The snarky jokes practically write themselves. A privileged young person, usually white and from a wealthy country, enters a materially poorer one. Maybe they’ve come with their school, or their church, or a volunteer programme they've paid to attend. Perhaps they're there to teach English; or to play with big-eyed orphans who, on the website, looked like they could use a hug, and maybe a friend.
Then come the inevitable social media posts: The startled observations about how different everything seems – the sparse grocery shelves, the barefoot women carrying water, the modest living situations; the stereotypical exhortations about how people are “poor but happy”, and how the children’s smiles light up a room; and the crowning jewel of the classic volunteer trip – the photos of the big-hearted volunteer with Black and brown children.
As I found while researching my new book “Tread Brightly: Notes on Ethical Travel”, there are generally two types of reactions to these posts. The first is full-throated support, often from people the voluntourist (i.e. people who travel to volunteer) personally knows. These well-wishers are so proud of their niece or friend for doing something so worthy, so selfless, so life-altering; for choosing to visit a “difficult place” when they could have spent their vacation at the mall or on the beach.
The second reaction is unabashed snark, often from internet strangers. There are memes like “Sceptical Third World Kid” and “Barbie Saviour”. There are sites like “Humanitarians of Tinder” that compile dating profile photos featuring nameless African children. There are satirical articles, like one in The Onion titled, “Local Villagers Just Waiting Around For American Volunteers To Leave So They Can Rebuild School Correctly.”
Voluntourists’ lack of self-awareness and perspective is seen as drifting into a toxic form of Instagrammable colonialism, often with more than a dash of well-meaning but ultimately damaging white saviourism. The meme-makers roll their eyes at the volunteers' notions of grandeur, how they seem to truly believe that they are making an indelible impact on a community during their two-week vacation; that playing with orphans for a few weeks will make a meaningful improvement to the children’s lives.
But what do these critical memes accomplish, other than smug self-satisfaction?
A growth industry
Perhaps the best evidence that the snark may not be deterring voluntourists is that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sector was growing. Many people are still seeking opportunities to visit new places and “give back”, regardless of its effectiveness or dubiousness.
Voluntourism is a largely unregulated and loosely structured “industry”. It includes some paid volunteer programmes like Habitat for Humanity, missionary groups from churches, study abroad programmes, and more. Expatriate aid professionals view the phenomenon with unease, keen to emphasise the differences in what they do. Put together, one estimate is that the voluntourism industry is worth $2 billion a year, which includes over 10 million people who participate in service-based travel. How else could this money be deployed?
Instead of mindless praise or endless mockery, a more useful approach may instead be to ask: Is there an ethical way for a young, privileged person to spend time in a poorer community? How might they channel their good intentions in genuinely useful ways?
The first step is to scale back the intended outcomes of these trips. Many voluntourism programmes promise that a two-week trip will change the volunteer’s life – and deeply impact the community they are visiting. Writes one blogger of their volunteer experience, “I loved every second I was in Sri Lanka, I loved the people, I loved the culture and I loved the difference that we made. If you get the opportunity to volunteer then I would say grab it with both hands. You will likely help and have an impact on someone’s life, but hopefully it will change you forever as well.”
In truth, a short trip cannot possibly have a lasting, deep impact on a community. The issues that volunteers are trying to “solve” – education, child welfare, housing – are far too complex, longstanding, and culturally specific to tangibly shift in a short service trip.
As they are classically structured, [voluntourism programmes] exist to offer maximal comfort to the volunteer.
To illustrate this, Claire Bennett, an educator and co-author of “Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad”, uses thought experiments. For instance, she might ask her students to identify social problems in their home communities. They will often come up with multifaceted issues like gun control and gentrification. She then asks them to imagine the following scenario: “You’re going to get students from Mongolia and they don’t speak English and they have two weeks to solve these problems.”
When participants dismiss the premise, Bennett pushes them to take it seriously. She has volunteers design a programme for the hypothetical Mongolian students, with considerations of the energy and resources that would go into hosting them. “That really provokes a sense of humility, and the sense that there is a huge amount to learn,” Bennett says.
Her approach underscores a fundamental flaw in many voluntourism programmes. As they are classically structured, they exist to offer maximal comfort to the volunteer. After all, the volunteer is the customer, not the community where the volunteer will be spending time. There is little incentive to provoke a privileged young person to stop and think a little more – to have them question whether their presence is valuable in a foreign place.
Other ways to help
If you have trouble putting together a basic IKEA bookshelf, maybe think twice before signing up to help build a house for a stranger in another country. There may be ways to channel your good intentions in ways that align with your unique skills.
It may also be that your best contribution at this moment is to pick a lane and learn about a specific topic that you find endlessly fascinating – like nutrition, housing, or early childhood education. Spend your time becoming an expert in something, so you may have an outsize impact later.
You also may not have to travel so far to "do good". Many of the issues voluntourism programmes suggest volunteers will help "solve" in a few weeks abroad are likely issues your home community faces as well. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed tremendous inequities in the world, including in wealthy communities.
Especially as travel is opening back up in the world, would-be voluntourists would be well-served to recalibrate their intentions for their next trip. Show up not with a desire to save the world, but with a desire to see other people as three-dimensional humans who happen to live different lives than you do.
And, most importantly, have the humility to recognise that your trip will likely benefit you more than the community you are visiting.
(Adapted from Sarika Bansal’s essay, Do No Harm, found in Tread Brightly: Notes on Ethical Travel.)