Your Voluntourism is Doing More Harm than Good

Image Source: UBC 

Image Source: UBC 

Imagine you’re a 20 year old university student from London. You see an ad about orphans in Kenya, starving and uncared for. You have a deep feeling that you are being called to help these poor children - YOU can be their saviour, the one who makes everything better. You’re seduced by the exotic destination, you’ve always wanted to go to Africa (which you probably think of as a homogenous region, rather than a continent with strikingly contrasting landscapes and countries), you want to see how the “others” live, and experience their exotic culture. So you decide to fork out £1000 to fly out and volunteer at an orphanage for one month, with weekend trips to beaches, opportunities to go out to view Maasai villages and cultural practices, ride some camels and donkeys, all while creating emotional bonds with the young children at the orphanage. A month goes by, you’ve taken your photos with little African orphans clinging to you, massive grins plastered on their faces, you’ve helped to build a water well and a few houses in the community and you’ve been enlightened by an experience that allows you to appreciate everything you have back in London. Having a sense of gratification and achievement, you pick up your bags and return to the UK, leaving behind young children who have faced abandonment far too many times in their lives, leaving behind unsustainable well and house structures, and taking with you a white saviour mentality that you have solved a massive problem in Africa.

Sound familiar? This is the classic voluntourist, who wants to combine exotic travel and adventure with doing ‘some good’ in the world. This could be reconstructing houses in Haiti, hugging orphans in Cambodia, building water wells in Uganda. Voluntourism is a search for personal gratification rather than a sustainable form of development that takes away agency from local communities and brings with it the white saviour complex. Voluntourism perpetuates the idea that the global North and its white saviours will always swoop in to solve the global South’s problems. Voluntourism enables the exploitation of local communities in order to make the white saviour feel like they’re making a massive difference in the world, when in actual fact the work they are doing is detrimental to effectuating real socioeconomic change in communities.

A recent instagram post by a young European woman who spent time volunteering in Kenya sparked rage and fury by Africans around the world. She is the epitome of the white saviour mentality. She is the embodiment of the narcissistic nature of the classic voluntourist. She exotices a young black child, exploits her in order to make her point about being a saviour, while also dehumanising the girl, making sweeping generalisations and capitalising on stereotypes for her image.

Her text writes:

“Dear child,
You inspire me. You inspire me to be the best person to everyone around me, even my enemies. Because I would never even want this for my worst enemie [sic]. The best thing I could ever dream of is to become succesful [sic], to have a big family in a big house in a beautiful country. When I asked you what your biggest dream was, you sad “to dance”... One of the most happiest moment [sic] in your life was probably when you met me and my friends and you asked me when I’m coming back. I am sorry to tell you that there is a very small chance that we are ever gonna meet each other again. In two years you are going to meet a grown up man that you have never met before, you two are going to have a child, and then if you are lucky he’s gonna stay with you, but he will probably leave you alone with your child in your small home made of mud and tree’s [sic]. You will probably sell your body to someone else to earn money for your child. I just want you to know there is hope, there is. Dreaming could be your saviour, dreaming could keep you alive. Dear child, keep safe”.

Similar uproar was sparked in response to Louise Linton’s novel In Congo’s Shadow in which she describes her horrifying gap year in Zambia, being caught in the crossfire of rebel groups and having to hide in the jungles to keep herself, “a skinny white muzungu with long angel hair”, out of danger.

Louise Linton In Congo's Shadow

She writes:

"My innocent dreams of teaching the villagers English or educating them about the world now seemed ridiculously naive. With a cheery smile, I'd waved goodbye to Dad and jumped on a plane to Africa without researching anything about its tumultuous political history or realizing that my destination — Lake Tanganyika — was just miles from war-torn Congo."
"I still sometimes feel out of place. Whenever that happens, though, I try to remember a smiling gap-toothed child with HIV whose greatest joy was to sit on my lap and drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola."

However, Zambians around the world have responded with confusion about this fictional scene she created. Zambia, after all, has never had a civil war and is one of the most peaceful countries in Africa. She talks about the “dense jungle canopy” above her, but Zambia has savanna grasslands rather than jungle. Like colonisers, she creates an image of savage Africans and helpless communities whose only hope is the white saviour who would ride in on a unicorn and solve all their problems.

The issue is that voluntourism encourages this attitude, often hindering development rather than helping it. Real development needs an understanding of the complexity of poverty in the region, and real knowledge about the culture, socioeconomic background and governance in a country. I’m not talking about international organisations that send specialists to manage programmes on the ground, or people with certain skills that are needed in these regions. I’m not talking about doctors or disaster relief workers flying out to supply provisions, food and aid in disaster zones. I’m talking about the unskilled gap year students, or people who think that they will go abroad and solve the world’s problems all while getting the chance to travel around an exotic location. I’m talking about the people that go out to build wells, houses and schools with no previous construction experience, depriving local communities of potential jobs and income. I’m talking about the students with no business experience that go out to teach entrepreneurship to local communities, when there are experienced entrepreneurs in these countries who could do the same job. I’m talking about the people that want to solve the exotic problems that are far from home, while their own communities remain rife with problems that they don’t consider worthy enough of their time. What about the housing crisis in the UK, the growing number of homeless people, the funding cuts that are leaving more people disenfranchised,  sex trafficking and slavery, domestic abuse, the refugee crisis which is all happening at our doorstep?

It’s about being the white saviour. If you become an advocate for causes at home, you can’t take a photo and plaster it on your tinder to seduce other fellow ‘good-doers’. You can’t travel around an exotic location and experience a new culture. You don’t feel like you have really achieved something and helped the other, because often the ‘other’ in your own country looks like you.

Before you become a voluntourist ask yourself these questions:

Are you really helping these communities by flying out with no experience or understanding of the culture and trying to make a change in just one month? What is the reason you want to go out and help? Is it because you feel like you have to give back to the world, or do you genuinely have a skill that will be beneficial in the community? Is this a problem you can actually contribute to from a distance without depriving local communities from much needed jobs?

So before you decide to become a voluntourist, why not dedicate your time to the problems closer to home? And if you really want to help these communities abroad, think about donating the money that you would have spent on flights, vaccinations, activities and housing and donate it to a grassroots charities like Tostan that empower local communities, use local work forces and build up communities from the bottom up, making social change a reality. Or if you feel called to go help the communities abroad directly, get yourself a real skill that would be needed. Make long-term plans to stay and carry out development programmes that put the communities first rather than prioritising the desires of a voluntourist. This is how real sustainable development will be achieved.

Article by Chanju Mwanza