Voluntourism perpetuates racism and apathy

Volunteer abroad programmes aimed at young people are more concerned with their interests than those of the people they are supposed to be helping.

Many students partake in volunteering abroad, and organisations such as Volunteer Eco Students Abroad (VESA) run programmes designed for and marketed toward young people. Often, the marketing of the experience, as well as the experience itself, can be problematic and misrepresent the interests of local peoples, prioritising the wants of the student instead.


Earlier this month, lectures commenced with an announcement by VESA, whose work allows one to change their life “by changing someone else’s”. Participants on their various summer trips are advertised to have the opportunity to “teach children english, provide a village with access to fresh water and sanitation, restore a primary school and conduct vital conservation.”


The subsequent paragraph goes on to describe how prospective volunteers spend the second week of two “on the adventure tour of a lifetime,” either island hopping or white water rafting in tropical paradise. Or, as the VESA representative boasted, one could have a “week of fun” going on safaris in Africa (simply “Africa”), where she reminded students Lion King was set.  Seemingly, the only way one could relate to people that live across the entire African continent is through emotional connections with animated animals speaking in American accents.


A preliminary criticism of the problems presented by this narrative is that “Africa”, along with other continents and regions, are homogeneous areas comprised of uniform countries and landscapes – a reductionist and racist belief.


At first glance, these depictions, in perpetuating such notions about the continent and thereby reinforcing existing political, social and economic hierarchies between the global North and South, ultimately reverse any help carried out in their projects.


More insidiously, the projects at the heart of VESA, a form of tourism known as voluntourism, are riddled with problems more damaging than any stereotype employed by the organisations.  


This issue is not limited to VESA alone, and a criticism of it extends far beyond the individuals who wish to sign up. Rather, the aim is to criticize voluntourism as a whole and its neo-imperialist undertones, to evaluate the notion of help and to rebuke the West’s misconceived notions of global poverty and underdevelopment (which ultimately serve to create such misguided solutions). Furthermore, it is to criticise the conditions that create such organizations, whose analysis and diagnosis of inequality is surface level at best and destructive at worst.


Bottom up, local-level activism, is undoubtedly effective; it has been at the heart of many social movements throughout history. Building resistance at the local level promotes direct participation in decision making and reaps more direct benefits. What is different, then, about VESA and similar for-profit organisations’ approaches, which centre on local communities and commit to local-level work?


First and foremost, these “local people” in “remote parts of the world” are subject to a form of commodification and objectification, becoming mere props in a self-aggrandizing and self-serving act. Framed as recipients of “valuable and sustainable infrastructure” they otherwise would not receive only reinforces their perceived dependency and helplessness (and a dominance and necessity of volunteers).


VESA, unsurprisingly, devotes the bulk of its biography focusing on the volunteers, not the communities they intend to serve: “Our aim is to inspire personal growth within you, our volunteer; to harness your work ethic, positive attitude and proactive approach..the outcome will have a profound effect on your outlook of the world as you forge new friendships and acquire unique skills and perspective with regards to the wider world.”


One must ask which locals, if any, were consulted in the planning of these projects? Were the needs of the communities in question taken into consideration? Are local community leaders also contributors to VESA and does VESA facilitate conversations with said leaders before setting upon a trip? Are conversations had before or throughout the trip with volunteers to understand the political, socioeconomic and historical factors at play in breeding conditions of poverty, malnutrition, disease and unemployment?


Moreover, do these volunteers retain ties with locals and advocate for them once they’re back home? Do VESA members discuss the aftermath and legacy of their work once they’ve left and continued on for their week of fun? In fact, if such work was truly altruistic, then one may ask what point it serves to follow with a week of partying, “island hopping” and “adventure”?


One’s immediate reaction may be to argue that these activities support the country’s domestic economy, especially if largely dependent on tourism, and that arguing otherwise is more detrimental view. How could it possibly be different or worse than going on a vacation to these countries independent of a charitable group? How is either party involved worse off?


Reports find that, often, these communities do end up worse off, needing to rebuild or take down equipment once volunteers leave. As Jacob Kushner in The New York Times remarks, volunteers in Haiti had spent “thousands of dollars to fly here to do a job that Haitian bricklayers could have done far more quickly.” He goes on to add “imagine how many classrooms might have been built if they had donated that money rather than spending it to fly down themselves.”


The money poured into voluntourism, an industry worth an estimated 2 billion dollars, might be better placed funnelled directly into the national economy. This can be done by employing workers, improving health care systems and improving infrastructure.


Volunteers, however, seek an experience to add to their CV, as well as the pleasure of documenting their experience. Most people are familiar with the all-too-common profile pictures of (typically) white volunteers surrounded by black and brown children, met with supportive comments that fetishize their race and poverty. In their shortsightedness and transience, these projects and their missions are blind to the array of impacts and implications their work has.


A recent New York Time article encapsulates this dynamic best, albeit indirectly, remarking on East African countries such as Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Sudan where second-hand clothing sent by Western charities paradoxically harms their economies. The article reports that countries which sought to impose a tariff on imported clothing for the sake of promoting growth in domestic textile industries were threatened by American trade agencies to be removed from beneficial trade deals. Americans claimed the nations were “taking advantage of U.S. generosity.”


Clearly, the West cares about being charitable or sending aid when it serves them, without understanding the consequences on the recipient’s economic well-being and consequently stifling self-sufficiency, autonomy and domestic growth. Voluntourism is no exception.


As Lilla Watson so famously said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” So before students consider a trip with VESA this summer, perhaps they can evaluate their motives, understand the ramifications of their actions and choose to devote their time to meaningful activism instead – if not for their sake then for the sake of those who volunteers claim to care about.