Zoe Kovacs | contributing officer
From celebrities to Facebook friends, we’ve all seen the photos — an American standing among a dozen impoverished, shoddily-dressed children in some “third world” country, a half-assembled pile of bricks on the ground, the beginning of a school. It’s the mark of a Good Person. They’ve own so many miles and sacrificed so many luxuries to save the poor. Disregard the dozens of local service efforts happening less than a half hour drive away from their home — this is the real stuff.
“Voluntourism” is the phenomenon, particularly among young people, where individuals travel to far off, underprivileged countries to help complete a service project. On the surface, it might seem ludicrous to criticize service efforts, but at its core, voluntourism
is about the volunteers, not the local community. Oftentimes it is an excuse for traveling and having a “life-changing experience,” not to mention a shiny badge for a resume. A group of relatively wealthy Americans entering a foreign space to “save” the locals not only paints the all too common White Savior image, but can also take away from the very community they aim to help. Indeed, because voluntourism reinforces existing inequalities and has the capacity to create dependency, it has been likened to a new form of colonialism.
In many cases, foreign volunteers are not needed. Flying in a group of students to build a school, for example, is not only unwarranted but counterintuitive. It’s unlikely that something built by people with no construction skills will amount to a sturdy, safe building. More importantly, it is absurd to suggest that there is no one among the local community capable of doing that job. Of course, if a community is trying to build a gravitational water supply system, they will need someone with expertise on how to do that. Maybe in that case, flying a group of engineers to finish that process isn’t so bad — but even then, there might be engineers living in the area who are perfectly capable of the job. Too often voluntourism puts unequipped foreigners in spaces where their aid is unnecessary and intrusive, as expressed in one case by South African locals who received unwanted “aid” from foreign volunteers. It also deprives communities of the economic benefits that would result from local workers completing the job, and at worst can create dependency on foreign aid.
Voluntourism treats developing communities like learning experiences. A group of college students goes to a poor area in a third-world country, they use outdoor plumbing for a few days, they return home gushing with how aware they now are of their privilege. Not only is it immoral to learn about one’s privilege at the expense of impoverished populations, but too o en the “life-changingness” is nothing more than a wakeup call with no payoff. If the volunteers don’t go home and make efforts to change the conditions that were so shocking to them, their epiphanies are useless.
It is not wrong to want to learn about and experience other cultures. It is not wrong, either, to want to help others. But perhaps before we hop on a plane to a different continent, it’s worth considering who we’re really going for, and whether our contributions will be positive in the long run. In reality, while volunteering abroad might at best have short-lived positive effects, if we want to cause any real change, we should focus our efforts on the harmful and unequal global economic systems that allow the impoverished conditions of the Third World to arise in the first place. ◆
Zoe is a sophomore studying English and classics. She loves watching foreign documentaries in her spare time.