This blog post was originally published on WhyDev.
By Chloe Sanguinetti
Ten years ago, I signed up for a voluntourism program in Vietnam. I was 18, and I was going to help street children learn English. For a week of “work,” I paid a little over 300 euros, which covered my accommodation and food.
As I set foot in the volunteer house, it became clear that I wasn’t there for my teaching skills. The classes were completely disorganised; the children did not care about another Western girl coming to teach them how to say “red,” “yellow” and “green” or how to count to ten. The Westerner before her had done the exact same thing. And the one before, and the one before. I became so uneasy with the situation that, when I got back to Paris and resumed my normal student life, I wrote my final dissertation on the sociology of volunteering, to try to understand who volunteers and why.
After I finished my studies, I set out on a round-the-world trip for 18 months, and decided to film short-term, unskilled volunteers in different countries and question local organisations about their need for this type of volunteering. I conducted around 25 interviews with volunteers, local organisations, local people working with international volunteers and child protection organisations. All this footage then became the recently launched film The Voluntourist. The film tries as much as possible to raise awareness of this type of volunteering.
The aim is not to discourage people from helping, but rather to critically seek the best way to do it.
From what I’ve witnessed, short-term, unskilled volunteering is rarely helpful. At times, it does more harm than good (the case of orphanage volunteering is revolting) in local communities, and the film tries to point out these risks. The Voluntourist, hopefully, encourages people to keep wanting to help, but to truly think about the best way to go about it.
When people ask me about alternatives or “good” volunteering programs, I am evasive. Why should we try to help wherever we go, when it’s at risk of doing more harm than good?
But there is another dark side to voluntourism (and one much harder to capture on film), which can be found in volunteers’ perception of international development, global poverty and the communities they are trying to help. Throughout my interviews, some volunteers hinted, unconsciously of course, that it was their “duty” to help those who are less fortunate. But the way to help was never questioned. And was their help really needed in the first place? What kind of help? To do what? With what skills?
In my view, this is one of the biggest dangers of voluntourism. Westerners flood in to developing countries to “help” when, in reality, no one has asked for it. Voluntourists who have no construction skills build wells and schools, who have no teaching skills take over a class for two weeks, who haven’t had a background check work with children… Isn’t this an uncomfortable message to send to local communities? Why would we do things in developing countries we would never do at home? How incredibly patronising.
This led to a disturbing thought as I went through my footage: isn’t short-term voluntourism just an easy way to clear our conscience when confronted with the challenges that the world is facing? It seemed that the volunteers I interviewed could have had a bigger impact by staying at home and advocating for change in their own communities.
When the European Union and Australia, for example, drastically cut their budgets for international aid, wouldn’t volunteers lobbying against those cuts would have had more impact in the long run than teaching Cambodian children how to sing “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” for a week? Wouldn’t volunteering in the back offices of an organisation at home be more helpful? Or donating money to NGOs doing great development work?
But this kind of engagement takes a lot of time, motivation and commitment. And that’s where voluntourism comes in: as a quick and exciting alternative to engaging in true, long-term change.
I gave a presentation at Glasgow University a few months ago, and one of the students asked me if voluntourism isn’t another symptom of our society, where we want things straight away and don’t take the time to reflect. An interesting thought.