Voluntourism has become big business. People want to feel good about themselves and their holidays; besides, the so-called humanitarian work shows off well on CVs.
Richard Stupard writes on CNNgo: “Whether it’s spending time at an orphanage in Cambodia, or helping build houses in Haiti, ethical tourism, or voluntourism, seems pretty morally unambiguous.” Just to realize that, actually, the whole story is more complicated.
Stupard gives us a very illustrative example: “In the case of orphanage tours to places like Siem Reap in Cambodia, the presence of wealthy foreigners wanting to play with parentless kids has actually had the perverse effect of creating a market for orphans in the town.“ Now, the children aren’t actually orphans: their parents just bring them to the places for the day so the tourists have somebody to play with. Since the organizations are not doing background checks on the tourists, these practices can “have terrible potential consequences to those being volunteered upon.“
Another often forgotten aspect is the fact that building schools in communities – or let’s say bringing them second-hand clothes from home – can actually destroy their economy. The whole idea can therefore do more harm than good. There are obviously differences and questions like “Are building materials and technical skills sourced locally to benefit merchants and artisans in the community, or are they simply shipped in from outside?“ are crucial to differentiate.
Many helping projects do not ask the communities for their opinion or for what they really need. That is when we end up with solar-powered ovens in areas where nobody bakes bread or cookies, and the ovens will never be used.
Another really important point is nicely put by Stupard: “The view — that development needs can be packaged as a tour opportunity and sold for profit — augurs a race to the bottom in ethical behavior.“ We end up with projects which have as only objective to make the Westerners feel good about themselves. “Flexible service projects that allow wealthy tourists to see the locals smile in exchange for minimal hard work are catnip for traveling narcissists. They are also a product that sells predictably well. Real development be damned.“
Besides, what underlies this kind of tourism in the end is a hierarchical and racist view of the world. We – the developed westerners – can go there and do some helping, because they – the underdeveloped African, South East Asians – really need our help (and it doesn’t matter if we have never built a school or done anything with our bare hands, we can still do it better than them).
Finally, we should be true to ourselves about the why. “The experience of volunteering is not a one-way street entirely focused on the experience of the recipients to the exclusion of all else.” If we go help somewhere else, we firstly and mainly help ourselves (and have fun and adventures, etc).
If you are totally depressed about the whole idea now, I’m sorry. Let’s go back to Stupard’s words: “Nevertheless, there is a world of difference between ill-considered decisions taken for the purpose of stroking a traveler’s ego, and subjective decisions to volunteer after properly considering as much of the moral and practical detail of your engagement as possible.”