“Voluntourism” — Are We Perpetuating The White Man’s Burden?


I’ve been seeing and reading a lot of articles about how terrible “voluntourism”, or going to a developing country as a volunteer for a few weeks with a program, is. Most of the authors of these articles have spent some time abroad, either with school groups or through organizations that are specialized to take the rich to the poor, or they are students of international development, peace studies, or some similar major. The articles all talk about how we are perpetuating the “White Man’s Burden” — imposing Western civilization on their native cultures by going there. We are damaging the local economy. We are making ourselves feel better, while doing nothing of great impact. And while in certain circumstances (with certain organizations) this all can be true, I politely disagree with the idea that I should not go to the developing world, either by myself or with an organization because I don’t know absolutely everything about a place.

Because isn’t that one of the main reasons we travel? Or, at least it is for me. I would get bored going to places where I feel 100% comfortable. I like being a little out of my element, learning from the locals, figuring it out as I go. It’s definitely what drew me to volunteer through International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ); a chance to go somewhere I had never dreamed of going, and doing something that I would otherwise not do. Do I think I made a huge impact? A life-changing, earth shattering, world changing impact, from 2 weeks in Kenya? No. I’m not stupid. I know that my time there was so quick and whirlwind-y that there is almost no chance that the people I met there would remember me by name.

But, on the flip side, my brain goes “yes! you did make a life-changing impact!” Because without IVHQ and Kenya I probably wouldn’t be studying global health. I definitely wouldn’t have the (metaphorical) balls to ship myself to Bali in 3 months time completely alone for 12 weeks of research into disease and culture. I definitely wouldn’t be exactly who I am today.

One article in particular, found here, is actually pretty convincing. This awesome young woman started a summer camp for HIV+ kids in the Dominican Republic. Kudos to her, because seriously that isn’t a thing that most 20-somethings do. Or 30-somethings. But she never visits it anymore. Her argument is that these kids don’t need her to be their savior. She wants them to look up to their teacher, their parents, local members of their community who do great things to better their lives. I agree, they should be inspired by their peers, by their teachers…but why do they have to stop there? I’m not advocating for acting like a savior for the developing world, but by restricting cultures to only look internally is just going perpetuate the “otherness” that our Western culture has created. I mean, think about it in the opposite way. What if we were told to not look up to people who are trying to make where we live a better place, just because they weren’t from there?

I know it’s not the same. I know that many organizations “sell” voluntourism as a really cool travel option, especially for people my age. They are companies, really good at marketing and making money. Really, some are no different than, like, Wal-Mart. Others are truly working to change the world (but that’s an argument for a different day).  It draws you in. You get to go somewhere exotic and get a new profile picture, you have stories to tell for the rest of your life. I think international volunteers all have something in common that can’t be shared with people who haven’t been blessed with the opportunity to do so yet. It’s a feeling that I know I have, but that I can’t quite put into words. I’ve told the stories about the orphanage in Peru, the time I helped out at a clinic in Nairobi, but they weren’t there. The argument that I didn’t do something that benefitted a community, it actually sort of hurts me. I spent an afternoon at an orphanage holding a sleeping baby, nothing else. Could he be held by the other women at the orphanage? Yes, he could have. But not forever. They would have to put him down, go make food for the other children, hold another baby. My presence there for even a short time meant that that little baby could be held.

But I’m not trying to get you to feel all warm and cuddly about orphaned children (although, you definitely should). I’m just showing the flip side of the argument against voluntourism. I dont think I took away from the local economy in either instance of volunteering abroad. In general, I found that the jobs that my peers and I were doing were always volunteer jobs. Things that wouldn’t be offered compensation. I mean, I held a baby, I took notes for a doctor, helped to organize a pharmacy on a whim. Could I have done these things in Massachusetts? Yeah, I probably could have, and it would have cost me a heck of a lot less money. But, would I have done them?

As a student of global health, I know the impact of healthcare and development in the global south. I know that there are interventions that work, and more than a few that have failed miserably. Millennium Development Goals? Just google that and see how many of those have been achieved. Answer: not enough. Not nearly enough. But at the same time, you can look at Doctors Without Borders, Partners in Health, the Gate Foundation…people, who for the most part, are from Developed countries who have done great things for healthcare worldwide. While not considered voluntourism, the point I’m trying to make is that everyone has to start somewhere. I aspire to work for Partners in Health once I graduate, it would literally be a dream come true. Without my “voluntourism” opportunities, I dont think I would have the mentality to work for an organization like PIH.

A lot of the articles put a disclaimer at the end, about how if you “have a specific skill set” you should still go. I’m sorry…what exactly is included in this skill set? Do I have to be an expert carpenter do work with Habitat for Humanity? Do I have to be a world-class surgeon to do healthcare volunteering? I say no. You do not. Yeah, if you’re doing open heart surgery in Malawi you best be a surgeon, but saying that you have to fit in a special box in order to actively participate in international interventions is, excuse my French, a load of crap.

Literally everyone has a skill that is useful in some way to other people. Maybe you’re super good at music, art, or tightrope walking. I’m sure you can find a way to use your skills in a different culture. Or maybe you’re looking to develop new skills through volunteering internationally. Maybe you’re getting some experience to become the next amazing ambassador to somewhere or international policy maker.

So, whatever your stance on voluntourism, thats mine. I feel like everyone should have the opportunity to travel and volunteer, together or separately. But I choose together.