I Volunteered In Africa, Here’s Why I’m Better Than You For It


I bet a lot of people got excited when they read this title and couldn’t wait to come inform the inevitably white girl writing the article that “africa isn’t a country.” You’re right, it isn’t. How original. You see, when people are trying to reach a large group of people, they often don’t make their speech hyper specific in order to include the largest audience possible — people interested in Africa in general vs. the more limited number of people who are interested in any singular country. It’s the same reason travel articles use “abroad” or “backpacking in Europe” vs. using only one country as an example.

There, I’m glad we got that out of the way.

Now we can move on to home I’m one of those evil privileged white girls that went on a voluntourism trip to Africa and posted photos about it on my Facebook and said it “changed my life.”

The thing is, it did.

And people hate this because they hate how humans work. They hate that we are selfish people at our core who would go on a voluntourism trip instead of “simply” donating money. They hate that we need to form a relationship with people in order to care in a meaningful way about what happens to them.

There’s a lot of hate on volunteering trips because the work you do isn’t super effective so the argument is that you should just send money to people who can do it more effectively and skip out on the “selfish” experience of the trip. In theory this means more money and more effective help for people in need and no one has to feel uncomfortably racist about the image of white people helping black people as if they are weak and we are the heros. But the people who say this don’t understand how humans work. I would never have done the work to get the money for this trip if there was nothing in it for me. That’s the cold, hard reality. It’s a rare person who has the bandwidth to read about a random group of people who need help among a world filled with people who need help and write a check for thousands of dollars.

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Even in the west volunteering is rarely actually beneficial to the charity. It’s about giving good customer service to the volunteers — giving them an emotionally rewarding opportunity so they connect with your cause and become a donor. This costs money — a volunteer coordinator’s salary to babysit volunteers daily and come up with tasks they can do that are fun for the volunteers and hopefully and least minimally helpful to the charity. But charities everywhere invest in volunteer programs because they are good marketing. They build an emotional attachment to the charity which means lifelong donor dollars and free word of mouth advertising. The fact is that volunteering is a selfish act because it disrupts the more efficient way a charity would operate in order to give people a feel good experience, but it’s the price you pay if you want to get someone invested in the good work you are doing.

Would the money have been more helpful than my visit? Would there be less disturbance of the place I visited? I don’t doubt it. But to act as if we are choosing between two situations and picking the best one is wrong. In my case (and the vast majority of others) it was the scenario that happened, or no help at all. You can’t expect a check from someone without giving them a good reason for it — and unfortunately a “good reason” can’t just be “we need help, trust us.” If that was a “good reason” (by which I mean a reason which results in actually compelling someone to act) this wouldn’t be a discussion, people would already be sending large amounts of money to everyone who said that. The draw for people, realistically, is the experience of actually working in these communities directly with the people they are helping. People don’t make decisions based on logic, we make decisions based on emotion. A huge driver of emotional decisions is relationships. You may not help a stranger in need (because, the amount of strangers in need is infinite) but you will probably help a friend in need (because, there are a limited number of friends and you have an emotional investment in their success).

This is why voluntourism works, not because white people are so great at going overseas and building houses and digging wells, but because it forges relationships between people with the means to help and people who need to be helped.

You forget a news story a few minutes after you watch it. A commercial with a crying orphan? There’s too much compassion fatigue for that. Direct mail campaigns? Never going to be as life changing as experiencing something first hand. For the rest of the voluntourist’s life they will be sympathetic to the cause. It’s a marketer’s dream. These are the people you hit up to say “don’t buy a plane ticket” because they don’t need one, they’ve already got the emotional buy in to write a check. But that emotional buy in doesn’t come out of thin air.

Finally, I think all this criticism of voluntourism is a bit ridiculous when the criticizers are just as guilty as the voluntourists of infantilizing poor people. Do you think these people are stupid? That they aren’t smart enough to reject “help” that has a negative net benefit to them? That they shouldn’t be allowed to make their own choices about who they allow in their country, who they allow to help them, and what is a benefit and what is harmful? We cannot disrespect their agency of choice by saying they will not or cannot make the decision they feel is best for them.

Yes voluntourism is narcissistic. Yes people get off on posting Facebook pictures of themselves afterwords. Yes there are hypothetical situations in which the money used for these trips could be better spent — the difference being voluntourism excels at getting people to pull the trigger and act. Any alternative to voluntourism needs to include a mechanism for this, or it is useless. In many ways causes and charities are a product, you have to convince people to buy it. I think of voluntourism as a marketing strategy. It would be “best” if people magically knew about it and bought it without spending any ad dollars on it.

But what does “best” really mean when it’s so unrealistic?

Doing something is better than doing nothing. Helping one teeny tiny amount is better than not helping at all — or worse — discouraging large groups of others from helping at all. If I benefited from my trip more than the people I purported to be helping, that is still a net gain of help for them. You know the expression “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”? It’s about how people don’t benefit in real life from idealism or being high and mighty about how things should work — they benefit from realistic systems like using voluntourism for the net gain of a community in need by leveraging people’s selfish nature for some money and the hope of raised awareness and increased donor money in the future. People benefit from getting their hands dirty and doing the work instead postulating morally perfect scenarios that will never work in the real world. And the end of the day I helped people. I benefitted too, sure, that’s what life is about. But this is much more than you can say about criticizing what I’ve done.

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