A reflection on cynicism towards ‘Voluntourism’

I realise that this text is long and quite dense but I hope you can find the time to give it a quick read and to collate your thoughts. I promise its an interesting topic which everyone can have an opinion on!

Recently, the idea of volunteering abroad has become more desirable to people of different ages around the world. This is due to the rise in number of organisations and travel companies that offer a variety of projects in the developing world. Volunteering abroad has become a venture which appears to be most common to school leavers and university students as part of a gap year experience or a summer holiday.

There have been an increasing number of articles and blog posts which pose negative, almost insulting arguments about volunteer travel and the effects it truly has on the people involved. These articles often suggest that western middle-class students use their privileged status’ to exploit the weaker position of the people that they are serving, suggesting that the projects are actually doing much more harm than good.

I think it is important that the opposing side of this argument is explained as the anti-volunteering abroad articles seem short-sighted and aggressive; particularly that of Ritvik Deo who has written for the Independent (Deo, 2013). Comments made by Deo and fellow journalist Ossob Mohamud have been countered with the arguments that charity only really exists as a result of the privileged and that it is ‘damaging’ to so generally denounce volunteer travel when it can be wholesome and helpful, for both parties.

I am taking part in a volunteering trip to Accra, Ghana later this year. I have consequently encountered disdainful opinions from a few people passing my fundraising events; ‘a lot of people really won’t like what you’re doing,’ ‘who are you actually going to help?’ etc… These comments inspired me to read more about the existing arguments which have been written or typed up into fluid passages of text (no matter how unprofessional and personal they seemed) to enable me to express my own opinion equally and fluidly – I hope – with references to physical examples of the opinions I am attempting to contradict.

The idea of ‘Voluntourism’ has existed for hundreds of years including missionary hospitals and schools; however modern-day voluntourism has taken a slightly different form. There are now hundreds of organisations which offer thousands of diverse volunteering opportunities in the ‘third world.’ These projects range from protecting ‘loggerhead, green and hawksbill sea turtles in Mexico’ (Global Vision International, 2013) to ‘Moldova Orphanage Volunteers’ (Real Gap Experience, 2013). As a result of growing accessibility to these projects many students find themselves intrigued with the idea of travelling abroad and helping people along the way. So what is so selfish and arrogant about this? A simple Google search for ‘voluntourism’ returned three articles with negative viewpoints on volunteering abroad on the first half of the first page. One which really resonates as being disagreeable is that of Ritwik Deo, author of the Independent article, “The Tragic Rise of Gap Year Voluntourism (Deo, 2013).”

Deo’s article which can be found in the ‘Comments’ section of the online version of the national newspaper comments on a couple of issues surrounding this topic. Firstly, Deo comments on the growth in the amount of travel organisations which offer volunteering trips. He uses a relatively outdated study from 2007 by the University of London as his evidence. Secondly, the main focus of his text is the arrogance of young, middle-class volunteers, who he refers to as ‘Ruperts and Prunellas’. He suggests that the work that they travel to do is done with insincere, half-heartedness followed by the satiation of their hedonistic desires all paid for by Mum and Dad.

Deo burdens a large part of the blame on this sub-group of students whilst at the time bludgeoning their character for essentially showing altruistic notions of helping other people. He seems to generalise all gap year travel and other volunteering trips throughout the article dismissing anyone who does volunteer on these projects as a ‘bunch of toffs’ who are invading places in which their help is not wanted.

The second article which Google coughed up was written by Ossob Mohamud and was published on the online Guardian website – I did say this was a simple Google search – and discusses her reaction to a five-day trip she completed to Africa whilst at university in the US. Mohamud details her experiences in Africa and she began to feel guilty for accepting the praise and the thanks that she was given for spending most of her five-day experience in ‘hotel rooms, restaurants, and airports (Mohamud, 2013).’ The guilt she explains describes feeling has been commonly referred to as ‘volunteer guilt.’ A feeling that instead of honestly travelling to help in the country in which your project is based in an attempt to make a real impact you have instead ‘inflated’ your own ego and ‘spruced up’ your CV. Mohamud’s article is much less personally damning of volunteers who want to make a difference in the developing world but her points have the same generalisation and negativity towards volunteering abroad. Mohamud felt that she hadn’t been able to contribute to the fullest extent to the community she visited instead insisting that she had ‘stormed into the lives of people I [Mohamud] knew nothing about (Mohamud, 2013).’

I pose the question as to why she bothered going to volunteer in a needy community for five days and how she could have expected to have made any kind of difference to the community in the first place. I am only going to Ghana for a month but at least I will have time while I’m there to learn about the culture and try to integrate myself to the slightest degree whilst also having enough time to actually make a difference to the project. I also ask why she hadn’t researched about the people she had gone to work with. Surely this is the most important thing about volunteering abroad? Is it not foolish to go somewhere you don’t know and not have any inclination to find something out before you left? You wouldn’t go on holiday to somewhere remote where the culture is wildly different without attempting to learn about it so you at least know what to expect, would you? Maybe that’s just me.

Both Mohamud and Deo argue that the privileged youth of the west have no right to interfere in the developing world to alleviate the ‘white man’s burden’.  They also believe that by doing so, it encourages the notion that living in a westernised society is something which we should strive to achieve. It is often claimed that the developing world is becoming a playground for rich white people to ‘assuage their guilt (Mohamud, 2013).’ While the latter part of this claim is perhaps slightly more agreeable; the over-use of the ‘white man’s burden’ firstly inspires fabricated colonial overtones and secondly, takes away the meaning of the argument and transforms it to one which suggests that volunteering organisations are neo-colonialists; which I don’t believe to be correct.

As for the assertion that all volunteers are privileged, middle-class Ruperts and Prunellas – I have to disagree. I for one am a student, and alongside my studies, I have spent months working on fundraising ideas to raise money to pay for the trip (including a 24-hour film marathon and a 26-mile walk!). Admittedly, I am sure there are people who do go on these trips for the reasons that Deo suggests and perhaps don’t contribute to the extent which is necessary for something as important as these projects often are. I am in no way saying that Deo is categorically wrong with the points he has put across in his article. However, the venom with which he and others alike insult volunteers is an unnecessary generalisation which only increases volunteer guilt breeding further contempt for this issue.

It could be argued that the very essence of charity is that people who have excess wealth or resources give their surplus to those who are need. Volunteering abroad is in essence a charitable cause and would not be able to work without charity and therefore privilege. NGO’s and charities such as Medicin Sans Frontieres, Oxfam and British Red Cross who all do excellent and honest work, not only in the developing world but in battlefields and in hospitals around the globe, rely on the support of charity, private donations and privilege.

Tom Gill, founder of East African Playgrounds, a British charity which takes students to Uganda to work with children in primary schools, asks; “If privileged people stopped volunteering and making donations then what would happen to the work of thousands of charities worldwide? (Blackledge, 2013)” East African Playgrounds is almost ready to hand over to Ugandan nationals and take a step back from active involvement in the community. This achievement is as a result of the ‘Ruperts’ and ‘Prunellas’ who volunteer their services each year on projects which do make a difference.

I feel I should clarify my position on volunteering abroad. I have not stated in my argument that I wholly disagree with the points made by Ritwik Deo and Ossob Mohamud and their counterparts who have written about the same topic over the last decade. I simply feel that their arguments were extremely generalised, unfounded and somewhat offensive to those who do not fit the specialised category that they have designated. I am not a middle-class ‘toff’ whose parents have paid for me to go on a gap year experience where I will contribute indifferently to the communities and then spend the rest of the time ‘relaxing’. It cannot go without noting that there are indeed some organisations who offer a holiday rather than a volunteering experience, however that is not my intention.  I come from a family which is not particularly privileged and is consistently hard-working and I am going on this trip to contribute my time and efforts to a well-founded project with a reputable company in an attempt to make a difference to human rights in the local communities of Accra.

I believe that volunteering abroad is something which should not be taken lightly. Volunteers should be equipped with ample understanding, research and some kind of enquiry previous to departure as to what will be required of you. This is definitely something that can be tackled at an individual level. A quick scour of the internet will give you information, albeit basic, about the country you are visiting. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to update yourself on the development of the country you are volunteering in. This is the reason that I have started these blogs. I want to make sure that I am aware of the issues that I may be tackling while I am in Ghana.

The common argument against volunteering abroad I have  found on blogs, comment feeds, Facebook posts, newspaper articles etc. is that the people who participate in the trips are selfishly attempting to improve their CVs. To a certain extent I believe this to be true but I don’t particularly see anything wrong with it. Yes okay, the trip I am going on in August will probably make my CV look a little more impressive but that doesn’t mean that it is the sole reason for going on the trip. There is nothing wrong with wanting to help the people who are less fortunate, and as long as you know about the people you are going to be working with and you have done some research, and chosen a reputable company with a history of positive responses from the native communities, then you should not have to feel like you are doing something wrong by volunteering abroad. It’s a good thing!

I suppose it is possible that my whole viewpoint will be different when I return from Ghana having completed my month’s trip volunteering on a Human Rights project, but for now, this is it.

The original articles used and influencing this piece can be found here:

Blackledge, S., 2013. In defence of ‘voluntourists’. [Online]
Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/25/in-defence-of-voluntourism1
[Accessed 27 May 2013].

Deo, R., 2013. The Tragic Rise of Gap Year Voluntourism; The Independent. [Online]
Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-tragic-rise-of-gap-year-voluntourism-8473608.html
[Accessed 27 May 2013].

Elliott, D. & Traveler, C. N., 2013. Does Voluntourism Do More Harm Than Good?. [Online]
Available at: http://www.cntraveler.com/ecotourism/2013/02/volunteer-vacations-rewards-risks
[Accessed 27 May 2013].

Global Vision International, 2013. Volunteer to protect loggerhead, green and hawksbill sea turtles in Mexico. [Online]
Available at: http://www.gvi.co.uk/programs/sea-turtle-conservation-mexico
[Accessed 28 May 2013].

Mohamud, O., 2013. Beware the ‘voluntourists doing good. [Online]
Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/13/beware-voluntourists-doing-good
[Accessed 27 May 2013].

Real Gap Experience, 2013. Moldova Orphange Volunteers. [Online]
Available at: http://www.realgap.co.uk/moldova-orphanage-volunteers
[Accessed 28 May 2013].

Ward, L., 2007. You’re better off backpacking – VSO warns about perils of ‘voluntourism. [Online]
Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2007/aug/14/students.charitablegiving
[Accessed 27 May 2013].

2 comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading this, and couldn’t agree with you more. Will be following your blog, and look forward to reading more about your volunteering experiences later this year. Good luck for everything.

    Like

    1. Thanks Leona. Glad you enjoyed reading it! It’s a topic that began to annoy me as its almost become a blanket opinion for volunteers abroad.

      Like

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