VolunTourism: seeing the world to save the world has unexpected complexities
Almost one year ago I graduated high school, packed a backpack, and flew to India to volunteer with fourteen other Canadians, digging the foundation for a school kitchen in the village of Berna. A month later, I returned home with my memory card and my heart full of little brown faces. What I left behind, however, was decidedly less identifiable.
Since the 1990s, the popularity of short-term “VolunTourism” trips – travel that incorporates volunteer opportunities lasting a month or less – has been steadily increasing. An article on travelandleisure.com quotes a World Bank representative as saying that ecotourism and volunteer travel are “the largest growing sectors of the global travel industry.”
I was evidently not alone in my desire to simultaneously travel and save the world.
And who are the types of people who volunteering during their travels, rather than shopping and sight-seeing? Students compose a significant portion of voluntourists. In her article Doing Development: The Gap Year, Volunteer Tourists, and a Popular Practice of Development, Kate Simpson writes, “The dominant ideology [in voluntourism] is that doing something is better than doing nothing, and therefore, that doing anything, is reasonable.” This approach attracts young, unskilled volunteers who are filled with enthusiasm, but lacking in both applicable skills and fundamental understanding of sustainable development.
In other words, as I exited high school and entered the world, I was the perfect candidate for a short-term volunteer trip. I had no experience digging trenches or school building, but I did have a love of travel and a desire to positively impact the world. My inexperience, I reasoned, was balanced by how much I cared about my “cause.”
The pitfalls of voluntourism
While it may be effective in attracting travellers, critics say that this mindset results in adverse effects on host communities. A tourist-based (rather than community-based) approach can result in unsustainable development projects that do little for a community once the tourists have flown home. Others say voluntourism encourages a savior complex that, in the most extreme of cases, resembles colonialism and racism.
When the focus of voluntourism is placed on the volunteer, there is more pressure to satisfy the consumer than to implement long-term development strategies. As Simpson writes, in this style of project, “the emphasis is on end products, such as ‘teach the child’, ‘conserve the forest’, ‘build the bridge.’” Development is simplified into phrases and ideas that are easy for the volunteer to understand and feel good about.
In my case, after less than an hour of training, I was put to work digging the trenches for the foundation of a new school kitchen. The work was exhausting and dirty and thoroughly satisfying. As I struck the bedrock with my pick axe, my safety goggles fogging from sweat, it didn’t cross my mind that, perhaps, paying an Indian labourer (therefore injecting money into the local economy and ensuring the work was done by a professional) would make more sense than enlisting the help of a 125lb, 17-year-old Canadian girl.
In hindsight, what made me qualified to be digging that trench? The amount of money in my bank account? My Canadian citizenship? The colour of my skin? Did my enthusiasm and privilege really make me more capable of helping the people of Berna than their neighbours or family members or friends?
The savior complex
The idea that our Western background somehow makes us capable of helping others has been deemed the “saviour complex.” Historically, it is embedded in the practice of voluntourism. The earliest volunteers to travel abroad were missionaries, travelling throughout the colonies to spread Christianity. By placing unskilled, untrained volunteers in positions that could be filled by locals, voluntourism perpetuates the idea that wealthy westerners, simply by birthright, are somehow in a position to judge and correct the lives of the poor abroad.
It wasn’t until I returned to Canada that unsettling questions about sustainability and saviour complexes began to stir in my mind. As my Human Rights course forced me to examine the effects of colonialism, I was also forced to look on my experiences in India with a critical eye. While it proved inevitable, I resisted this process for as long as possible.
A sacred trip
I didn’t want to find something wrong with my India trip. In my mind, the trip was sacred. The people I met, the conversations and experiences I’d had, all had contributed to the greatest sense of purpose I’d ever felt. In questioning my motives, actions, and impact, I was risking the contamination of the love I’d felt last summer.
And it’s true, the love I felt in India was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever experienced. Every inch of my body and soul loved the colour and commotion of Indian culture. I loved the chaos of the city and the peace of the village. Most of all, I loved the people of Berna.
I loved the woman who took us into her mud hut and offered to make all fifteen of us chapattis, even though she had just spent the morning describing how she supports a family of six on $2.50 a day. I loved Manju, the ten year old who took me on a walk and tried to teach me the Mewari (the local dialect) words for everything in sight. I loved Prakesh, who was so delighted to learn how to fold paper airplanes that she decided to show me something special…one of the few light bulbs in the village.
I’ve been a tourist many times, but India gave me a chance to interact with a community, to bond with the locals. Despite being forced to swallow criticism for other elements of the trip, I can’t find it in me to regret those human connections.
So then maybe, voluntourism has the potential to be positive. In order for this, however, voluntourism must be approached with a sustainable-development-first mindset.
From the earliest advertisements and website impressions, companies must be openly discussing the details of their projects and development models. Once participants are committed to the trip, sending organizations must co-ordinate orientation and training opportunities in order to prepare their participants for cultural sensitivity, as well as to explain methods of international development and clarify the exact impact the volunteer will be making.
The quest to understand development cannot be limited to preparatory measures, however. During the trip, discussions on social justice, economics, and politics must continue as these issues are put into context and witnessed in person.
It is important, especially for short-term trips, that volunteers have an accurate understanding of the limited change they can bring to a community. Because (or in spite of) of these limitations, it is also important that the sending organization stresses that the most valuable contributions a volunteer can make often come as a result of the trip, in the form of a lifelong commitment to sustainable consumer practices and volunteer work at home. Perhaps the most important change that voluntourism can create is a change in perspective for its participants.
The NGO with which I travelled did a particularly good job stressing this. The final three days in India were spent up a mountain retreat, creating long and short-term action plans detailing how we would go home and change our lifestyles to make them more socially responsible. We were asked to make a commitment to the community that would last beyond our short-term trip.
A year later, and I continue to think of Berna daily. India taught me some of the greatest lessons of my life, and as I progress with my education and involvement with NGOs, I’m continuing to learn from my experiences there. Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned have come in retrospect, as I’ve been forced to examine the true impact of my short-term voluntourism trip.
My trip to India remains one of the most influential time periods of my life. I took away a changed perspective.
I’m not sure, however, if I left behind anything more than a four-foot-deep trench, dug more from enthusiasm than understanding.