By Chloé Sanguinetti
A few weeks ago J.K Rowling picked up her phone and went on an epic twitter rant against orphanage volunteering. In 13 on-point tweets she destroyed any arguments for visiting, supporting or volunteering in orphanages. Just before her, Jacob Kushner published an assassinating article about voluntourism in Haiti; Louise Linton was shredded to pieces on Twitter for lying about her gap year volunteering in Zambia all the while Barbie Saviour was taking selfies with African children.
And just a few days ago an article was published in The Huffington Post UK in which the author calls the voluntourists ‘naïve and well-meaning’ young people who have the bad habit of viewing the communities they are visiting as ‘primitive and in need of civilising’.
All these examples are just the tip of the iceberg of the current on-going international debate about voluntourism. And in the middle of this cacophony, of these accusing fingers I found myself wondering if voluntourists were stupid. The case is clearly made that it is their naiveté, their wrong assumptions about the world that leads them to enrol in volunteering missions abroad. So is it their fault? Are they that stupid that they’ve made voluntourism the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry today?
A year ago today I launched a web documentary, which also criticises the practice of voluntourism. ‘The Voluntourist’ is a 25 minutes web documentary in which were interviewed volunteers, experts and local NGOs about the impact of voluntourism to argue that poorly arranged volunteering programs are at risk of doing more harm than good. Ever since this launch I have been invited to screen the film in universities, debate at international development forums and give public talks about the dangers of voluntourism. In most cases the audience was composed solely of past and potential volunteers. For the past year I basically feel like I’ve been having one giant conversation with voluntourists.
And not once did I think to myself that they were stupid.
Having been a voluntourist myself a few years back and still feeling guilty about my experience I relate to these young volunteers. I have shared at some point their motivations, their intentions and their ideals. And I probably still share them now.
Young millenials have been raised in a world of easily accessible and overbearing information. All over the tube in London posters claim that by sending a single text you can save a child’s life. In Sydney relentless doorknockers summon you to invest the price of your daily coffee into getting an entire village out of poverty. In Paris street-fundraisers lecture you about your new shoes, arguing that this money could have built an entire school in a developing country. So it is that easy then. With a single text, the price of my shoes or my daily coffee I can SAVE lives. Why would I not think that by giving my time and going directly to these developing countries, my impact would be even greater?
Potential voluntourists are not pushed to think critically about their engagement. Universities promote voluntourism programs, companies welcome CVs with mentions of international volunteering experience. Society in general is telling volunteers that they are doing a good thing. In this respect, how can we expect them to make educated choices and step away from voluntourism?
Most of the talks I give are hard. Telling volunteers that their good intentions have become potentially harmful is not an easy message to deliver. But never once has anyone stood up to tell me I was wrong. Not one voluntourist has challenged the idea that poorly arranged programs could be harmful. That something needed to be changed. They welcomed honesty and transparency, no matter how hard it was to hear.
The only person who has ever told me I was wrong and irresponsible for promoting a film warning against voluntourism was a PR Officer for one of the major voluntourism agencies.
In the Huffington Post article I referred to earlier, the author mentions that the misconceptions of the volunteers are ‘perpetuated, perhaps accidentally, by the companies which sell “volunteering experiences”. Accidentally? Really?
So: are voluntourists stupid? No. Pointing the finger at young uneducated volunteers is too easy and only scrapes the surface of a bigger problem. Big voluntourism agencies such as Projects Abroad are guilty of profiting from the good intentions of volunteers, and their marketing strategies are far from being accidental. We, as a society, still view the developing world as helpless and in need of saving. We still value and praise the act of ‘helping’ without actually questioning if we are truly helpful. In my opinion voluntourists are pushed into thinking that they should volunteer, that it is beneficial: to them and to the local communities.
Maybe we should all start collectively educating ourselves about voluntourism; about our impact and the way we see the world. The debate about voluntourism is picking up pace. That’s great and it needs to keep going, but this debate needs to consider every single aspect of the problem rather than blaming it all on the voluntourists.