Is voluntourism worthwhile?

Is it worth it to volunteer where there isn’t a sustainable social, political, or environmental impact? I think of those stories of Habitat for Humanity where volunteers think they build a house during the day only to have their crappy work torn down and redone later.

Sincerely,
Wants To Fix The World

Thank you, so much, WTFTW, for giving my first one-word answer to a question of the week:

Nope.

Okay, now to go into a bit more detail: The voluntourism impulse is an awesome one. It means that people don’t just want to take from the places they visit, but to give back as well. It’s akin to helping with the dishes when you’ve eaten dinner at a friend’s house. It’s all that’s right about humankind.

Which is why it’s really depressing that it’s usually a waste of time.

The story I believe you’re referring to is from this excellent article by Pippa Biddle, which is worth giving a read. She talks about a voluntourism trip she took in high school to Tanzania, which cost $3000 a pop:

“Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.”

What Biddle concludes is that the problem wasn’t that a library wasn’t needed, it was that she simply wasn’t the one to do it. This is the case with many voluntourism trips: they exist more to give the volunteers the endorphin rush humans get when doing something nice for someone else than they do to actually help. The presence of unskilled volunteers may, in some cases, actually be more of a hindrance than a help.

But sometimes voluntourism is more insidious. The popularity of supporting Cambodian orphanages among western tourists has actually fueled a market for orphans. There are the reports of voluntourists actually taking jobs from better-qualified locals. And for many locals, voluntourism looks more like an expiation of colonial guilt than a good-hearted act of service. In his book Travel as a Political Act, travel industry titan Rick Steves points out the name that Salvadorans have for Americans who come to visit and express solidarity, only to return home a few days later feeling self-satisfied: “round-trip revolutionaries.”

Just this week, Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez, founder of Latina Rebels, made an extremely strong case against voluntourism. Rodriguez was born in poverty in Nicaragua, and vividly remembers the many visiting westerners. She remembers them as good people, but:

They really wanted us to like them, because they loved us — indiscriminately. It was the sort of love where they did not get our mailing addresses or phone numbers, because it was not about becoming lifelong friends. They loved being around me, it was something about my poverty, brownness, and how they felt like they were saving me. They loved that feeling.

She continues:

I do not have fond memories of the Beckys and Chads who came to my country and took pictures with me so that they could hang the photos in their dorm rooms and go on with their lives.

Those same Beckys did not stand up against Trump’s xenophobic agenda. The Chads stayed silent during that Cinco de Mayo party that their roommates hosted, perpetuating problematic stereotypes about ALL Latinxs. The Beckys know that NAFTA and CAFTA rulings keep kids like me in poverty, but still shop at stores known for using slave labor and sweatshops.

Those Chads and Beckys have never done anything for me.

As a white person from America, this can sound harsh. (It may also paint white voluntourists with too broad a brush — I have no doubt that some Chads and Beckys have spoken out against Trump, NAFTA, and CAFTA, but that’s kind of beside the point — the statement is, as the philosopher Ken Wilber says, “true but partial,” and the truth deserves as much attention as the nuance it misses.) But it’s worth noting that, especially in Central and South American countries, our country has played a pretty significant role in supporting horrible, genocidal dictatorships in the name of protecting “American business interests.” These dictatorships have frequently taken the place of legitimate left-leaning democracies.

It doesn’t matter if you agree with this assessment of the history of US colonialism in the western hemisphere or not: it’s a fairly widely-held perception in the rest of the Americas (and in parts of the Middle East as well). And in that view of the world, an American paying thousands of dollars to come down for a weekend so he can build a library, feel good about himself, and then return to his affluence, seems like an inadequate form of repentance.

So… should you participate in voluntourism at all?

My suggestion is a gentle no, with a set of clarifications:

  1.  If you have a set of skills that could be effectively utilized in your destination, absolutely go. Have a medical degree? Join Doctors Without Borders and go do some good. Can you do some consulting work with local NGOs, or provide training that may be desperately needed? Please, go.
  2. “Voluntourism” and “volunteering” are not the same thing. If you’re really committing to a project — and not just rolling a pre-packaged project into a vacation — then what I’m saying doesn’t apply. Looking at you, JETs, TEFLs, and Peace Corpsers.

Personally, I think the better thing to do when going abroad is to simply listen to the stories, the history, and the culture of the people that you’re visiting. You should not assume to have answers to a society’s problems after a weekend visit. You don’t. Instead, listen, read, and learn. If you want to help as efficiently and effectively as possible, donate money to people who are already in place to help, and then work on making yoursociety a better place. A more humane America would help make a more humane world.

Still want to try voluntourism?

If you do want to participate in voluntourism, my Matador colleague Richard Stupart put together an excellent guide to finding the most ethical voluntourism projects possible (and, I should note, there are good projects. It’s not all cynicism and neocolonialism). Feel free to add other good ethical voluntourism resources in the comments.