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The Elephant in the Room

22 August 2017

In Year 11, I did what every other student at my school was doing and made a last-ditch attempt to add a shiny, altruistic thing to my CV. I took a trip during the holidays to a rural village in Yunnan, China, to help build houses as part of a Habitat for Humanity trip.

The trip was a mediocre experience, I must admit. The organisation hadn’t communicated with the local village properly and hence was unable to obtain the necessary paperwork to do certain types of work. Instead of the bricklaying and wall-plastering my friends did in Sri Lanka and Cambodia, work that high school students were perhaps a little more suited to do given our physical abilities, we were instead allocated the task of digging holes for the building’s foundation. The trip was only nine days long and we dug for seven of those days. During this time, local workers would come around to supervise and sometimes give us a hand, and when this happened it became painfully clear how incapable we were. When we finished these measly holes, some members of our team cheered, and suggested taking the last two days off as a celebration of sorts.

The inefficiency here is clear. Sure, Habitat for Humanity and volunteer organisations alike have done wonderful things for communities in poverty, but taking groups of students or tourists to rural villages for them to “experience” building a house is useless, to say the least.

Volunteering overseas is not a new thing. It’s been around for a full century, and can be traced back to WWI when Voluntary Aid Detachment and Red Cross volunteers worked in battlefields to treat soldiers and civilians on both sides. However, only recently has the voluntourism industry begun flourishing, shifting international volunteering from the hands of professionals (think Doctors without Borders) into the hands of amateurs like my friends and I.

There is, of course, an important distinction between development volunteering and voluntourism. Development volunteering involves a long-term partnership between individuals and the community, in which the volunteer programme is generally matched with the skills of the individuals by International Volunteer Sending Agencies. Its central concern is stimulating development through long-term goals and milestones, and hence, development volunteers have a more defined role and purpose within the programme. Voluntourism, on the other hand, is more market driven, and development is sold as a commodity to tourists.

Voluntourism appeals to tourists’ desire to ‘make a difference’ or ‘give back’. In this way, voluntourism and development volunteering can be seen as opposites: development volunteering holds the community’s needs at heart, while voluntourism is set up to meet the needs of the tourist. While it may not be entirely fair to characterise it as a ‘selfish’ act, it is a distinctive industry emerging from privileged individuals’ desire to help others and experience ‘poor’ environments, designed to help them reach spiritual fulfilment. As a result, ‘poverty tourism’ can have dangerous ideological undertones.

Sending privileged, often Western, tourists overseas reinforces the paradigm that underprivileged countries are in need of help. It positions the individuals taking time to travel across the world to put in physical labour as the benevolent givers, while community members have to be the grateful receivers of charity. This creates rather superficial relationships between the two parties. Voluntourism often ignores the reality that while it ‘gives’, it also takes from local communities.

The fact that voluntourism is set up for profit cannot be overlooked: often programmes are arranged in places that are not necessarily in need of voluntourist development schemes, but instead fit a tourist’s idea of the experience. One example of this that has posed major problems to communities is the practice of ‘orphanage tourism’. You see it all the time on Facebook pictures and Tinder profiles: the (often white) individual surrounded by groups of (often black) children. These children are paraded out to help tourists achieve a sense of charity, but more often than not, have specifically been asked to perform or befriend donors in order to receive funds. There are also situations where children with parents are kept hostage in orphanages for food or medical supplies, not to mention deeper concerns of letting tourists form connections with orphaned children, only to leave them after a few weeks.

Additionally, a community can have vastly different needs than those than a tourist might have been led to believe. While on my Habitat trip, bricklaying may have been better than digging holes according to our measures of utility but perhaps the community needed neither. In order to fulfil our personal expectations, these are the things we end up doing most often. For example, voluntourist groups are often allocated the task of teaching English to school children, which can be more of a threat to indigenous cultures than any form of help. For voluntourists, ‘making a difference’ may mean providing access to food, schools, English, and other things that may fall under the Western capitalist umbrella. For local communities, combatting poverty and trying to retain languages and cultures from before Western intervention may be a greater priority.

It’s important to note that the predicament of many of these countries boils down to the damages of European colonialism and American imperialism (particularly post-WWII and during the Cold War). The argument has been made that voluntourism is a new form of colonialism, and it’s frightfully accurate. Putting aside the obvious differences in race, there exist implicit colonial power relations. Voluntourism normalises the power imbalance between the tourist and the community, the former being there to consume the development experience, and the latter solely existing to accept the altruism without protest. The industry has essentially fostered a colonial paternalism, while simultaneously capitalising on individuals’ guilt and charity. There are also unacknowledged assumptions – that the locals are ignorant and ‘underdeveloped’, that only volunteers can effect change, and that the ‘help’ offered cannot, in any way, be a bad thing.

Voluntourism not only appeals to tourists’ consciences: it also capitalises their privileged guilt. Perhaps the recent voluntourism trend comes from the polarisation of ‘charitable’ volunteering and ‘selfish’ tourism (despite the fact that voluntourism is undoubtably both). Paradoxically, this entire industry that has emerged from tourists’ desire to close the gap can only increase inequality, thereby creating more opportunities for voluntourism, as well as an increased sense of guilt. What voluntourists don’t realise is that the entire industry is based on taking advantage of inequality.

Perhaps this is not as insidious as I am painting it to be. There is one good thing – those who go on voluntouring trips mean well and invariably want to make a difference. It’s impossible to say definitively that ‘voluntourism is bad’, but there are several ways in which the industry, as well as the individuals whom these experiences are sold to, could become more informed.

For starters, don’t fall into the lure of the CV like I did. This has been the cornerstone of the voluntourism industry’s success; the ability to convert culture capital in developing countries into economic capital in the Western employment market. It’s no surprise that part of the reason people go on these trips is to tick some sort of box for self-promotion. But now that the dangers of voluntourism trips are becoming apparent, perhaps we can look to other forms of charity: NGOs generally prefer donations of cash or materials like construction supplies or food.

Instead of falling for the industry’s illusion, we can try to better understand the role of volunteering before jumping into the first opportunity that appeals to us. Perhaps one’s charity would be better placed within one’s own community. Before assuming you have the ability to help enact change on overseas global poverty, understand that your own immediate community has needs as well. While community service is obviously good and necessary, it’s important that we think critically about what is being sold to us by voluntourism agencies, and to understand our own role, direct or indirect, in the unjust global economic order. Lots of organisations in Victoria are regularly looking for volunteers – look to those to see how you can make a long-term commitment to service.