A note on Voluntourism (Yeah, it’s a word)

I’m hesitant to write an opinion piece. I consider myself an activist on many fronts, which I believe can entirely be summed up by the term “intersectional feminist.” I believe that different women face different intensities of oppression, (depending on race, class, sexuality, to name a few) and I believe in social, political, and economic equity for all individuals. It also means that I’m passionate about social inequality on many fronts. So here goes, my first real opinion piece:

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term:

voluntourism: (n.) a form of tourism in which travellers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity.

Everyone knows someone who’s participated in something like that, someone who argues that it’s voluntary work first, foreign country exploration second. Perhaps you are one of the people who has participated in it. I don’t entirely blame you. It definitely is packaged as a great opportunity to really make a difference, and many professional schools (Medical, Law) assign great value to this specific kind of experience. Pay to travel, see, and experience a third-world country, but build houses, teach children english, offer medical facilities… The list goes on. My problem isn’t with those who participate. It is with the institution itself.

I personally believe that volunteering is free labour, and paying someone for the chance to do work does not exactly fall under that category. Regardless, I understand the motives behind those who participate in Voluntourism, and there are far more deep-rooted issues.

For example, as much as I support the United Nations and would love to work as an International Lawyer for them in the future, they are flawed. The ethnocentric belief that the West is civilized, and that all other nations are uncivilized, barbaric, and require reformation is incredibly harmful. This White Saviour Syndrome, this belief that third world countries need help, specifically Western help, is pretentious and self-righteous. It’s as if we have all forgotten that the pillaging of these countries, the exploitation of their resources that have lead to their current state, are a direct result of colonialism.

I’m not calling Voluntourism a form of Modern Colonialism. Regardless, who are we to believe that those who live in countries whose ideals differ from our own are in need of “saving” or “aid” from us? Why do we feel the need to pack our backs and cross an ocean to help? There is an undeniable notion of superiority among Western Culture. It is inherent in people who participate in such activities, but more importantly, the companies that provide opportunities for volunteering abroad. This feeling of superiority leads to exploitation.

This is not entirely an example of Voluntourism, but deserves to be noted. When I went to Mumbai last Summer, at the Airport, there were signs up for “Slum Tours” of Dharavi, the large slum in India, popularized by the movie Slumdog Millionaire. I was astonished. Individuals, tourists, would pay for the chance to tour Dharavi by foot, or in a car, and experience “activities” like pottery-making, or embroidery, while “feeling the sense of community and spirit that exists in the area.” And a “majority” of the proceeds “go back to the community,” as if that justifies the blatant exploitation and dehumanization that is occurring.

I don’t really know what we can do about this. Like I said, I don’t appreciate this, nor will I ever choose to partake in it. But, it is still an experience that is valued, an experience that looks great on essays and applications, and I would assume that most admissions committees don’t hold the same views that I do.

Volunteering in our own local communities is far more important, in my humble opinion. Why should we be offering our services to foreign countries when in our own home, in the GTA, we have severe problems concerning poverty, homelessness, human trafficking, etc? It doesn’t make sense to me. Who are we to assume that our system, the way that we manage our communities and government, is more functional — the most functional, globally — and that any other method is obviously inferior? We are not perfect. Our system is far from perfect.

Yet for some reason, we continue to show up, often uninvited, and promise to “help.” Perhaps we should take a step back, and think about what “helping” really means, and why we are so desperate to “help” people who are not asking for it, while ignoring the hundreds of thousands of individuals crying out for help on our own soil — or better yet, blaming them for their situations, as if they brought it upon themselves.

Besides that, Voluntourism in of itself is detrimental; the local community is being hurt by the volunteers performing tasks that would otherwise be paid jobs. The amount of money that it costs, to fly individuals from the West, train them, house them, feed them, is ridiculous. This money would be far better spent educating locals and allowing them to complete the work that these volunteers would be doing. Not only that, both the skill acquisition and wages would be beneficial to the local community members.

The truth is, I don’t have a solution. I wish I did. I truly believe that Voluntourism does more harm than good, though, and hope more people begin to think critically about what we have been taught regarding Developing Countries, who operationalized the terms “Developed” and “Developing,” and the factors that have led to the discrepancies in “Development” in the first place.

without wax,
v.d.

One thought on “A note on Voluntourism (Yeah, it’s a word)

  1. Wow, many good points. I understand what you mean. I also never thought about this action specifically. I have been thinking about how people donate to charities that are across the world and to places they haven’t even seen before. I wonder what could that money have done for their community. Giving locally helps not only families and individuals in need, but possibly the donor and their loved ones. Many people don’t know about what is going on in their own cities, let alone their country, and the information is available, but many choose to deny and ignore the issues. Maybe it’s too hard to use their energy to learn or they are scared. But there’s no excuse. I’m really glad you are aware and are speaking out about this. I think it’s rare, but there are others out there.

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