We’ve all heard the same old story of that one guy who on his ‘gap yar’ went abroad to some ‘impoverished’ country (probably in Africa) to volunteer their services by building a school or something of the sort. They posted a hundred photos on Instagram of themselves crowded with smiling children who are so grateful for the school being built for them. Whilst there, they probably went on a safari or spent some time seeing the sights, all paid for by ‘mummy and daddy’. This falls into the unfortunate category of ‘voluntourism’.
Voluntourism is essentially an expensive holiday with some volunteering chucked on the end so that (white) people can visit these countries with a clear conscience that they have helped elevate the people in some way.
“Companies running these trips often have little desire to create long term development”
However, projects like these tend to do more bad than good for many reasons. Firstly, the volunteers going out there on a construction project are very unlikely to have any experience in construction or any specific skills that mean that they are more suited to build a school than the local unemployed youth that are already there. In reality, this means that the volunteers are taking job opportunities out of the hands of the people they are supposedly helping.
Secondly these projects perpetuate the idea of the ‘white saviour’ coming in to provide education and facilities. This is all well and good in the idea that, for now, the children have somewhere to go to school. But this means that local leaders and government aren’t expected to provide facilities for the people in their area. Therefore in the short term there is a new facility, but what about other issues facing the local people? What about the funds needed to sustain teachers’ salaries? The short term project doesn’t come close to touching on these issues. The local people are infantilised and viewed as needing to be provided for, instead of helped to achieve it on their own. They are more than capable of doing this but often have complex obstacles to overcome.
Thirdly the appearance of a school doesn’t deal with the possibility that children have a reason for not going to school, whether that be a need to help provide for the family, or a disinterest in education. As a result there is no long term development, only a short term change.
These are only a few points, but they can be transferred to other projects like orphanages where children are kept in poor conditions so visitors will donate more money, and English language teaching where teachers have no knowledge of the local language in the first place.
Voluntourism actually says a lot about our culture as a whole as, to a certain extent, the people in the areas visited become a consumer product. Companies running these trips often have little desire to create long term development and are, in fact, profiting from the desire in young people to travel. The perception of white people as a source of money leads to projects founded upon this principle, and leads to a stagnation in real development led by the people who know what they need and results in them being silenced.
This is also seen in the use of pictures of emaciated children during comic relief and celebrities explaining the situation in these places. It would seem more logical to have local people explaining the realities of life in these places and detailing what they need, but instead they are virtually dehumanised into an image of a starving child with no authentic voice behind them.
In order for things to change there has to be a demand. For as long as people are blind and naive they will unknowingly perpetuate a system that harms the very people they think they are helping. Their misplaced good intention falls into a system that has international repercussions which could be avoided if they thought about it slightly differently.
If they visited these countries purely as tourists and used their money to invest in the tourist industry then it would be money well spent without taking away the voice of the people. Or if they really wanted to contribute to the building of a school then invest in the local workforce or donate to a charity that does so. As a nation we are beginning to understand the importance in researching the ethics of institutions we enable but there’s still a long way to go.
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