VolunTourism: seeing the world to save the world has unexpected complexities

When she was 17 years old, Emily Chan spent three weeks volunteering school-building in rural India.

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.

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