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Voluntourism: not a glowing resume line

Unpacking the saviour complex.

Image Credit: The Norwegian Students' and Academics' International Assistance Fund (SAIH).

People insist on the pursuit of altruism. Psychologists have promulgated various theories to explain why we seek to help others: they claim we are motivated by compassion; a sense of guilty obligation to the less fortunate; our own definition of morality; even the egoistic search for accolades. It follows, then, that we chase altruistic acts we can use to extend our CV. Studies have provided copious evidence for the benefits to individuals when we volunteer – from improved mood to stronger relationships and even a longer life. But what of the other side of the equation, the groups for whom we volunteer, those we claim to protect and serve?

The phenomenon of ‘voluntourism’ has amassed a throng of committed disciples, but whilst it has garnered media attention and attracted many fresh high school graduates, the wave of popularity has dissolved families and demolished vulnerable communities. It is a widely accepted practice to visit extremely impoverished communities with the intention of providing help, unfettered by regulations or rules that would ensure safe behaviour. In comparison, you would be met with ridicule if you attempted to contribute similarly in Australia without adequate qualifications such as TAFE certificates or experience. One can apply this logic to almost any voluntourist trip undertaken by overzealous high-school or gap year students — they brick-lay walls, care for young children, and carve wells into land with little respect for the desires of the local community. Often, voluntourists complete jobs overseas for which they would fall into legal trouble here.

Whilst voluntourism can often generate positive, tangible change; it is not guaranteed nor long-lived. Untrained volunteers may have good intentions but often trigger an onslaught of harm due to their lack of skill. For example, construction projects are often butchered and thus require more resources to be rectified. Tourists inadvertently create imbalances in local communities, favouring certain orphans with trinkets or affection. For example, Kenyan woman Jane Karigo runs a Children’s Home in Mombasa and recalls once a child was gifted an iPod, leading to tension and infighting. Communities are well aware of the growing voluntourism market, brimming with those desperate to travel. This has transformed how they display themselves. Research conducted by the British charity Lumos suggests that orphanages in South Asian countries are often facades, painted with a veneer of vulnerability to draw in unsuspecting volunteers. 80% of children housed in these institutions may have a living parent but are coerced into these living situations for money. Frequently, the money that volunteers bring is distributed unequally or used to enrich the quality of their own experience rather than provide substantial benefit to an area.

The performance of unethical voluntourist work in overseas countries for citizens of colour is driven by the white saviour narrative, leading to claims that this work is ‘neo-colonialist.’ The idea of Western superiority to other countries is institutionally ingrained, imparted to children in primary school when tasked with projects on solving poverty and brainstorming benefits of Western aid and the imposition of our ‘morally preferable’ values, such as democracy. The narrative is revised when volunteers use brown and black children as photo props — again, a phenomenon that would be considered unethical with white children considering the lack of parental consent given before wide dissemination on lifestyle platforms. This perpetuates a toxic narrative of the moral high ground and paints countries in Africa and Asia as characterised by poverty and malnourished children.

Daniela Papi, the author of Learning Service, a book about ethical altruism, believes voluntourism is not inherently evil, but that we need to reframe our approach. “We sell a lie when we call it volunteering,” she claims, “[it] makes it seem like success comes from changing someone else. Learning how to serve the rest of our lives has the [greatest] impact.” Many orphanages can provide a stable, loving place for abandoned children, and subsist on the donations of caring volunteers. Rather than blanketly criticising all volunteer work, we need to employ a critical lens and evaluate experiences using a case-by-case approach. And if we genuinely cannot find a justifiable way to help the impoverished with our current competencies, then it is time we stop pursuing them for bold resume lines. 

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