Voluntourism: Feel-Good Imperialism for the 21st century?

by / 0 Comments / 648 View / February 5, 2015

We were a group of twelve girls, aged thirteen to seventeen, lifting adobe bricks and hauling wood, trying to build something that resembled a room in the midst of the Andes. We didn’t have any construction skills, we didn’t speak Spanish, and we didn’t know much about Peruvian culture. We had no idea what we were doing.

That summer, I spent two weeks in Cusco, Peru on a trip organized through a volunteer abroad program outlet geared towards high schoolers. I signed up because I wanted to go to Peru and hike the Inca trail. Volunteer work seemed a necessary expense to pay. Before I knew it, I was in the Andes, with a two-week deadline to build a kitchen for a local school. We couldn’t finish our task in time and on the last day; members of the Andean village, we were volunteering in, came out to help us finish the work we were supposed to be doing for them. I received community service hours for that trip in the form of a certificate, I was praised for being so selfless, and I was repeatedly told that I had a “big heart.” All of this recognition for a project I failed to complete and hadn’t even wanted in the first place.

In recent years, the modern phenomenon of “voluntourism,” or volunteer tourism, has grown considerably. Currently, thousands of young Americans are planning their upcoming summers, signing up for trips organized through voluntourism program outlets. Each year, these voluntourists rush to spend some of their own money to travel to third world countries to dedicate their time volunteering for others. However, in both specialized circles and the popular press, this trend has been increasingly met with skepticism. Many have questioned the effectiveness of this new trend, andin my experiences I have seen its ineffectiveness firsthand.

One aspect of voluntourism that initially was unapparent to me, is the race dynamics perpetuated by the industry. Most voluntourists are white, and voluntourism has been consistently criticized for its reinforcement of the “White Savior Complex.” The trend of voluntourism perpetuates the false idea that white people can and should “save” people of other races. This is a form of racism – albeit unintentional. As a thirteen-year-old girl, I was innocent in my intentions. I wanted to see the world, not perpetuate modern day colonialism.

So how do we fix this?

There are multiple aspects of the voluntourism industry that require change. One factor that needs to change is the duration of the trips. Shorter trips are not only less effective, but they also perpetuate the idea that a third world country is not worth more than just a few days of “vacation.” Longer trips, in contrast, demonstrate a long-term investment to a community’s success.

Another aspect that needs to change is the application process and requirements for participants. Depending upon the program, it is imperative that volunteers possess certain specialized skills. You wouldn’t let a thirteen-year-old girl build your kitchen in the United States, why should it be any different in Peru? Permitting unqualified volunteers to work, further demonstrates the idea that third world countries don’t deserve qualified and proper aid. By requiring volunteers to be qualified for their job, projects will be more efficient and effective, showing third world communities they are worthy of a full investment.

Thirdly, the specific kinds of volunteer projects of voluntourism trips need to be altered. Projects should be focused on providing communities with the long-lasting tools they need to succeed on their own; this means skills training, education, healthcare, and other forms of guidance. It does not mean simply finishing a community’s to-do list, painting a wall, or visiting an orphanage. Projects need to be geared towards helping communities become self sufficient and independent.

And yet with all these changes, the race issue still remains. The hope is, however, that as a result of providing the tools for a community to succeed on its own, those community members will become educated and successful and then return to help out their own communities. Rather than looking up to white teenage girl tourists, young Peruvian children will look up to people who look like them and whom they can relate to.

By requiring long trips, qualified volunteers, and specialized projects, voluntourism will no longer be a skewed ideal, resting mainly on tourism and loosely on volunteerism. An ideal voluntourism program would mirror organizations such as the Peace Corps or Doctors Without Borders; it would look more like a deep investment in a community rather than a simple vacation.

If voluntourism is to be successful in both its motives and its actions, it cannot involve tourism. Perhaps it is time to call for an end to the fad. Voluntourism has certainly done a lot of good. It has helped build schools, provide clean water, and fuel the economies of developing countries.  However, it has also perpetuated negative stereotypes and at times produced shoddy work, this must be ended. There are ways of volunteering that don’t cause this same damage, and those ways don’t involve tourism. Tourism is fine. Volunteering under certain circumstances is fine. But when the two are mixed, problems inevitably arise. It is time to call an end to this trend.