation of affluent, educated young Westerners should devote their time to campaigning for IMF or World Bank reform, or for their government to forgive a developing nation’s crippling debt. Or, perhaps they could look to their own backyard, where refugees who have fled poverty and hardship in their home countries are subjected to systemic discrimination and racism.

It might not look so good on a résumé or on your Facebook feed, but, this time, you might actually change a life.

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