By anonymous sub-edited by Oliver Roberts
Dialogue around the ethics and practices of the ‘volun-tourism’ industry has gained momentum in recent years, most notably reflected through the viral sensation of the Tumblr page ‘the humanitarians of tinder’ and author JK Rowling’s condemnation of the activity through a series of tweets last summer.
A range of varied and thought provoking think pieces have been published across the internet in an attempt to stimulate a critical discussion exploring the harmful impact of many volunteering abroad programmes.
The framework of this discourse has certainly challenged previously unquestioned behaviours and sheds significant light on alternative positions in presenting questions around the safety of the children and its long-term implications.
However, the inevitable conclusion grapples between the dichotomy of‘well-intentioned’ westerners who are impeded by the harsh reality of unjust and complicated dynamics of global development.
While this point is not irrelevant, there is still space for a deeper analysis of the practice that investigates the motivations of participating in an activity that is so specifically defined by hierarchical power relations.
Images of vulnerable malnourished black and brown children covered in dust blended against a backdrop of sandy coloured decrepit landscapes are frequently distributed through televised aid appeal adverts and is an extension of the scope of poverty projected through one-dimensional media coverage of conflicts and humanitarian disasters across the ‘global south.’
This reductive representation of the experience of ‘poverty’ across the non-western world romanticises the space occupied by the ‘other’ and in drawing on Edward Said’s Orientalism it reinforces the identity of the westerner through its interactions with the ‘other.’
The volunteers while embarking on a journey of goodwill are expected to dedicate their coveted time and help ‘poor and needy’children in impoverished parts of the world while likely encountering an Eat, Pray, Love inspired journey of self realisation before returning home as an improved version of themselves equipped with an appreciation of their own life.
The travel experiences and packages offered limit the interactions of travellers to the institutions that they inhabit and the role of a ‘good samaritan’ that falsely presents volunteers as required labour for development projects and questions whether these programmes deliver in offering a truly ‘enriching an authentic’ experience of the country they are visiting.
The issue of ethical travelling for bristling young people in desperate need to explore the world is certainly legitimate because to some extent the endeavours of wealthy western tourists trekking through far and distant lands will always involve inequitable power relations. However, the role of ‘volun-tourism’ in alleviating theses concerns is questionable.
Despite the extensive efforts of building wells, teaching english in schools and caring for children in orphanages, much of the ‘developing world’ remains developing and while the research on this industry is limited, the few studies that have been conducted draw attention to its shortcomings in genuinely contributing to a change.
The policies and programmes implemented are often badly managed, wells are built and left in villages with no locals being taught required skills for their long-term maintenance and non-native speaking english teachers are rotated in classrooms leaving little educational progression for the students. In regards to orphanages, there has been much more coverage on the illegal practice of kidnapping that sustain this industry.
One organisation states that “volunteering is kind of like getting a tattoo, but without the pain. Being able tomake the difference and see the impact your actions have had on someone’s life, ifs powerful addictive stuff.”
This statement is perhaps indicative of the nature of the ‘volun-tourism’ sector, that thrives because it commodifies the experience of ‘aid work’ and champions the idea of ‘charity’ that inherently reduces locals to performing a role that fulfils a gratifying experience for the volunteers.
Additionally, any critical analysis of global structures of corporate and political power that facilitates the inequality that ensures mobility, security and relative stability for some and virtually none for others appears absent.
The term ‘white saviour’ has often been used to highlight the perverse representation of white characters in Hollywood films and is perhaps relevant in this context, important questions to ask are why do we only interact with ‘the other’ as a starving infant, why do we not foster a space that encourages their agency and why is the role of the heroic westerner so appealing?