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The voluntourism assault: stop making this about your righteousness

The voluntourism assault: stop making this about your righteousness

A version of this post originally appeared at the Everyday Ambassador.

If you are interested or connected to the arenas of international development, travel, or service work, you are probably aware of the hackneyed mantras of volunteering abroad and “making a difference.” Subsequently you may have know the fad of blogging about the evils of voluntourism—the opprobrious title applied by those who know better to shallow and selfish “service work.”

But, post-volunteerist writers only scratch the surface of long-extant questions. They’ve portrayed an oversimplified version of Good and Evil social engagement and staked out an uncontestable moral high ground. Disagreeing with them means outing yourself as unworldly, callow, or—yes, trump card!—imperial.

Most problematic is not that these articles tirelessly present some ribbon-tied, bite-size anecdote: “I used to be young and ignorant and look how I’ve changed!” It is that they are so ridiculously sanctimonious. They don’t see that the High Road they insist on taking leads away from the students they’re hoping to reach.

What they usually fail to mention is that the further immersed you get, the less certain your motivation and moral convictions become. And, the more doubt and prospect of futility wrack your mind. When I was 18, I couldn’t spell insolvency—never mind know what it was—but if I hadn’t traveled abroad prior to going to college, I never would have made it such a focus of my studies.

Even after studying abroad and graduating, I was clueless.

I went to Asia for the first time and trekked and studied and made local friends and volunteered. And even then, I was clueless.

Then I got a graduate degree and taught for a student travel organisation, working and studying across the world. And even then, I was clueless.

And now I’ve been living in Asia for 18 months, am conversational in the local language, have good contacts, spend 60 hours a week providing a desired and necessary service, and even now, I am still virtually clueless.

Anti-voluntourists cut off dialogue with students and short-circuit a learning process—as if the goals and means were perfectly obvious.

My personal experience as a student travel leader has made me wary of this rhetoric. A preoccupation with controlling students’ behaviour can manifest in a disdain for critical learning and resentment for students who don’t fit your criteria.

New travelers should be allowed to forge their own path—just as we were—and not be written off because they are not yet doctors or engineers with highly applicable skill sets. Are we expecting full-grown Mohammad Yunuses to emerge from third period Algebra?

Pre-sunrise at Angor Wat. Cliche? Yes. Awesome? Yes.

In the surfeit of articles deriding voluntourism there is a dearth of better suggestions. It’s almost as if everyone wants the cargo-shorts wearing, camera-clickers to stay home—reminiscent of how we denigrate places for being touristy because other tourists remind us that we are too. Nothing shatters our pride faster than seeing another dweeb as obtrusive as we are!

But what’s the alternative—for these inquisitive young thinkers to stay home because they’re not yet qualified? (And if that happens, we won’t get them back when they are qualified). Is the only alternative to being a voluntourist simply not go at all? Wouldn’t we then complain that the youth are uncultured and ignorant on global issues?

If you are never a Level 1 Tourist, you never move on to Level 2. How can anyone criticize these kids when we were there not too long ago and—let’s face it world savers—might still be there today.

A realistic alternative to the reflections of the anti-voluntourists is a critical approach that places further resources and responsibility in the hands of our students, and the best example of an organisation that embodies this pedagogy is Thinking Beyond Borders.

This innovative organisation not only engages deeply with issues and approaches international development humbly, it understands that personal development takes time and you can only meet students where they are. A core principal of the program is that everyone comes willing to learn and in an environment of humility and inquiry, students are far more open to questioning and improving their own assumptions and habits.

And still, we stood out in front of the Taj Mahal, making peace signs and taking pictures. Who didn’t their first time there?

When we as leaders are more concerned with acknowledging faults than creating a dialogue about why there’s dissonance, we miss valuable opportunities for improvement—both for the students and ourselves. Whether you want to reference Plato’s Cave or Santideva’s description of the Boddhisattva ideal, the point is the same: seeing through the illusions isn’t the vocation of teachers or scholars—returning to the cave, reseeing the misperceptions, and working with others as we collectively retrace and redefine our awareness is the essence of education.

We all need to see more accurately the situations we encounter and our impact on our hosts. From a wider perspective, I agree with many of the observations and rebukes of the anti-voluntourists and would probably take them even further, but I can’t understand the usefulness of an opinion that impairs rather than incites students’ desire to participate in their own education.

When applying our justifiably strict codes of conduct to working abroad, let’s start with ourselves and not those looking to us for leadership: It’s important to remember that we were once students and we still are—or at least we should be.

Andrew Frankel spent a few years in student travel, primarily with Thinking Beyond Borders, but then decided that snorkeling in South East Asia or trekking in Africa wasn’t nearly as exciting as working in remote Western China, where he currently lives, running a language and community development program at a minorities high school.

Featured image is students trekking to Machu Picchu. Photo from Everyday Ambassador.

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4 thoughts on “The voluntourism assault: stop making this about your righteousness

  1. I think the tourist vs “traveler” as an analogy for voluntourist vs aid worker is a false comparison. What does all this anecdotes about photos being taken in front of the Taj Mahal have to do with the debate against voluntourism? No one is advocating students shouldn’t visit land marks, they are advocating that untrained volunteers shouldn’t be trying to do development work. I work in development, and I travel, but I don’t care if people want to be cheesy tourists with selfie sticks and cargo pants. That has nothing to do with not wanting people to be untrained, short term volunteers. No one is asking students to stay home – we’re asking them not to volunteer abroad. The program “Where There Be Dragons” takes students on immersive travel/study abroad experiences sans volunteering and I think that’s great! So, a better analogy for this debate would be “person who took a First Aid course” vs “a doctor who graduated from medical school”. There are times when the former is useful, but those are limited. I think confusing not wanting untrained volunteers with distaste for tourists is problematic and unhelpful. The first is based on practicality and efficient use of resources (untrained workers are a problem!) and the second on personal preference and emotion (tourists make me late for work!).

  2. LOKI

    there are two issues here: (1) what skill can you actually contribute, (2) using volunteering as a way to avoid “being a tourist” is flawed. tourism is consumptive, from which stems a lot of cynicism about “tourists”, but there is an established framework to participate in this kind of travel. on the other hand, short stint volunteering gives the illusion there is engagement, but it is actually still consumptive, only it is experiential, and without parameters and regulation, which can have just as many negative impacts as unsustainable tourism. i’d go on to say that in many cases, spending in the local economy what you would have spent sustaining yourself as a volunteer can be far more beneficial for the community – even better, contribute what would have been spent as a volunteer to operational costs and staffing to NGOs. but for a young volunteer, this doesn’t give them what they’re after – an experience.

    traveling when you are young can be a transformative experience, especially in countries of extreme disadvantage. development is already complicated business, difficult to coordinate, and can sometimes be ineffective. to expect these places to facilitate the learning experience of privileged young people is self-indulgent. and having had these conversations with local development professionals in two countries now, their criticism has been consistent about this culture of voluntourism. i am a big proponent of 20somethings taking a year to work abroad (i think australia’s ayad programme is fantastic)… but only if they can contribute, because even those who can contribute find their contributions can be limited.

    the alternative really is – gain some skills and quals, and then go. that’s a viable alternative, and i think it’s a reach to assume young people somehow need this kind of experience to be globally aware, because that’s just untrue.

  3. I think you raise a good point by comparing this issue to the whole travelers vs. tourists debate – as if one is better than the other. Perhaps it would help if we made a shift from thinking of ourselves as voluntourists to thinking of ourselves as global citizens. Because with global citizenship comes the realization that there is no us vs. them or our problems vs. their problems. Instead, the needs of locals both at home and abroad affect all of us on a human level, and because of that, we all have a responsibility to help our fellow human beings. Also, when issues hit closer to home, I think it’s easier for us to get off of our high horses, or alternatively, to stop being complacent, and tackle those issues on a more human level. That’s why I think anyone who has a desire to volunteer abroad should make it a priority to first volunteer at home – wherever home may be.

  4. Many thanks for writing this blog post on a side of “voluntourism” which I think has been ignored in a lot of recent pieces about it. I completely agree with you when it comes to young people, university students, etc. and with the fact that volunteering abroad (or any time spent abroad) is the way that a lot of people decide to go into development/human rights/etc.

    That being said, the “voluntourism assault” as you call it isn’t just against volunteer trips by youth – it’s also against volunteer trips by adults. For example, here in Cambodia, there are plenty of fully grown adults that go “visit” and “volunteer” in orphanages for 2-3 days in between visits to the Killing Fields and Angkor Wat. The concern – and the outrage I would say – is that a 40 year old who has 2 kids at home should know better.

    Moreover, I think a lot of the criticism of volunteerism is also aimed at the companies that provide these short-term and often harmful volunteer opportunities. Many of them make big profits by charging people high fees for being placed with organizations – personally, I think there’s an inherent problem when you pay to volunteer. Plus, these companies could very well make sure that volunteer placements are meaningful and design programs that don’t have negative repercussions on the communities the volunteers are meant to help. That would certainly, in my opinion, help address a lot of criticisms of voluntourism.

    So to recap, I think maybe the problem here is that the debate on “voluntourism” may be mixing together too many different types of experiences (youth vs. adult, 2-3 days vs. 2-3 months, etc) in a way that’s perhaps not helpful!

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