Updated: Sep 14, 2020
By Sophia Noon
Image via wehbygracnie Pinterest
Voluntourism, as the name suggests, is the crossover between volunteering and tourism - an opportunity to travel the world while ‘doing good’. This seemingly well-intentioned trend has incited criticism for one simple reason: it is rooted in western imperialism, neocolonialism, and the white savior complex.
Houses, schools, and hospitals are built; food, medicine, and clothes are distributed and hundreds of thousands of people put in the time and effort to ‘make a difference’, so how exactly does it go wrong? The voluntourism industry sits at an estimated $173 billion dollars, and a quick Google search for ‘volunteer abroad’ opportunities elicits 124 million results in 0.52 seconds. There’s no denying that the culture is popular, especially amongst young adults in high school and college who are eager to change the world but end up doing more harm than good. The white savior complex can be defined as citizens of western countries trying to fix the problems of struggling nations or POC without understanding their history, needs, or current state of affairs. These western foreigners set out to provide solutions and quick fixes without any real knowledge of the problem itself. The fault lies partially in their complete inadequacy for the tasks they set out to accomplish, but also in the fact that two-week long mission trips offer no long term commitment and involvement - both of which are necessary to have any real impact. By presenting the adverse circumstances as a short term dystopian reality, the well-wishing white foreigners can opt-in or out as they wish, trivializing the severity of the situation. To have a group of teenagers, with no prior experience at construction sites, building schools to promote education, without doing the due diligence of acquiring staff, students, and materials, is an example of such painfully pointless ventures. The extremely artificial nature of these programs limits any capacity for viable impact or critical thought on the volunteers’ behalf.
Not only do these mission trips provide acutely unsustainable, and frankly, useless solutions to complex, systematic issues, but also, they facilitate and perpetuate patronizing and dehumanizing stereotypes that developing countries have worked tirelessly to eradicate. This is a direct result of white saviorism bleeding into social media, wherein entire communities, cultures, and countries are used as backdrops for the perfect Instagram picture. Their realities are manipulated to fit a certain aesthetic and generate pity. When this occurs, the intent behind such self-serving altruism rises to the surface; that is, these saviors pine for rapid solutions to intricate issues in order to feign moral superiority and validate their selfish desire to be seen as an upstanding member of society.
The adverse effects of aid-work of this nature are detrimental to all parties involved. It sets off and perpetuates an entire cycle of dependence by promoting the reliance mentality amongst the groups that humanitarian trips attempt to help. The ‘quick fixes’ disempower communities and evoke a sense of self-doubt and humiliation. By presenting white tourists as the only solution, it enhances the imperialist notion of desperate developing countries relying on the sheer benevolence of the West. In addition to that, commercializing poverty, among other issues, reduces the chance for real change because it ultimately paves the way for profit-centric organizations and agencies to take advantage of the poor. For example, multiple mission trip campaigns rely heavily on the ‘save the children’ ideology, inadvertently damning those they aim to protect. A Human Sciences Research Council notes the problems of ‘orphan tourism’, a branch of voluntourism, where orphanages are exploited to manipulate emotions and generate money via donations. This has ultimately led to the harmful practice of deliberately worsening living conditions for children in orphanages to extract more sympathy.
Oftentimes when these structural flaws within the voluntourism industry are highlighted, performative white allyship rears its ugly head to suggest abandoning volunteering altogether, which is not the point. True allyship should inherently be welcoming of all legitimate criticism, with the willingness to embrace the discomfort with open arms and implement change. In an increasingly xenophobic world, it is difficult to deny the value of cross-cultural engagement, but there are ways to do it right and have an actual positive impact. Before paying thousands of dollars and embarking on a 2 week trip to an island you had no idea existed until you saw it on a brochure, ask yourself: What are your true motivations? How do those aspirations align with the needs of that specific community? Do you have the necessary skills to address said needs? Have you done your due diligence regarding their lifestyle, history, and culture? You don’t have to be a force of change across continents, so maybe volunteer at a local soup kitchen. If the desire to help elsewhere persists, you can monetarily support local organizations in that area. In doing so, not only do you empower the entire community, but also stimulate the economy. Humanitarian organizations can also make an effort to work behind the same sentiment: employ local people, promote cultural sensitivity amongst volunteers, avoid misallocation of resources and immature spending by investing the money directly into the community, and send in groups of actual skilled professionals such as certified doctors, engineers, and social workers into the area.
Ultimately, we live in a world of ever-present and urgent need, where we are plagued with the internal ethical desire to be a force of positive change. But we are also responsible to ensure that said change helps instead of hurts; that it builds, not destroys; that it assists, doesn’t dominate, and that it empowers, instead of humiliates.
Written by writer Sophia Noon