It is a sunny Thursday afternoon. Once again, you are scrolling through your feed; a picture of young kids in an impoverished village somewhere ‘far away’, captioned: ‘Will miss these ones, these past 2 weeks have been so great! Made so many connections. #doing_my_part’. You sigh, and scroll some more.
Text: Kyriaki Mallioglou
Image: Islay Kilgannon
We know it as ‘voluntourism’, by no means a totally destructive venture, yet it can certainly turn sour when done in a hasty fashion. The most common form of ‘voluntourism’ exists as the widely known and somewhat elusive ‘gap year’. This consists of a year or longer where young people take the time to ‘find themselves’ either before or after their higher education. You may read this and say ‘Hey, that’s me’ or adversely snicker at the prospect of a gap year entirely. Regardless of affiliation, gap years exist, and money-grabbing volunteer tourism exists right along with it.
Volunteering has always been a revered profession or hobby, and for good reason. There are countless institutions and projects built from the ground up in order to genuinely help and better the lives of humans, turtles and honeybees alike. In violent and poverty stricken areas it is imperative that there is a flow of well-rested volunteers ready to take on the task of helping. Voluntourism gives youth a platform through which to join in and give something back to the world. No doubt a fulfilling and world-building endeavour. It gives young people a chance to travel and find things out for themselves. For many of the young kids joining these programmes, it will be their first exposure to extreme poverty, famine or the truly scary effects of climate change. All of which will be relayed back to their peers and in turn hopefully instigate change. Also, at the beginning of many of these programmes, training about cultural sensitivity and White saviourism takes place to keep selfie-seekers shamed enough that they do not use the experience as a stepping stool in their own societies. However, this training is not exactly followed up on and only truly self-reflective people will take it to heart. This brings me to my next points.
The volunteer gap year takes funding. Usually paid for by the volunteers themselves. Without even thinking about the transport tickets, volunteer programmes can cost anywhere from $3800-$5000. This price tag takes into account accommodation, medical needs, mental health aids and other field expenses of the volunteers. This creates an inherent wealth gap stacked against those who can afford it and those who cannot. Further enhancing this gap is the uneven spread of how charity money is used. Namely how little of the donations is invested into benefiting the projects. In our world today, more wealthy (White) people can afford to go on excursions, dubbed ‘poverty tourism’, than any other group. It is especially concerning that gap-year voluntourists are taking on teaching and building jobs when they are unskilled in the profession. The problematic imagery that comes with these adventures is what critics of these programmes base their viewpoint on: hiring a volunteer should come with proof of credentials, not just skin colour and a high school diploma. The neo-colonial White saviour practices that these programmes are propagating are eerily reminiscent of the ‘civilising’ missions of forefathers lost in the passage of time. Charity work done in this manner can always have the drawback of creating more harm than good. A bit of tact can go a long way. This idiom can only be applied to the programmes that truly create a change in the communities they are based in.
And the Ugly
People, me included, love to think of themselves as altruistic human beings. Even though time and time again, studies have proved that there is no such thing. Volunteer work can be fulfilling, but without addressing the imbalance of wellbeing and safety in the world, it becomes a cheap attempt at making oneself feel good for a while. Disembodied teaching of English for two months in an ‘African’ village does not make substantial differences in the lives of far-away children. In fact, the abrupt entrance and subsequent removal of a parental figure will create distress when it inevitably happens. It transforms the volunteer into a warped version of a coloniser wearing Toms. I do not believe that these gap-year kids are doing it on purpose, as these short-term programmes are made to create a ‘bang-for-buck’ experience. But I do believe that these people are being scammed. Scammed of their money and scammed of their dignity. This dignity is in question due to the multitude of voluntourism scandals. An example being the shelter building volunteer programmes where gap year goers build houses as a part of their NGO work. Volunteers work some hours a day, making little progress while the NGO arranges for under-paid night builders to come and fix the build. This orchestrated experience is a great example of the redundancy of these programmes. Just pay the workers and let them do the job properly. Why are NGOs indulging the pimpled faces of rich teenagers? Alright, let’s say it is impossible to fund these charities without the participation of the volunteers, the programmes could at least give these near-adults a full briefing of what goes on in these communities instead of selectively sharing bits of information and locations. More scandals can be seen in the mismanaging of donations: an example being orphanages not distributing toys to the children because if the volunteers would see them playing, they would stop donating. This was a testimony of a person speaking to Vice about her own experience with volunteering abroad, as part of an expose on the brutal realities of voluntourism. Most shockingly, she mentions that many human trafficking rings operate from such voluntourist organizations. She warned against the participation in these programmes and urged the viewers to see the money-making scam for what it is.
The showdown I propose is to hold charities and NGOs accountable for their misconduct. I ask for better sensitivity training to ensure privileged people are self-aware and act accordingly. I also call for a more efficient and fair budgeting system that puts the needs of the people they are there to help above the needs of rich, unqualified teenagers who are there for the summer. The sensitivity training needs to regularly be followed up on; connecting to individuals while volunteering for a couple of months does not stop when you leave. Once you have touched a life, you are tethered through a bond. People will remember you even if you forget them. This should be the mindset of volunteers everywhere. Once these changes happen, go volunteer. But don’t fall for scams, or even worse, dark patterns of history.