By Robert Huish and John Cameron
Voluntourism has been getting a bad rap lately. While the trend towards short-term volunteering in developing countries with a bit of adventure travel mixed in is the fastest-growing sector of the tourist market, its ugly underside is getting lots of attention. A blog post about the sins of voluntourism by former voluntourist Pippa Biddle, The problem with Little White Girls (and Boys), went viral in 2014. Canada's CBC Doc Zone just released a documentary Volunteers Unleashed that shows high school students conducting surgery in Tanzania, collusion with corrupt orphanage managers, and rip-offs by voluntourist businesses. Last month, two millennials in Vancouver re-kindled the debate with the launch of their website and video "End humanitarian douchery" -- which seeks to stop irresponsible volunteer practices, and the growing number of for-profit businesses which encourage them.
All of this negative attention has left many voluntourists and potential voluntourists feeling angry, betrayed and confused -- as dozens of anguished blog posts attest. The advice to "choose your volunteer placement organization carefully" isn't especially useful considering that typing "volunteer" and "Africa" into Google generates more than 100,000 hits. And suggestions that well-meaning, but inexperienced, would-be volunteers should just stay at home fail to provide options for their well-placed moral urges to "do good" in the world.
It is time to unpack the motives behind voluntourism -- on both the part of the voluntourists and the organizations and businesses that cater to them -- and then to re-think how positive motivations to help might be better channeled into more ethical actions.
Voluntourism has emerged as the apparently ideal response to growing demand for opportunities to combine humanitarian compulsions, self-fulfillment, resume-boosting and adventure into a single, slick package. Accommodations and placements are pre-planned, food is arranged, and in some voluntourism companies will even have a local SIM ready to go into your smart phone. It seems like a win-win situation, and often includes a free t-shirt.
But, perhaps the motives of self-fulfillment and altruism shouldn't be muddled together. International travel, volunteering and the learning that comes from them are important activities for youth. But combining these activities in a corporate package can undermine the value of these experiences. Travel can result in changed world views but is also largely about personal fulfillment. Engaging with other cultures, and traveling to do so, is a salient goal -- but let's not pretend that it reflects any kind of moral commitment to serving the poor.
Tourism aims to meet the needs of the traveler, but voluntourism is somehow meant to also meet the needs of vulnerable communities. Unpacking the moral impulses behind voluntourism reveals important compulsions to help other people who are in need of assistance, while at the same time as having an experience of a lifetime. The emphasis on adventure creates an ethical conundrum as to the place of the traveler in meeting the needs and impacting the lives of the marginalized.
This is why we encourage would-be voluntourists to consider what Global Citizenship really means. Universities and volunteer organizations drop the term habitually. Global citizenship involves both ethical obligations to help other people and ethical obligations to avoid causing harm and to avoid benefiting from the suffering of others.
Through our everyday roles as citizens and consumers in affluent countries, we are all seriously implicated in harming the very people that voluntourists fly half-way around the world to help. Schools and medical centres need to be built in Africa and South-East Asia, but their presence will not prevent harmful sweatshops that put clothes on our shelves, or mining practices that put rare earths into our cell phones. What's more, voluntourism does not impact trade and investment policies that undermine poverty reduction in vulnerable parts of the world.
The moral values of volunteerism should be encouraged. But it is even more important to understand and act on our ethical duties not to cause harm in the first place, or to benefit from it -- through the clothes we wear, electronics we use, food we consume and governments that we elect. Travel can help us to understand the seriousness of these connections. But the urgent work of addressing these harms needs to take place at home. It requires bright, committed, creative, energetic and compassionate people to act on the connections between our everyday lives and injustices in other parts of the world. It also requires that civil society organizations, NGOs and universities work to create more opportunities for young people to develop the skills needed to hold our governments, corporations and each other to account for our impacts on the rest of the world. So, instead of going to Africa this summer as a voluntourist, consider staying at home to be a global citizen.
Robert Huish and John Cameron (Department of International Development Studies, Dalhousie University)
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