Volunteer trips are inherently problematic: Understanding how voluntourism encourages a complacency towards white savior attitudes

by | Sep 16, 2020

This blog was written by 2020 summer intern Mia Cho as part of her internship project.

Voluntourism is a booming, multibillion-dollar industry that arranges trips for people from the Global North to volunteer in counties in the Global South. Voluntourists engage in a range of volunteer activities including building wells, working with local children, or teaching English. Volunteer trips have increased in popularity over recent years because they are appealing to a broad audience: the high school student applying to elite universities, the college student looking for a “life changing experience”, or those who are simply looking for an exciting opportunity to help others. These trips are marketed as helpful, virtuous, and sometimes even pivotal for the communities that are being “helped.” However, before embarking on a volunteer trip, it is important to acknowledge the flawed aspects of the voluntourism industry. It is important to understand that many times, organizers of these trips prioritize creating a memorable experience for their voluntourists above centering the local community or improving their quality of life through solutions they themselves have identified.

Voluntourism trips are intrinsically problematic because the very basis of these trips rely on white savior attitudes. White saviorism is the term used to refer to a white person who seeks to help non-white people for their own benefit. Although not all people who embark on a volunteer trip are motivated by self-serving interests, because volunteer trips are designed to appeal to those with white savior complex, going on these trips endorses white savior ideas. These voluntourism trips are organized by organizations who prioritize providing satisfaction to their customers, not those they are meant to help. Because most of their customers, voluntourists, are motivated to go on these trips to create an experience for themselves, these organizations work to help provide voluntourists with exactly that: a vacation that makes them feel better about themselves. This compromises the quality of the volunteer work being performed for the communities that are being visited.

In this day in age, young people are constantly documenting and posting their lives, photos and videos from volunteer trips on social media. These photos essentially serve as free advertisement for volunteer trips, and can encourage others to embark on one as well. This is dangerous because it not only demonstrates but promotes a complacency to white savior attitudes.

Furthermore, a lack of knowledge on the part of the organizations arranging voluntourism trips causes harm to the communities being visited. People who aren’t a part of a community will never understand the problems that specific communities face. When there is no effort on the part of organizations to communicate with the leaders of the community to better understand their concerns, organizations are not creating community-driven solutions but rather pushing solutions that they feel are best. For example, in some African communities, the women are responsible for walking long miles to bring back clean water for their families. To those living in countries with reliable plumbing, countries where the very organizations arranging voluntourism trips are headquartered, walking a long way to retrieve water sounds like a grueling task. This is why building wells is such a common activity on volunteer trips; because to those organizing the trips walking miles to retrieve water is a problem that needs to be fixed. However, in some of these communities, collecting water is not a problem; it is a time they enjoy. For these women, their daily journey to collect water together serves is time to bond with one another, and is a time they look forward to. In theory, digging wells sounds like the perfect solution because it helps the women save time and energy. However, it is important to understand that the dominant culture of the West that emphasizes efficiency and maximizing productivity does not prevail in all communities. These trips can be done in a beneficial manner if the organizations planning partner with local community-based organizations who are the primary lead. The local community is the expert in their community. They are the greatest asset that can be leveraged to find solutions that meet their needs.

For this same reason, the execution of these solutions are logistically flawed. In many cases, especially in Africa, wells have been advocated for because they are theoretically easy to use and create. However, complications such as an over-exploitation of aquifers, unsustainable extraction, and fragile infrastructure have caused wells to go unused. In fact, according to the International Institute for Environment and Development, over 360 million USD has been spent on wells that are now dysfunctional. This approximates to around 50,000 pieces of infrastructure such as wells that are no longer functioning. Because voluntourists and organizers of volunteer trips don’t best understand the intricacies of rural water supply schemes, these projects can often cause more harm than good.

Voluntourism also promotes a reliance on Western countries. Many of the work done in these communities are performed solely by the voluntourists and the organization. In fact, on some trips, voluntourists are encouraged to resist the help of local people. This means the locals are often excluded from the creation and execution of these solutions, encouraging a dependence on a third party. This creates solutions that aren’t sustainable because they aren’t being led by leaders of the community who can maintain the solutions on a local level. This reliance is not only ineffective in upholding the benefits of such solutions, but it is also incredibly degrading to community members. Voluntourism promotes the idea that the local community is incapable of solving their own problems and that foreign people need to take over and decide what is best. This disables the communities from being able to help themselves, often leading to feelings of self-doubt and humiliation, creating a self-reinforcing cycle of dependence.

As a young person attending high school in an affluent area, I know many of my peers have embarked on volunteer trips to the Global South, and I know many of them take pride in the volunteer work they performed. However, I would like to challenge them to reflect: how would I feel if foreign teenagers regarded me as incapable and helpless? How would I feel if a photo of me or my child’s face was used as an advertisement to evoke pity and white savior attitudes? How would I feel if my suffering was simply Global North, there are an abundance of alternatives to voluntourism. Donating to a responsible non-governmental organization (NGO), volunteering with an NGO, or even just learning about the issues that the Global South faces cultivates far greater impact. Volunteering should be motivated by a desire to help others, not by a desire to create an experience for oneself.

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