Volontourism/Elham Numan

As a child, I was raised by parents who fled a country ravaged by civil war and poverty. Hearing stories of people from stable socioeconomic backgrounds who gave up their vacations and went to work in war-torn countries made me feel like they had attained a level of selflessness that I had not yet gained the capacity to comprehend.

Yet now, it becomes clearer that many of these wealthy citizens are misguided at best, when they travel to places in the developing world for the purpose of volunteer or development work.  Indeed, many of these travellers have gained notoriety for engaging what is referred to as ‘voluntourism’ — a practice that seems to be centred more on the tourist than those in need of aid.

Considering the immensely complicated needs of the developing world, there are issues with the concept of voluntourism that run deeper than superficial selflessness. Anyone considering volunteering abroad should take these issues into account before embarking on such an endeavour.

Fundamentally, those who offer their services often do not possess the necessary skills to provide aid. For instance, high school students, students taking a gap year before post-secondary, and people taking a break from their desk jobs frequently engage in voluntourism that involves construction; most of them can hardly be expected to conduct construction work that is up to standard. Such work can be so poor, in fact, that residents of the developing nation in question have to dispense extra time and effort to undo or repair mistakes made by foreigners offering ‘aid.’

Particularly in the case of young children, those in need of social assistance would likely be better off receiving compassionate support from members of the community, who can guarantee the provision of that support on a long-term basis.

Not only is this system ineffective, but it also takes opportunities away from local workers. Despite the fact that it is more efficient and sustainable to hire local residents, or invest funds in training them, the voluntourism industry uses substantial sums — often between $3,000 and $15,000 per traveller — to create one-off placements for unskilled workers. This is both wasteful and shortsighted.

The necessity for sustainable solutions, as opposed to immediate but ultimately superficial gestures of help, becomes evident when looking at voluntourism programs within social services. These programs typically last fewer than three months, and the sudden disruption in any bonds formed between a volunteer worker and their clients can be distressing. Particularly in the case of young children, those in need of social assistance would likely be better off receiving compassionate support from members of the community, who can guarantee the provision of that support on a long-term basis.

Even if the services provided through voluntourism were up to standard, many of those programs also perpetuate problematic divides between cultures and classes. Volunteer travellers may have little to no understanding of the culture and history of the place they are visiting. This can reinforce oversimplified and often racist depictions of local residents as uncivilized peoples or helpless victims — which is eerily reminiscent of the historical imperialism that caused much of the social and economic turmoil the developing world continues to face today.

Also, those jumping at the chance to help communities abroad should not neglect the immense work that still needs to be done at home. For example, residents of the Attawapiskat region and other Indigenous communities in Canada are still suffering the effects of brutal Canadian colonialist regimes, yet these issues are often shirked in favour of more seemingly adventurous travel opportunities.

Offering services out of pity or guilt — as opposed to genuine empathy — is an unacceptable way to help those who live in the developing world. Moreover, the preoccupation with moral gratification and achievement within voluntourism circles does not deliver meaningful and sustainable help and can even reinforce imperialist sentiments. Voluntourists lacking the skills and knowledge required to make meaningful change would be better off cracking open a history textbook before setting sail for the Global South.

Instead, we should be investing in the developing world in more sustainable ways, such as supporting local economies and training local workers. Furthermore, we should ensure that those who are selected for development work are fully qualified and prepared to take on such a challenge. This way, we can be more confident that good work is being done.

Saambavi Mano is a third-year student at Victoria College studying Peace, Conflict, and Justice studies.  

Editor’s note: this article has been updated from a previous version.

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