Is Voluntourism Selfless Or Selfish?


Every so often posts come up on my social media outlets showing some of my acquaintances posing with cute ethnic children in foreign countries. The individuals posing in these photos are often young adults engaged in what has become known as “volunteer tourism” A lot has been written on the subject, from expressions of support to scathing criticisms of the industry. The Onion recently posted an article entitled “6-Day Visit to Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Profile Picture”. I think this really hit the nail on the head as far as the central problem with volunteer tourism.

Philanthropy in itself is not a bad thing. Seeking to help others who have less than ourselves is not a bad thing either, but what I find questionable about the volunteer tourism trend is the need for individuals who partake in it to overly publicize their experiences. To me what it feels like is “look at this picture of me with this cute kid I met in Africa who I paid to visit and will never see again”. While this is obviously not everyone’s attitude who engages in the volunteer tourism, it is hard to distinguish between individuals who had the money and a few free weeks over the summer, and those who genuinely want to help others and enlarge their world view. I understand that everyone these days is hooked on social media. We can hardly eat good meals at restaurants any more without ensuring that they make it onto Instagram. What that says is “look at me I did this”, “look at me I ate this”, but is there a line crossed when posting a photo that says “look at me I visited these impoverished people”?

On a personal level, I volunteer at an urban association seeking to improve the lives of low income workers in a variety of ways including filling emergency food and clothing requests. I have been doing this for just over half a year, and it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I’ve put in hours of volunteering and have attended all of the organizations events since November of 2013. I love volunteering and being part of a community organization, because I really feel like I am helping people and making a difference. I have never felt the need to Instagram, Tweet, or Facebook a picture of the individuals that I work with.

Volunteer work is not supposed to be glamorous. It isn’t something that you should be doing just to upload new Facebook photos or put it on a resume. Sure, sharing your experiences is a totally valid thing to do, and posting photos from legitimate experiences you have had is completely fine. What is frustrating is the feeling I often get that certain trips were just a vacation. That after posting those photos you’ll say “look how cute these kids are, look at me with these cute kids” instead of, “Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and I really felt like I made strides in helping to educate some of its population during my time there. Look at these cute children who I’m teaching English to in hopes they can have a better future”.

“It’s overly harsh to say that people shouldn’t be able to share their volunteering experiences on social media, but I can’t help having the gut reaction when I see photos that these trips are superficial.”

I think volunteer tourism raises important questions about what type of people we are trying to be. Does a week spent in Africa make you a good person? It certainly doesn’t make you a bad one, but if you’re going for the wrong reasons, it doesn’t make you a good one either. One important distinction to make when discussing this topic as well is the distinction between actual volunteering and volunteer tourism. People volunteer in other countries when they go for programs that last longer than a week or a few days. Some people volunteer through their colleges or through their high schools, and spend enough time there to really connect with the people they meet. Volunteer tourism is going for around a week, and spending on average $3,000 just to observe (source) and to not really get your hands dirty with real volunteering or real teaching.

It’s overly harsh to say that people shouldn’t be able to share their volunteering experiences on social media, but I can’t help having the gut reaction when I see photos that these trips are superficial. Part of this reaction is probably due to my own experience with people who have gone abroad to volunteer just as a summer or resume filler, that come back with no increased knowledge about the world or desire to pursue more philanthropic efforts. Intent is hard to discern from social media without background information, but that’s what is important when choosing to partake in volunteer tourism programs. Are you doing it for yourself, or are you doing it to really help individuals who are not as fortunate as yourself to be able to take $3,000 “volunteer” trips? There are plenty of individuals at home in our own communities that need our help too, and despite the lack of an exotic destination, you can still help people here without the $3,000 price tag.

I don’t mean to disparage individuals that have life changing experiences and improve conditions in communities in other countries, I really do think volunteering and philanthropy are ways to make our world better. I am just tired of seeing the exploitation of children on social media for the benefit of those wealthy enough to “help” them for a week or two. Volunteering shouldn’t be an excuse for a profile picture, it should be a way to connect with other individuals and help them create better lives for themselves and their communities, whether you are doing it in the United States or abroad.