Voluntourism. A concept which once returned zero search results on Google and now receives over 300,000. The rapid commercialisation of voluntourism has made it a sector that is increasingly contentious. Its capital growth into a $2.6 billion industry is accompanied by considerable power and influence within a global neoliberal context. The 'Gap Year', one of the more popular and familiar categories of voluntourism, is now institutionalised in British culture. UCAS even promote the benefits of referencing such activities to win bonus points in applications to higher education. Despite the gap year being a primary option for many young people in the Global North who are debating their future, the inherently political nature of travelling abroad to help the ‘Other’ remains largely unquestioned and the mainstream discourse surrounding this phenomenon is often naive and uncritical. The notion of exploring another country, which one regards as substantially different to ‘home’, with the motive of engaging with the native population is heavily rooted in an imperial discourse. The West’s colonial history facilitates voluntourism as an accepted practise and seeks to legitimise it. Respected government bodies endorse these programmes under the guise of; ‘service learning’ or ‘active global citizenship’, depoliticising what is fundamentally political. More recently, volunteer travel opportunities are conceptualised as a means of alternative development, distinct from “orthodox” development, with which we associate top-down planning and conditional loan agreements - often disadvantaging underdeveloped countries further. Yet, voluntourism is not so different, in its typical form, it vows to transform students into supposed development workers overnight, putting them in positions of expertise regardless of whether they actually possess the skills or experience necessary to complete their ‘task’. And so, voluntourism is a practise which demands interrogation and scrutiny and it is inalienable from a historical, political and cultural context.
Of the many issues associated with this seemingly harmful practise, one of the more significant originates in how it is sold and discussed. It relies on a neocolonial narrative, the depiction of poverty in a manner that has the tendency to ignore structure and agency of the poor. The ‘Other’ is explicitly constructed using notions of neediness and dependency which validates the the desire of Western volunteers to help. ‘Poverty pornography’ is integral to understanding the connection which has been constructed between deprivation and the third world, a proliferation of images which spread like wildfire across popular media where the subject is often a starving child, pictured in an impoverished context somewhere in the global South. NGOs and commercial voluntourism operators publish these images (across their websites, social media) in order to sell their specific trip or programme abroad, drawing in those with humanitarian tendencies. Aside from these pictures being designed or staged in a way that removes agency from the subject, there is something inherently wrong about using an unknowing child (or any vulnerable person’s) picture to market your organisation’s product and inevitably profit directly from this action. Let alone the uncomfortable treatment of those living in poverty as though they are animals to be looked at in a zoo. Yet, there are further consequences. Whilst poverty obviously differs from country to country, ‘real poverty’ is only associated with locations outside of the West. Gap year students when interviewed have failed to find any similarity between deprivation at home and deprivation elsewhere, instead they are deemed fundamentally different. It is this ignorance that leads volunteers to believe the only place they can have an impact is somewhere distinct from their own nation.
More and more people are becoming acquainted with the concept of White Saviour syndrome today - which is positive, it means that eventually people might avoid uploading pictures of themselves with anonymous poor children to their Facebook and Tinder profiles as a means to enlarge their social circles. However, the CV-boosting attributes of voluntourism (using another person’s poverty to promote yourself to an employer) remain unquestioned. And so, we have to ask, who is really being helped here; the rural village in the Dominican Republic being graced with your presence for 3 weeks, or you, having just secured a graduate job?
In order to heighten the appeal of gap year volunteering programmes, many (if not all) of the organisations that offer them explicitly state that no qualifications or experience are necessary to participation. Whilst it can seem self-defeating that a volunteer is required to have an extensive list of qualifications, this seems a more than reasonable necessity when we consider the roles that volunteers are adopting; teachers, construction workers, financial advisors to microfinance recipients. Are we deluded enough to believe that individuals who have just completed school are capable of delivering on goals that they have never grappled with prior to this project? Therefore, voluntourism is a phenomenon that permits young people to experiment with possible jobs and careers in a part of the world where the consequences of experimenting are considered to matter less. This demonstrates an inherent duplicity, evident when one struggles to imagine a situation in Western Europe or the US in which an unqualified volunteer from Tanzania is granted entry to a primary school to teach children their ABCs for the third time in a few weeks.
This is just a select few of the underlying issues which can be raised with voluntourism. On surveying the literature that surrounds the topic, it is clear that a saturation point has been reached, with few emerging conclusions other than those problematising aspects of the industry. There has been a clear recognition from the sector that voluntourism is a dirty word and some suggestion that efforts are being made to change this. Whether or not any substance exists to bolster these responses, or if it is mere rhetoric, is to be debated. In regards to whether change is sufficient in adapting voluntourism to ethical standards, one might question if it can ever be truly ethical for as long as it continues to be conceptualised as a development tool, and thus continues to elevate the status of unskilled volunteers to the level of ‘development worker’. Abandoning this notion, separating volunteering and tourism, reconceptualising it as a cultural exchange instead of a do-gooding exercise could be better solutions. Increasingly, voluntourism is being included as a topic at conferences and summits, a strong indicator of the rapid shift to cautionary platforms and a showcase of best practise examples. VSO is an organisation that has been increasingly outspoken on the negatives of voluntourism, seeking to demonstrate what responsible volunteer travel can look like. The most in-depth account of this illustrated in the recently published Global Standard for Volunteering in Development. They demonstrate a veering away from the standardised, benevolent development narrative popular among many voluntourism organisations, swapped for a realistic account of contributions instead. Recognition of the voluntourism problem has gained popular traction on a variety of social media platforms too, such as #EndHumanitarianDouchery, @BarbieSavior, #TinderHumanitarians, offering hope that individuals (outside of the sector) are beginning to question the implications of these activities. Perhaps a more significant, promising progression was the banning of Orphanage Tourism by the Australian Government, recognising that around 57% of Universities were offering orphanage placements, thereby fuelling a toxic industry. A range of other prominent organisations have endorsed the ban: ABTA, VSO, resulting in the creation of an Orphanage Tourism Task Force which compiles Tui, Intrepid, Exodus, ProjectsAbroad as other notable members. Perhaps all hope is not lost and this signifies the beginning of further change?
Without wanting to preach, there is an opportunity (while this topic is in the popular sphere) for education to take place. Schools and colleges are slowly waking up to their responsibility to guide students in their choices beyond compulsory education, and how to ensure that these are ethical. Naturally, many people desire to travel around regions and countries which are unfamiliar to them, and this is OKAY. There does not always have to be an outwardly altruistic dimension to such trips, we should be reminded that travelling in itself entails significant economic benefits for recipient nations. Finally, when did volunteering at home become such an unappealing choice? What better opportunity for fulfilment than helping the less fortunate members of our own communities.
Freya Fleming is a 20 year old student at the University of Warwick studying Politics and International Relations. Freya sits on Spirit of 2012’s Youth Advisory Panel and is interested in community challenges, gender issues and international development.