‘Voluntourism’ is Not the Solution to Providing International Aid
Having the chance to travel to a foreign, exotic land you have never been to before and volunteer your services by helping a struggling community sounds like a great opportunity, right? Do good and see amazing sights?
Every year, hundreds of people travel to various third-world countries to donate their time and effort to helping these communities rebuild from a terrible disaster or disease. Most often these international volunteers are Americans who travel with school groups or organizations, looking for something worthy to fill their time and to add to their resume.
One big problem lately with western humanitarian aid though is how volunteerism has turned into ‘voluntourism.’
‘Voluntourism’ is best described by Rafia Zakaria as well-intentioned Western volunteers who travel to distant places with little to no regard for culture, history or ethical challenges they bring into communities that are not theirs. It is someone who wishes to combine charitable work with an exotic vacation.
The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) explained the problem of ‘voluntourism’ with a satirical video featuring a blonde, white girl running through grassy fields hurling food at hungry mouths.
The video makes volunteering look more like a chance to win a trip to an exotic country where you can interact with the locals, explore a bit of the culture, do a good deed like build a house and then leave after a brief stay, rather than working with the community to rebuild and grow.
In other words, volunteering today focuses more on the volunteer’s desire for experience rather than what the community needs.
While the intentions behind these motives are good, the end result can be worse for the recipient communities.
The often short, 2-3 week trips are not nearly long enough for volunteers to make a true impact in the community. More often than not these volunteers are young college students looking for a resume builder, and are not always equipped with the necessary skills to help out.
Pippa Biddle, a self-reformed former ‘voluntourist’, wrote about her experience trying to build a library for an orphanage, which had to be rebuilt by local workers. Biddle reasons that it would have been more cost efficient, helped the local economy and saved time if the money put towards the trip had been used by the orphanage to hire locals to do the work instead.
Another problem driving the trend of ‘voluntourism’ is the idea that the problems these third-world countries are facing are much easier to solve than the ones on our own nation’s soil. Zakaria compares Western nations being full of well-feed individuals dealing with the burdens of consumption and failing school systems as opposed to those with crumbling homes, sick individuals and begging children.
Why fret and worry about our complicated problems connected to larger political narratives (i.e. the rebuilding of Detroit or eradicating the problem of homelessness) that are more difficult to change, when there are people without roofs over their heads or food to put in their mouths? Simply put, feeding someone seems easier than trying to radically change the political discourse of a nation.
However, it is not that simple. These countries have their own complex cultures and societies that we do not fully understand. ‘Voluntourism’ is not too far from the scene from the video, having Westerners drop in and hit the ground running, blindly throwing out solutions to needy people, and not really getting the chance to learn about the complexities of the culture they are dropped into.
These brief, ‘tourist’ volunteer trips are merely Band-Aid solutions to the problem these places are facing. A temporary fix will not solve many of these crises.
While making the trek to a foreign land is a worthy experience to have in one’s life, doing so under the guise of volunteering with no regards to the established community is not the right choice to make. Instead young Westerners could volunteer and help out with their own local communities or others around the country. Or they could work with international organizations on fundraising, volunteer training and program coordination.
If the choice is made to travel internationally to volunteer time and effort, there is a need for the volunteer to adapt to the culture and be flexible and realistic.
What these third-world countries need are people with a specific set of trained skills, such as doctors, carpenters or engineers, that can provide concrete support and long-term solutions, not a Westerner who is essentially just visiting for a week.
Photo credit: Youtube screenshot