We’re excited to announce that we’ve got a couple new writers joining us as regular contributors. Today we’re introducing Alison Rabe, who’s previously written for WhyDev on buying from street children and working in “the field.” You can look forward to monthly articles from Alison on a variety of topics, and stay tuned for introductions of other new contributors.
Voluntourism has become a booming business, inviting well-off foreigners to pay large sums of money to travel to faraway lands and “help people,” often children in orphanages – even when hosts do very little advertising and charge people thousands of dollars to participate.
How are so many drawn to provide expensive (to them) labour? The industry depends on its voluntourists to advertise for them through social media.
An Onion article accurately jokes that a six-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s Facebook profile picture.” The article quotes a fictional 22-year-old, Angela Fisher: “I don’t think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arms around those small African children’s shoulders.”
The article is not far from the truth, with 1.6 million voluntourists spending 2.5 billion USD each year and posting endless selfies while “doing good,” with hashtags like #instagrammingafrica. Social media instills in us a need to show everyone on the Internet how amazingly good and beautiful and interesting we are. Voluntourism provides lots of photo ops – easy advertising in a culture of social media addicts.
The fictional Angela Fisher goes on to encourage all her friends and family to visit Africa, “promising that it would change their Facebook profile photos as well.” As her friends scroll through the perfect filtered photos of her posing with adorable children, and the hundreds of likes and admiring compliments, Angela knows they will get the dreaded FOMO (that’s Fear of Missing Out for you oldies). And then they too must go to Africa to take those coveted selfies.
But really, I do not think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of dumping such an incredibly cold bucket of ice on my head. #IceBucketChallenge #socold #brrr
Like voluntourism, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge tapped into the deep veins of narcissism and FOMO that social media sites have nurtured in us all. For weeks, our newsfeeds were incontrovertibly consumed by videos of wet people and others complaining about wet people. Those complaining were then obliged to join in because they got “called out” – and they already had a healthy case of FOMO and would never miss out on an opportunity to post a video of themselves doing something trendy.
And somehow, millions of dollars were raised because people posted themselves all over the Internet, self-indulgent and squealing, compelled by the madness of social media that we are all slave to.
For those involved in development, the question is not whether social media is shifting marketing and advocacy, but whether we’re ready for it. I’ve worked with non-profits struggling to get followers, likes and shares, all while attempting to navigate the scary world of crowdsourcing. Traditional private fundraising trips to philanthropist brunches or other face-to-face networking events can no longer be justified when there are millions of potential donors at one’s fingertips, hungry to do something cool and exciting on social media.
Other groups have already tried to capitalize on this reality, unfortunately not very creatively thus far: there’s the rice bucket challenge, rubble bucket challenge, toilet water challenge and breast milk challenge. The ALS Association, the creator of the Ice Bucket Challenge, even made a short-lived attempt to trademark its efforts.
As other similar social media-driven campaigns continue to arise, we should remain aware of some of the valuable lessons voluntourism has already taught us – not only those on how to best capitalize on self-obsession. Just because a campaign is sexy does not mean it is useful: even the Ice Bucket Challenge has been criticized for waste. Our approach should remain community-directed, not focused on creating “catnip for narcissists,” to both protect our planet and ensure mankind’s actual needs are being addressed.
To remain relevant, we must also continue to encourage others to go beyond silly profile pictures and develop meaningful partnerships that foster mutual understanding and interconnectedness. Lasting supporters to a movement deeply consider and value their ongoing involvement, while shallow connections that foster convenient, made-for-Facebook contributions are not sustainable.
But, perhaps it is always better to do some minor good rather than no good at all, and we should take narcissism by the horns and ride it to the bank. Like voluntourism, the Ice Bucket Challenge and other crowd-sourcing campaigns allow wealthy Westerners to “do a little good, experience something . . . and have a story to tell that places them in the ranks of the kindhearted . . .” while also having the coolest profile picture on the Internet.